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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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.