In this collection, Pulitzer Prize–winner Wood (History/Brown Univ.; The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 2004, etc.) elegantly examines the meaning of the Founding Fathers for our time and—an infinitely harder thing to discern—for their own.
Obsessed with race, class and gender, today’s historians are often more intent on dehumanizing rather than simply debunking, the Founders, Wood notes. Without losing sight of the revolutionaries’ often significant faults, he offers a welcome, if ironic, reminder of one of their lasting achievements: creating an egalitarian polity that had no place for aristocrats like themselves again. His meditations on the Founders’ relationship to the Enlightenment and the creation of American public opinion bracket profiles of six revolutionaries who have entered the American pantheon and two (Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr) who have not. The author typically begins by discussing how different generations viewed a particular figure, then attempting to ferret out the reasons for that revolutionary’s conduct. For instance, he shows that Benjamin Franklin’s image as folksy self-made American is at odds with the Philadelphian’s pre-revolutionary desire to become a gentleman in London. Above all, the Founders adhered to a “classical ideal of disinterested leadership” that fit their notions of character. This ideal suited a meritocracy such as their own, which broke with the English tradition of a corrupt hereditary aristocracy, but it was out of place in a rapidly evolving America that thrust obscure ordinary men into power. Wood explains his figures and their times in fresh ways, noting, for example, how Madison’s frustrations in the Virginia legislature inspired him to curb state power at the Constitutional Convention, and why the Democratic-Republican opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 fostered the notion of truth as “the creation of many voices and many minds.”
Bracing, clear-eyed perspectives on why we are unlikely to see such a politically creative period again.