The Magazine

The Spirits of '76

How the United States was invented.

Jul 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 40 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Revolutionary Characters

What Made the Founders Different

by Gordon S. Wood

Penguin, 336 pp., $25.95

WHEN HISTORIANS WAX NOSTALGIC over golden ages it's often a sign that the present age is leaden. That may account for the attention that distinguished historians have recently lavished on the American founding generation, none more distinguished than the author of this study of "revolutionary characters."

The seven subjects of these gems of compression and fluency might once have been labeled "Founding Fathers." But patriarchal labels are gone with the wind, and Gordon S. Wood has chosen the double-edged term "characters": double-edged because the term connotes both integrity and eccentricity. All eight--Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, Burr, and Thomas Paine--were uncommon men, although with the exception of Burr, the son (and grandson) of a president of Princeton, all were self-made, an aristocracy of merit, the first of their families to enjoy advanced education and national and international prominence.

Certainly, revolution was their lifelong preoccupation. The term acquired a grisly resonance when the French Jacobins bent it to their bloodier ends in the 1790s; but for Washington and Company, a quarter-century earlier, it was a sedate metaphor borrowed from astronomy: less an upheaval than a shifting of orbits and alignments. Edmund Burke may have been the first, as he was certainly the most eminent, to mark the crucial distinction.

There is a note of sadness here, for Wood seems to believe that our present political habits would appall his gentlemen revolutionists. In their view, if republicanism was to gain a foothold in a world hostile to it, the great danger was the tendency of a polity to gravitate toward the "fiscal/military state": a style familiar in that monarchical world. Such states made war to justify standing armies, maintained armies to excuse high taxation, and generated bloated public debts to attach influential creditors to them. Sound dangerously familiar?

This was certainly the Jeffersonian view, and of course, the important dissenter was Alexander Hamilton. Before he fell to Burr's bullet, Hamilton, a stickler for honor, had survived 10 challenges, written 51 of the influential Federalist Papers, and, as Washington's secretary of the Treasury and "prime minister," fashioned four "reports" that would become blueprints for the military-industrial state with its public debt and dependent retainers. Hamilton's prescience has exposed him to caricature as an apologist for greed and proto-Wall Streeter, even as pop history has caricatured Jefferson as a racist child molester prowling the servants' quarters. But Gordon Wood is a student of nuances and complexities who has no truck with the distortions that are so prevalent in public discourse today.

If, for the sake of argument, one takes the Jeffersonian outlook as the norm of what republicanism meant to the revolutionists of 1776, the seven companion figures fall into place. John Adams, for instance, was a genuine eccentric with a chronic sense of being unappreciated, "the political scientist par excellence" who, as he went about his public errands raising funds for the Revolution, rarely ceased theorizing about government. The ultimate result was his clotted treatise, A Defence of the Constitutions of . . . the United States of America, which, according to Wood, misapprehended the new American system.

Adams was stubbornly committed to the ideals of 18th-century British constitutionalism, the "mixed" system in which parliament balanced royal prerogative. The new U.S. Constitution seemed to him, to his delight, to mirror this mixed system. But he failed to grasp a vital difference: Sovereignty had shifted from king to people. Wood's conceit is that he was a study in both "relevance and irrelevance." Adams was very nearly as irrelevant as a constitutional theorist as he was relevant as a practical revolutionary.

Adams's foil was the venerable Dr. Benjamin Franklin ("master of masquerade," Wood calls him), mythologist, long before Horatio Alger, of the rags-to-riches story, already a world figure of science, honorary Oxonian, and stubborn fan of the British imperial system when the others profiled here were in knee pants. During their joint mission to France, Adams felt, with his usual sense of neglect, that he did the work while the old stager Franklin, tricked out in Quaker garb and coonskin hat, slept or flirted.

Perhaps Wood's most brilliant piece explores the so-called "Madison problem." How, it has recently been asked, does one reconcile James Madison, the constitutional architect of 1787-89, with the Madison who almost immediately followed: fierce critic of two Federalist administrations and collaborator in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions?