Remember the Titans
What Made the Founders Different
By Gordon S. Wood
Penguin Press. 321 pp. $25.95
Benjamin Franklin -- the subject of one of the essays in this stimulating new collection -- once said that "Historians relate, not so much what is done, as what they would have believed." Most historians would agree with that gently cynical proposition, though they would wish to add a proviso that interpretations of the past should always rest on evidence -- on what was "done," as Franklin said. Among historians in universities these days, essays often tilt toward sheer interpretation, leaving the substance of the past scanted. Gordon S. Wood's book bucks that trend, offering a good deal of empirical evidence -- what was "done" -- in these absorbing essays from one of our leading scholars of the American Revolution.
Eight of the 10 chapters of Revolutionary Characters are biographical, featuring Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, John Adams, Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr. The founders are often considered as a group, as indeed they are here, and widely admired as being "different" (the key word in Wood's subtitle) from our current leaders in their commitment to enlightened principles. Looking at the founders together, it is hard not to conclude that though they deserve our admiration, they may not have constituted the group we have imagined. Certainly, they acted at times as if they had nothing in common.
Washington was a mystery to most of his colleagues. His reserve kept them at arms' length and denied them access to what he really thought. Still, they all respected, even revered, him -- most of the time, that is.
Almost none felt reverence, or even respect, for the others of their number. Adams despised Franklin, branding him with such epithets as the "old deceiver" and the "old conjuror." Franklin once dismissed Adams as one who "means well for his Country, is always an honest Man, often a Wise One, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses." Adams also went through a period, lasting some 11 years, of such dislike of Jefferson that he broke off all relations with him. For his part, Jefferson could not abide Hamilton when the two served together in Washington's administration, considering America's first treasury secretary a monarchist awaiting the opportunity to undermine the republic. Confronted by opposition to his fiscal policies by Jefferson and Madison, Hamilton came to believe that they were innocent of knowledge of how an economy worked and attributed to Jefferson an unhealthy absorption in the fanaticism of the French Revolution. As for Thomas Paine, who initially earned the regard of several of the founders (excluding John Adams, who thought him a crank), he squandered that goodwill by untoward attacks, including one on Washington. And then there is Burr, who, after drawing the ill favor of such colleagues as Jefferson and Adams, killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804.
Wood, a Brown University historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for his The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), does not dwell on these animosities, but he does not ignore them, either. His major emphasis in almost all of the essays is on what these men thought and did. He establishes their intellectual agreement in the first essay, "The Founders and the Enlightenment." Though the founders differed in how they understood enlightened values, they agreed on the essentials, especially as they concerned republicanism and virtue. Virtue and honor, they all believed, required serving the nation first, even if doing so sacrificed their own interests. Almost all of the founders defined social distinction in terms of merit -- intellectual ability, a sense of responsibility and honorable behavior. This was a clear break from an older sense that what counted in forming an aristocratic elite was birth, family, education and wealth. All the founders retained a regard for the older conceptions of these standards, which had been instilled in them by their own experiences and by tradition. But on serious reflection, they came to follow different, more modern guides to enlightened leadership in a republic. Washington himself was not so given to the new thought; he valued classical virtue, with its injunctions to maintain one's honor above all else while serving the public interest. But Washington, too, altered his beliefs -- though not his standards -- about the meaning of liberty over the years, a shift most apparent in his determination to see his slaves freed after his death.
All of the essays in this volume are of a high intellectual order. The most interesting may be "Is There a 'James Madison Problem'?" -- in which the question is whether Madison transformed himself from a nationalist in the 1780s, eager to create an active, energetic government with broad powers, into a "strict constructionist" in the 1790s. (Strict construction of the Constitution held that Hamilton's proposal for chartering a national bank exceeded the congressional powers that Federalists found in Article I, Section 8.) In this alteration, Madison thought he faced a Hamilton bent on creating something close to a constitutional monarchy. Wood's persuasive conclusion, after an intricate analysis of Madison's conduct and thought, is that no such transformation took place. Madison, so important in shaping the Constitution, held to his principles throughout his long career.
At several points in this volume, most notably the essays on Washington and the epilogue, Wood argues that the founders contributed unwittingly to a democratic and egalitarian society that they never wanted. This is another point in favor of the history Wood provides in this splendid collection: He relates what he would have us believe, explains much of what was done and leaves us with an ironical appreciation of the founders' achievement. ·
Robert Middlekauff is Preston Hotchkis Professor of History emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of "The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789."