July 4, 2014


Gentlemen Revolutionaries: a review of
Revolutionary Characters: What Made The Founders Different by Gordon Wood ( Peter Berkowitz, Policy Review)

In the introduction to his new book, a collection of previously published and newly revised essays, Wood observes that our "special need for these authentic historical figures" does not have its source in our concern with "constitutional jurisprudence and original intent," or even in the determination to "recover what was wise and valuable in America's past." The true source, he says, is the peculiar manner in which the nation was constituted:

The United States was founded on a set of beliefs and not, as were other nations, on a common ethnicity, language, or religion. Since we are not a nation in any traditional sense of the term, in order to establish our nationhood, we have to reaffirm and reinforce periodically the values of the men who declared independence from Great Britain and framed the Constitution. As long as the Republic endures, in other words, Americans are destined to look back to its founding.

But the spirit in which we explore our inheritance is a matter not of destiny but of choice, and a more learned or lucid guide to the founding than Gordon Wood would not be easy to find.

Contrary to the dominant tendencies of his profession, Wood is a historian who, without scanting the impact of larger social forces, respects ideas and the actions of outstanding historical figures -- not least, in the case of America's founders, the actions they undertook to implement their ideas about constitutional government. He has sympathy for the common opinion among nineteenth-century Americans, still shared by many Americans today, that the founders were great men, larger-than-life figures, brilliant thinkers and bold politicians who brought forth a new kind of nation dedicated to principles of universal appeal and application. He rejects for good and sufficient reason the effort to reduce the founders to place-holders for somebody else's favorite -- or despised -- ideology and the attempt to reduce the founders to instruments of their time and circumstances. Wood is acutely aware that the founders' Constitution involved a compromise with evil, but he inclines to Lincoln's position that the ideas about freedom and equality on which it was based and the political institutions it established set the country on the path to slavery's eventual extinction. In the process of examining the founders' characters and principles, and the distinctive importance they attached to both, Wood restores the founders' complexity and humanity while making their achievements all the more vivid and worthy of study. [...]

John Adams was a cantankerous character whose political principles put him at odds not only with Hamilton and the team of Jefferson and Madison, but also, and perhaps even more, with the theory of government on which the Constitution was based. The first vice president and second president of the United States, Adams is slighted in historical memory, and he felt acutely during his lifetime that his achievements were slighted by his contemporaries. As Wood suggests, this neglect is related to his 1776 pamphlet Thoughts on Government and his A Defense of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America, published in 1787 and 1788, the very writings that established Adams as eighteenth-century America's foremost student of constitutional government. His emphasis in these documents -- and in outspoken public and private remarks -- on the necessary limits on egalitarian politics, even in a country based on liberty and equality, was hardly novel. Other founders agreed that although America was a land blissfully free of distinctions based on rank, it could not eliminate ambition or the desire for distinction, which fed competition, vanity, the love of luxury, and corruption. But Adams harped on the theme.

The genius of the Republic is that it assumes men equal at birth but rejects egalitarianism of results during their lives.

[originally posted: 7/04/06

Posted by at July 4, 2014 3:11 AM

We, the pipples.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 4, 2006 2:31 PM

oj, I don't think 'egalitie' is a word in any language.

Posted by: M�rk� at July 4, 2006 5:42 PM

> The genius of the Republic is that it assumes men equal at birth

No, created equal is not the same as born equal.

Posted by: anon in texas at July 4, 2007 4:09 PM

True, the unborn are our equals too.

Posted by: oj at July 4, 2007 6:09 PM
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