This book by Gordon S. Wood is a compilation of 8 essays that were previously published in articles, reviews or books by the author. These essays are neatly sandwiched between an introduction and an epilogue which the author uses to tie his central thesis together. This thesis is that the Founders were a unique elite and unwittingly designed a system that ultimately ensured that their like would be unlikely to arise again. According to Wood they were a class of self-made aristocrats that came about as a product of their time and situation. They struggled to become an intellectual elite of “gentlemen” with all that entailed. The Founders’ concept of government that derived its power from the people relied on leadership by a “disinterested” group of intellectuals who enjoyed the respect and admiration of the “people.” They believed an educated and moral citizenry was essential to electing leaders who would put the nation before self-interest. What none of the Founders realized was how quickly and to what extent political empowerment would spread to the rank and file. Within a very short time classical references and literary illusions were replaced by populist rhetoric geared for the common man. Respect and entitlement to public office was no longer reserved for this generation of self-made aristocratic intellectuals. Most of this unique group of men were surprised at how things progressed … and a bit chagrined. Each character sketch illustrates the unique way that founder helped bring about that change.
As befitting a book entitled Revolutionary Characters, Wood starts off with an essay on George Washington. He agrees with all serious scholars of the Revolution in his estimation of the nation’s first president. Wood asserts: “As long as this Republic endures, he ought to be first in the hearts of his countrymen. Washington was truly a great man, and the greatest president we ever had.”
Wood then explains what set Washington apart and made him great. It was not his intellect. It was not his martial prowess. It was not his writing skill.
It was his character.
Washington quickly recognized his place in the pantheon of American heroes and how important his role would become. He realized that his reputation would become indistinguishable from that of the government he would bring into being.
Although the “I cannot tell a lie” fable is surely that, Washington was scrupulously honest. He avoided even the semblance of impropriety. He refused a salary for his service as commander in chief and tried to do so as president.
Even before he was elected president, he zealously guarded his reputation. In 1784-5, the Virginia assembly gave him 150 shares of the James River and Potomac canal companies in recognition for his services to the state. Washington had long been a strong proponent of building canals and dreamt of making his fortune by investing in them. In light of his sacrifice and service, this award could be considered as a pension. However, Washington agonized over acceptance, and when he finally did so, he gave the shares to the college that became Washington and Lee. In this way, he avoided showing disrespect to the Assembly, or appearing “ostentatiously disinterested” by refusing the gift. The act is all the more amazing given the state of Washington’s finances. He certainly could have used the money. He had been away from his plantation for years and had personally paid for years of expenses as yet not reimbursed. It is one of many largely unknown sacrifices that Washington made. He understood his significance and it influenced everything he did. At the end of the war, his reputation was unparalleled, and his place in history ensured. But he was not destined to rest on his laurels.
It’s easy to overlook the significance of Washington’s participation in the Constitutional Convention. It meant risking the thing he had worked so hard to achieve, his reputation. He could have stayed on the sidelines. Instead he put everything on the line – again. After carefully weighing his motivations and the risks to his reputation, what finally convinced him to participate was the fear that people might think he wanted the federal government to fail so he could step in.
Secure as he was in his fame, he has again committed it to the mercy of events. Nothing but the critical situation of his country would have induced him to so hazardous a conduct. Henry Knox.
Again and again, Washington’s character provided the bulwark of strength necessary to launch the fledgling republic.
Wood closes his essay on Washington by reiterating his thesis that the representative democracy that Washington helped usher into existence made such great heroes no longer essential to the working of the American government.
In subsequent essays, Wood covers Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the discussion of Madison. Apparently many historians are a bit befuddled when it comes to understanding the motivations and actions of Madison who seems to metamorphose from Federalist to anti-Federalist during his career. Wood goes to great lengths to explain how Madison was actually consistent throughout. It is a fascinating argument to read, especially after having read James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights.
The book concludes with the interesting contrast of Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr, the rejected Founders. Thomas Paine was never accepted into the company of greats, because, although he like many of the Founders, came from humble origins, he never sought to transform himself into the kind of “gentleman” the others emulated. He was more representative of the masses the republic would eventually rely upon.
Aaron Burr, on the other hand, came from real aristocratic privilege, but rejected the principles of service and “disinterest” that were so important to the Founders. Instead he was unabashedly grasping, and ambitious. He was the antithesis of Washington and therefore rejected by both Federalists and anti-Federalists. It was one thing upon which Hamilton and Jefferson could agree. It was Hamilton’s support that ensured Jefferson’s election to president over Burr.
Ironically, Burr’s character and ambition would typify those who would replace the Founders. Wood returns to his thesis in the epilogue. He compares the evolution of the intellectual conversations of the “disinterested” elite aristocracy, to the widespread exchange of ideas among the masses. Thomas Paine began the process by rejecting the high-brow discourse of the Federalist and anti-Federalist Founders, bringing their ideas down to a level understood by all. Jeffersonian Republicans attempted to embrace this democratic movement, while the Federalists tried to stem the tide of popular participation that ultimately rolled over both factions and became the system we have today.
Wood concludes: “In the end nothing illustrates better the transforming power of the American Revolution than the way its intellectual and political leaders, that remarkable group of men, contributed to their own demise.”
Wood may have erred in his conclusion. Although the founders set up a system so perfect that it did not require an altruistic “disinterested” elite to run it, history shows that men of their caliber are needed to maintain it.