Review of Gordon S. Wood’s Revolutionary Characters

Note: Several months ago, I set a number of goals for myself. One of those was that I would read at least one education or history book per month and post a review of that work here. Today I begin repaying my debt on that promise. I finished reading this book in October and have been working on the following review in bits and pieces ever since.

Gordon S. Wood opens his 2006 book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different with a description of America’s continuing fascination with its founders. “No other major nation,” he writes, “honors its past historical characters . . . in quite the manner we Americans do. We want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action, or George Washington of the invasion of Iraq” (3). Although Wood’s tone suggests that he finds this all a bit silly, he actually makes a powerful argument to explain the continuing allure of such ahistorical thinking. In short, Wood argues that the “Revolutionary generation” marked the high point of American political culture. He states:

One of the prices we had to pay for democracy was a decline in the intellectual quality of American political life and an eventual separation between ideas and power. As the common man rose to power in the decades following the Revolution, the inevitable consequence was the displacement from power of the uncommon man, the aristocratic man of ideas. Yet the revolutionary leaders were not merely victims of new circumstances; they were, in fact, the progenitors of these new circumstances (10-11).

Wood’s thesis is too reverential for my taste (must men of ideas always be aristocrats?), but there is undoubtedly some truth here; even an occasional glimpse of contemporary American demonstrates the need for a stronger, more intellectual public discourse. In addition, Wood—as always—is careful and even-handed, and he writes with impressive clarity. He makes a strong plea for historicism, for understanding the “Revolutionary Characters” in the context of their own times and places and not as “demigods” whose writings and actions can be consulted to settle matters of twenty-first century debate.

Rather than a historical monograph, the book is actually a collection of essays, each of which considers a single “Founding Father.” Most of these essays were published previously, but remarkably, Wood manages to weave them together into a fairly coherent narrative. He “sets the stage” (a deliberate pun on my part, as you’ll see) by describing the four-stage theory of civilization developed in the eighteenth century by Scottish philosophers such as Adam Smith and Lord Kames. Wood writes, “Societies, it was assumed, moved through successive stages of historical development, beginning in rude simplicity and progressing to refined complexity of civilization” (13). Societies began the process with hunting, and moved successively into pasturage, agriculture, and, eventually, commerce. Of course, it was obvious to men of refined taste that the wilderness of America fell in the first stage, and so (as Wood would have it) the elite men of the colonies were desirous of “achieving civilization”—in short, of becoming more like their brethren in London.

In the hopes of achieving civilization, men of social importance became highly self-conscious in a way that might seem off-putting in the twenty-first century. “Preoccupied with . . . the way they were represented and viewed by others, these revolutionary leaders inevitably became characters, self-fashioned performers in the theater of life” (23). (Hence, the pun.) According to Wood, the men of the “Generation of ‘76” saw no problem with portraying themselves in such a contrived fashion. Whereas we might criticize a modern politician for “pandering” to the culture, the founders understood “character” for a public figure to mean his “outer life,” or as Wood puts it, his attempt to “show the world that he was living up to the values and duties that the best of the culture imposed on him” (23).

Although we tend to view the founders as America’s first intellectuals (and read their words as cultural commentary that might have been written yesterday), Wood states that most of the founders—unlike intellectuals more generally—“had no sense of being in an adversarial relationship to the culture” (23). Interestingly, Thomas Paine offers a stark contrast to this statement, and Americans tend to dismiss him as something of an afterthought. According to Wood, Paine’s limited legacy might be attributed to his lack of a public “character.” He writes: “Paine was different from Franklin and all the other founders. . . . His appearance was careless and slovenly, with a large nose reddened from too much drink. His dress was drab and coarse, his wig worn and tattered” (214-215). It’s ironic, then, that in the anti-aristocratic (or is it?) America of the twenty-first century, we tend to revere the more “gentlemanly” founders while neglecting perhaps the most radically democratic one of all.

This contrast highlights the central weakness of Wood’s argument. Although he claims that the “Revolutionary Characters” are responsible for the changes that lead to a more democratic America, he never fully explains how. His sketch of George Washington illustrates the point. The first president, Wood writes, was “nearly as much of an aristocrat as the United States ever produced, in his acceptance of social hierarchy and in his belief that some were born to command and most to obey. Although he trusted the good sense of the people in the long run, he believed that they could easily be misled by demagogues” (58). In nearly the next breath, though, Wood claims that Washington “nonetheless was crucial in making this democracy feasible” (63). How exactly did Washington (or any of the founders) do this? Unfortunately, Wood doesn’t provide a fully satisfactory answer.

Actually (and ironically), the closest he comes is in discussing the effect of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary writings. He states, “Only in the 1790s . . . did many of the founders come to realize what the Revolution and Paine’s rhetoric had released: a democratic revolution of ordinary working folk that went well beyond what the revolutionary leaders had anticipated” (221). In short, much of the credit (blame?) for American democracy should rest not with Washington and Jefferson, but instead with a disheveled drunkard who spent only a handful of years in North America. That’s not exactly the stuff that patriotism is made of, I suppose, which perhaps explains why Paine’s contributions often take a backseat.

There is a certain irony here. As Wood suggests, there will never be another generation like the revolutionary one. America is now more democratic than they ever intended, and could they witness it, the founders might express dismay at the “intellectual quality of American political life.” Yet the nation has also plainly “progressed” to the fourth and final stage of historical development. Americans certainly still cherish their agricultural heritage, but they continue to “leave agriculture behind,” a process that began only a generation or so after 1776. Since then, the United States has become more urban, more industrial, and more commercialized, so perhaps the “Revolutionary Characters” are still working among us, albeit not in the way many Americans may think. This, however, leaves me with a final (and rather sobering) question: if America has reached that fourth and final stage of historical development, where do we go from here?

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