Revolutionary Characters: The Madness Depicted in the Few Unconventional Characters

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Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different by Gordon Wood is a collection of essays on the successes and failures of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. Wood, a professor at Brown University, is one of the most profound writers on the Revolution, and a historian whose published works have collected the Pulitzer Prize and other awards. For each of the Fathers, Wood has composed an essay dissecting their lives with meticulous detail. With this handful of essays, Wood means to highlight why the Founders were such a unique group of the elite that transformed several small tight-knit communities into a vast, financially-capable, militarily competent and forward-thinking nation. As there are eight essays in all, in the following paragraphs I have selected three and given my comments on each along with a short overview. However, first I must dissect Gordon Wood’s process in writing Revolutionary Characters.

There is a method to his madness. As he declares in his preface, there is a population of historians that look up to these characters, these titans of America’s humble beginnings and of humble beginnings itself, and try to tear them down by digging up every negative thing they had ever done in their lifetimes. As Wood puts it, “Although criticizing the founding generation has been going on for more than a century, there does seem to be something new and different about the present-day vilification.” What he refers to here he describes immediately after is that those who are doing the “debunking”, as he coins the term, pay little to no attention to the accomplishments and achievements of these great men and focus entirely on their trials with “race, gender, and class in the early Republic.” Yes, Thomas Jefferson owned numerous slaves and possibly even consorted with one, siring children of mixed race. What Wood means to declare is that we shouldn’t ignore that fact, but we should also balance this information with knowledge of his various achievements. Can the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s presidency, his views on the future of America and his work on Notes on the State of Virginia ignored on the account of Thomas Jefferson’s humanity and desires? Wood doesn’t think so. As the practicing historian, he is, his attempt to be objective is very clear in how he presents the book and how he addresses both the positive and negative with balance and logic.

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Wood likely has his reasons for picking only eight out of all the Founders, but he does not give them in any stretch. There is an essay each for, in order, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and Aaron Burr. Why did he choose these men? What about John Jay or James Monroe? Or perhaps Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams and mother of John Quincy Adams, who wrote in a letter to her husband to “Remember the Ladies” during the Continental Congresses? Why include Aaron Burr, Vice President but responsible for killing Hamilton in a duel before charges of treason? Maybe this goes back to his methodology in writing Revolutionary Characters. He plans to be objective, and present both sides in equal parts. All of these Founders were human beings with ideas, hopes, dreams, shortcomings, setbacks, and failures. Wood might have chosen these men based on the complexity of their characters, and the inspiring themes of their stories: dedication and patriotism. For many of the interested, learning American history brings forth a sense of pride in one’s nation. This could be Wood’s reasoning. He means to present the information on these extraordinary men in the context a contemporary reader will comprehend.

George Washington is perhaps one of the most iconic figures in American history. Students of history know him as the general of the Continental Army, the first President of the United States, and the President of Convention when the Constitution was being drawn up. He may appear larger than life. In reality, Washington was just as concerned with his public image as he was with most other important parts of his life, if not more. “Public leaders had to become actors or characters, masters of masquerade.”Many of his fellow countrymen and contemporaries knew him as the legacy and the living legend: the general and the farmer and the president all wrapped into one George Washington. Almost every act of his life was made wondering what the public would think of his decision. He measured every possible outcome and would ask his closest friends and his wife, Martha, for their advice before he dared take a single step. He was not timid, no. However, he was deeply aware and devoted to keeping his gentlemanly “disinterestedness” on the surface. In the eighteenth century, there was an idea of the gentleman that each white male much strive to become. Among other requirements, they must obtain a liberal arts education, which Washington had not. Wood describes in his preface that, “being a gentleman was the prerequisite to becoming a political leader.” What Washington was so concerned and obsessed with, was that his colleagues would dismiss him without putting on the surface appearance of a gentleman in every way. The way he conducted himself in the presence of other Founders and his subordinates defined him as a Revolutionary and his legacy as being a leader proves that he did what he set out to do, as Wood carefully details it.

“The Invention of Benjamin Franklin” is the most appropriate and thoughtful title to Wood’s essay on the man for several reasons. The first being that no one could quite figure out Franklin on an intellectual level, nor on a diplomatic level. He was completely novel in his time in the French court and his contribution to the American cause. Despite this, one of the great worries of his contemporaries was where his loyalty lied in the very beginning. His son, a noted Loyalist, and he, a British sympathizer and a strong believer in that “his confidence in the virtue and good sense of politicians at the highest levels of the British government was so great that it bewildered and amazed even some of his English friends.” Was he so fickle that he could turn such firm faith in the British government into the same for the American cause on a dime? Maybe, maybe not. The way Wood describes it, by the way, Americans reacted to the Stamp Act in 1765, Franklin’s faith was “punctuated by doubts and resentments”. Once again, after the fiasco with the Hutchinson Letters, his place in English affairs was no more. After this, he began to finance the War of Independence and became one of the loudest voices during the following Founding Period. The way Wood describes him in this essay shows that Franklin was a complex man living in complex times, but what he did was quite simple: what he could to help his chosen cause.

In contrast to someone like Thomas Jefferson, who was an idealist, James Madison was a realist. He accepted what is, instead of philosophizing what could be. Wood characterizes him as, “prudent and cold-eyed, if not pessimistic, analytical, and often skeptical of utopian schemes, especially if they might unleash popular passions.” This pragmatism served him well when he was elected President in 1809, but back in the Revolutionary Period, there was a slight problem. “Is There A ‘James Madison Problem’?” is the title of Madison’s essay in Revolutionary Characters. Before the 1790s, the Madison who fathered the Constitution also fathered a sense of central government and believed the states would be “subordinately useful.” Then, there is the Madison of the 1790s, who was a states’ rights advocate and was the co-founder of the Democratic-Republican Party along with this longtime friend Thomas Jefferson. There is a split between these two sides of the same man. Wood resigns to say that any possible solutions for the problem are hard to reconcile in one’s mind right from the start. However, he goes on to address the events of Madison’s life in as clear a manner as possible to avoid confusion. His careful choice of words is notable. Revolutionary Characters is ingenious and a readable interpretation of these elite white males in a way I haven’t seen in other Revolutionary Period historical works. Wood places the Founders in a layman’s context, making the subject material comprehensible for the contemporary reader.

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