A Student of History

July 16, 2006

Review of Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different

Filed under: New books — John Maass @ 2:36 am

I just finished reading Gordon Wood’s very new book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. Wood is the author of 2 early US History classics, The Creation of theAmericanRepublic, and The Radicalism of the American Revolution.  He has also written a very nice concise history of the American Revolution, and a biography of Ben Franklin which I did not read.  He is a professor in the early stages of retirement at Brown University.

This book is an essay collection, with most of the chapters having been published elsewhere and some time ago, although the one of Madison is recent as is Franklin.  Wood also gives us Jefferson, Washington, Paine, Adams, Burr and Hamilton.  The chapter on Burr, which I found to be the best, is used as a counterweight to the other founders, since he failed to live up to the republican selflessness of the other giants.  Another heavyweight of colonial history, Ed Morgan, has also published an essay collection of early works (in Morgan’s case, old book reviews) so this may be a trend as the elder statesmen and stateswomen of the field begin to bow out into retirement.  Its helpful for grad students studying for their exams, to be sure.

Despite some glowing reviews, such as that in the Washington Post of 28 May 2006, I found the book to be, well, a bit “light.”  In fact it struck me more than anything else as breezy and inexpert.  There are far too many superlatives of almost every character Wood discusses.  For example, we get this: “Washington was truly a great man and the greatest president we ever had.” [31] Really?  While this may indeed be true, it may not be, and for a well-respected historian to come out with such an unqualified verdict that of course can in no way be measured or adjudicated strikes me as more than a bit amateurish.  We also hear that Franklin was “the greatest diplomat America has ever had.” [86]  Again, how do we measure or evaluate Franklin in such a light as to declare him “the greatest”?  Is Wood even qualified to render such a judgment in light of the fact that he is not a diplomatic historian, especially in modern U.S. history?  What about Seward, Marshall, or Kissinger?  A few pages later we read that Franklin was second only to Washington in importance as far as founders go. [90]  Such a conclusion is not only the antithesis of empirical analysis but by “rating” the founders, Wood comes across sounding like he is writing for USA Today (I can almost see the headline: “Top 10 Founders of All Time—Pg. F1!)  

In the chapter on John Adams we read that “no one read more or thought about the law more than John Adams.”  I won’t belabor my point any more other than to say that these kind of blanket statements are unverifiable in their very scope, and might be refuted by examples of different founders made by other historians—or even Wood himself!  For instance, we get on page 179 that “no one was more attuned to the hopes and promise of the Enlightenment than Adams.”  However, on page 101 we already read that it was Thomas Jefferson, not
Adams, who was “at the head of the American Enlightenment.”  Which one is it?  Wood seems to have gotten so carried away with superlatives, he has forgotten which ones he has assigned to which founder.

Wood also makes what I consider to be some questionable judgments when he writes about each founder, and this could come from writing about each separately. In his chapter on Jefferson, which is actually quite well done as far as his treatment of how TJ has been handled by historians over the years, Wood claims that Jefferson “hated the obsessive moneymaking, the proliferating banks, and the liberal capitalistic world that emerged in the northern states in the early nineteenth century, but no one in America did more to bring that world about.” [100] Perhaps this is just hyperbole written for effect (a flaw in its own right but part of another discussion), but given the immense, widely acknowledged influence Alexander Hamilton had on the nation’s finances during this time, Wood’s claim is jarring to all knowledgeable readers, and frankly, not something one would expect from such an accomplished senior historian of early America.

Finally, two major conceptual/organizational problems with Revolutionary Characters serve to ultimately make the book unsatisfactory.  First, the book is pitched (see the dust jacket especially) as a study of what made these giants of early
America different from us.  In fact, what comes across is that they were different from each other, and from English aristocrats (a point Wood does make on pg. 12), but hardly different from modern American folks at all.  Washington strove for glory, respect and greatness by determination and persistence; Jefferson preached one set of values and lived by another; Franklin was much more about himself than what contemporary ideals of republicanism dictated was proper—are these flaws and human traits really so different than what we see today in our leaders, or in ourselves?  No, which makes the book’s claim to have some specific wisdom about the Founders misleading, with the possible exception of
Washington’s extraordinary standard of integrity.  My second observation is that Wood includes only one major military figure.  The Revolution had to be secured by a war after all, yet Wood includes only one soldier (Hamilton was not a significant military leader during the war, nor was Burr—neither were generals.)  Given that the war itself, and not Common Sense or John Adams musings, secured the liberties of Americans, it is more than a bit surprising that only one military leader is included in this collection. 

I’d recommend Joe Ellis’ Founding Brothers instead of Wood’s book.

3 Comments »

  1. I also read the Wood book and actually enjoyed it very much. Your criticism of Wood’s more general claims of greatness, etc. seem to me to be just a bit unfair. Of course those types of claims are “unverifiable” and I dont’ think Wood would argue that they are statements of fact. However, Wood does provide plenty of reasons for those claims. Perhaps you could at least list his reasons before you lable the claim as “amateurish.” Just a thought.

    Comment by Kevin — July 16, 2006 @ 10:41 am | Reply

  2. Thanks Kevin.
    I think I am being fair, what I am pointing out is that by using far too mant superlatives, Wood gives us what is essentially unverifiable opinion. Historians are of course entitled to render some of that in their interpretations, but Wood’s rather cavalier assertions are not supported at all. That is why I pointed out specifically that his notion of Franklin as the greatest US diplomat is unsubstantiated, and rather silly. I also point out that Wood actually gives the title of King of the enlightenment to two different men!

    Comment by John Maass — July 16, 2006 @ 12:22 pm | Reply

  3. I understand what you mean by light, but you can tell from the depth of information in the book that Wood obviously knows what he’s talking about, and if all his research led him to believe that Washington was, “A turly great man, and the greatest president we ever had.” then I would trust it.

    Comment by Charlotte — September 3, 2012 @ 5:25 pm | Reply


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