Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Book Review: "Revolutionary Characters"

I decided that the Fourth was an appropriate day for a review of Gordon Wood's new book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. It provides an excellent counterpoint to the other work on the framers I reviewed recently, the misguided What Would the Founders Do? by Rick Brookhiser (the two were in fact jointly reviewed by Jon Meacham recently).

Wood's book is a much more serious examination of the founding personalities than Brookhiser's, and for that reason alone is infinitely more important. Drawn mostly from previously published materials that are revised and expanded here, Wood offers short character sketches of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams, Paine and Burr, as well as quite useful introductory and concluding chapters. He makes the important point that most of these men saw the world very differently than we do, and pictured their role in that world rather differently as well.

The general conclusion that Wood has reached after examining the lives of the founders is that their achievements can never again be duplicated because of the groundwork for egalitarian democracy which they laid in framing the government. "One of the prices we had to pay for democracy," he writes, "was a decline in the intellectual quality of American political life and an eventual separation between ideas and power."

I enjoyed each of Wood's chapters. Washington he describes as "the only truly classical hero we have ever had," explaining the first president's fixation on how others would perceive his actions in terms of the worldviews of the time and the concepts of "honor" that held sway. Wood describes Washington's decision to resign his commission at the end of the Revolution as "the greatest act of his life," a conclusion which is difficult to argue with.

The section on Franklin is adapted from Wood's The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, where the point is made (and well) that Franklin's participation in the Revolutionary movement should hardly be taken for granted given his strong ties with Britain and commitment to the empire. Wood also discusses the important "creation" of the Franklinian image, which he argues was largely a creation of the nineteenth century.

Wood addresses the question of the "James Madison" problem head on in this book - that is, how do we reconcile the Convention nationalist Madison of 1787-88 with the states' rights Madison of the 1790s? His important contribution is the understanding that while Madison was indeed a nationalist, his vision was quite different from that blueprint which ended up emerging at Philadelphia; Madison saw the federal government as a "dispassionate umpire", hoping that it would not become simply a copy of the fiscal-military states then emerging in Europe. If we understand Madison in this way, Wood argues, the "problem" ceases to emerge.

Aaron Burr is best understood in terms of his contrasts to the other founders, Wood argues - this was a man not concerned with the views of posterity, violating every tenet of his generation's conception of leadership as disinterestered, unambitious and principled. John Adams told the truths that Americans didn't want to hear about themselves, then or now, and Tom Paine "still does not quite fit in" even though his contributions to the American cause were vital.

It was the changes in American political and intellectual society in the early nineteenth century that came to overthrow the old order of the founders, and has made them more difficult for us to understand and impossible to replicate in our time. Wood concludes "nothing illustrates better the transforming power of the American Revolution than the way its intellectual and political leaders, that extraordinary group of men, contributed to their own demise."

In his review, Meacham writes "it would be too hasty to rule out the possibility America may once again produce new generations of similarly transformative leaders." I think in theory that's right, but agree with Wood that the founders must stand alone - we'll never have another bunch like them, which is all the more reason to understand their lives and characters on their own terms. Revolutionary Characters is an excellent contribution to that scholarship.


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