The Magazine

The Spirits of '76

How the United States was invented.

Jul 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 40 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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?

WOOD DISMISSES the "problem" as an academic mirage, born of excessive attention to (and misinterpretation of) Madison's writings, especially his Federalist 10, and inattention to the "historical Madison," statesman and president. The clue is what Madison sought in his Virginia Plan for constitutional revision: a central power to veto mischievous state laws, which he viewed as a menace. Hence his proposed Council of Revision, a body empowered to weigh the constitutionality of state laws before they took effect.

The idea fell by the wayside in Philadelphia, despite his passionate pleading. Thereafter, Wood suggests, the great note-taker of the convention was vitally interested in little else.

No book of this sort would be complete without portraits of Washington and Jefferson. Wood's Washington is the pater patriae as self-invented man, obsessively attentive to his roles (theatrical metaphors permeate these essays), internalizing the standard maxims and manuals of gentlemanly good form that would bring him the eminence he sought--and deserved. And, incidentally, dressing the part.

He became the Cincinnatus redux of whom George III himself said that if the victorious Washington voluntarily laid down his sword, he would be "the greatest man in the world." He did; he was. Jefferson, meanwhile, is for Gordon Wood "a virtual Polyanna . . . the pure American innocent . . . a confused secular humanist in the midst of real moral majorities." The labels, out of their context, sound skewed and patronizing. In context he makes them fit.

The anomalies here are Aaron Burr, the well-born rascal, and Thomas Paine, the pamphleteer as rabble-rouser. Burr's career was, we know, insouciant--dedicated to disunion, if not treason. Paine's forte was the mediation of revolutionary sentiment to the masses, in America and then in France. To his credit, he opposed the execution of Louis XVI, and was imprisoned by the Parisian red-hots he had earlier idealized. He fled back to America to die in obscurity. William Cobbett, his spiritual heir, later carried his forgotten bones back to England.

Wood calls Paine our first "public intellectual," but others might say that his passionate pamphleteering was longer on tinseled phrases than sober reflection. One senses that Paine was more modern in temperament and talent than the other ghosts of this lost world: He would be right at home nowadays as a ranting head on the cable spectrum, spewing instant opinions on a scale of one to ten. Wood is right, however, to declare him the most neglected of his seven "revolutionary characters." He is rarely named among the Founders.

Gordon Wood certainly makes the case his subtitle promises: What made the Founders different. The corollary, however, is an elegiac tone, a bass note of regret, a fear that the degeneration these revolutionists feared has already set in; that we have forgotten, to our peril, that virtue, in all its post-Renaissance senses (including self-denial), is the foundation of a republic.

But Wood is too fine a historian to seek ideological reinforcement in the fine meshes of the past. If we can't turn back the clock, we can at least enjoy a master historian's refreshing reassessment of seven men whose legacies live on. The book may be a quilt sewn of many patches, but it never reads that way. It has the integrity and, yes, the eccentricity of the Founders it celebrates.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former Washington editor and columnist, was once, briefly, an assistant professor of American history.