Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different
© 2006 Gordon S. Woods
Revolutionary Characters reviews the lives of several of the United States’ founding fathers to examine how the personal strengths and ambitions of these men allowed them to play uniquely essential roles in a pivotal time. The men so detailed are George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, John Adams, and (interestingly) Aaron Burr – the latter included more for comparison’s sake, as he had many of their advantages but failed to distinguish himself for anything more than shooting Hamilton, praiseworthy as that was. Wood opens with a review of how the Founders have been alternately venerated and dismissed throughout American history, and his conclusion that Americans need the story of the Founders and the Founding to tie us together as a nation, since the United States was and remains a novel country, one based on ideas rather than blood.
Revolutionary Characters is not a collection of minihagiographies, nor is it a train of tedious, unimaginative debunkin hit pieces. Wood examines the unique lives of each of these men, assaying their strengths and the part they played. Woods sticks most closely to conventional Founding-Father writing in his opening chapter on Washington, but Washington forces the author’s hand by consciously playing the part of the noble, disinterested leader, and avoiding anything that diminish the icon he was creating of himself. Most of the founding fathers, bar Burr, were recent arrivals to the ranks of the gentry – and they compensated for their lack of breeding by cultivating themselves, both their minds and their characters. They took this especially serious as they realized they were driving the creation of something new in the world, and would be held to especially strict scrutiny. None was more serious about his study than Washington, and Woods argues that Aaron Burr’s real treason lay not in trying to create a new republic in the west, but by ignoring all convention of moral responsibility and behaving like a decadent European aristocrat – never giving any heed to how posterity might regard him, but only to the material gains he could realize and the favors he could call in. Burr’s inclusion in this book is odd, even though his vices make the others’ virtues more obvious – and so is Thomas Paine’s, for while he was a master propagandist and writer, he loved not America but revolution, never taking onto his narrow shoulders the lightest mantle of responsibility. The chapter on Thomas Jefferson examines him as the strange sphinx that he was, a man who preached liberty and maintained slaves, who idolized agrarianism but created a factory on his own plantation, a man who every iteration of American political thought appears to claim. In Madison’s chapter, we review his balancing act between the Federalists and the Republicans, his exercise in moderation overshadowed only by that of John Adams – who threaded a very narrow line between the Federalists and the Republicans, and between his rivals Jefferson and Hamilton. (Adams gets very short shrift in this book, being pushed towards the end between Paine and Burr, and addressed in a chapter called “The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams”.) Perhaps the most interesting chapter is “The Invention of Benjamin Franklin”, in which Woods argues that Franklin, for all his diplomatic importance, was not regarded with favor by most Americans during his life, was almost ignored in his death, and was only uplifted into the pantheon of The Founding Fathers afterwards, when an increasingly commercial class saw in him a figure worth celebrating – the self-made man.
Woods writes that the founding fathers were not only relatively new to the gentry and accordingly obsessed with the idea of being proper Gentlemen — sophisticated, educated, cosmopolitan — but who had come to manhood at a time when they could do something truly unique. In an ordinary time they would have lived perfectly admirable lives, but the times presented them an opportunity to be extraordinary. They believed, with varying degrees of optimism and reserve (Jefferson and Adams presiding over those wings), that the creation of the United States would change not only the world, but humanity itself — that the creation of a genuine Republic would usher in a new stage of human development. That faith was tested and sometimes lost as these men grew older, as succeeding generations replaced them, as they realized that the human heart does not shrug off the stamp of Eden lost simply because governmental structures change. However short reality fell from their expectations, though, they were a fascinating bunch of men. I found the book quite interesting, and the author fair-minded in general. I dislike the inclusion of Burr, though, especially since John Adams is pushed into the rear with his company. Adams deserves better!
Any and all works by Joseph Ellis, including Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, The Quartet, His Excellency: George Washington, American Creation, and Founding Brothers.
John Adams, David McCullough
The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government. Fergus Bordewich.
Alexander Hamilton, Rob Chernow
American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll, Brad Birzer
Founding Rivals: Madison vs Monroe, Chris DeRose
I keep meaning to read more about the events surrounding the American War of Independence. It’s always interested me exactly what happened to the Loyalists (didn’t a lot of them go to Canada?) or those in the middle who didn’t support either side overly much.
A lot of them did leave the United States for Canada and other parts of the British empire, but I imagine that varied depending on their means, and how exposed they were to anti-Tory activity. There’s a couple of books (Our First Civil War & Liberty’s Exiles) that touch on that. They’re both on my June/July potentials list. I read a collection a few years ago (The American Tory) that collected anti-independence thought, but I don’t think it mentioned the fates of the contributors.