The Lost Founders

Gordon Wood
Gordon Wood; drawing by David Levine

That the Founding Fathers fascinate Americans is clear to anyone who walks into a bookstore. Just since January 1, at least thirty-six books have been published or reprinted on the “big six”—Washington, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison. So much interest would astonish these men; most died believing that the United States had little use for them. In 1802, for example, Hamilton remarked that “this American world was not meant for me”; a decade later Adams complained that for “more than Fifty years, I have constantly lived in an enemies Country.” Saddest of all was Jefferson’s 1825 lament to Francis Adrian Van der Kamp that their fellow Revolutionaries were “Dead, all dead! And ourselves left alone amidst a new generation whom we know not, and who know not us.” That this cri de coeur was inaccurate—he and Adams would survive another year and a half, and Madison would hang on until 1836—only testifies to Jefferson’s alienation from the United States at the dawn of the Age of Jackson.

This sense of estrangement gives Gordon Wood an important clue to the Founders’ significance. They were, he grants, leaders of singular stature and importance, men whose like will never be seen again in America. His goal is to explain them not as “demigods or superhuman individuals” but as products of a cultural and social world lost beneath the tides of change that engulfed the United States in the nineteenth century. By establishing American independence and the Constitution, Wood argues, the Founders unleashed forces of democracy and egalitarianism that transformed their world—and made themselves quite irrelevant. By the 1820s, Americans understood them less as men than as symbols to be deployed amid flags and speeches on the Fourth of July, and then forgotten on the fifth. Little wonder that Madison, the last of the Founders, would ruefully remark in 1831 that “I may be thought to have outlived myself.”

Wood finds the key to the Founders’ leadership in the hierarchical world into which they had been born. Eighteenth-century British America, like Britain itself, was dominated socially and politically by “gentlemen”—a comparatively tiny minority of men whose liberal education and public spirit, so it was thought, enabled them to perceive the common good, and whose fortunes gave them the leisure to pursue it without compromising their livelihoods. Such advantages of wisdom and wealth obliged gentlemen to take the lead in public life. Those who did so demonstrated their “virtue,” or ability to rise above the self-interest that absorbed the energies and limited the views of lesser men. All of the Founders, Wood argues, aspired to this kind of leadership, and all the more intensely because none was a gentleman by birth. Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison were the first in their families to acquire the much-prized mark of gentility, the degree of Bachelor of Arts. Franklin and Washington, who lacked college educations, compensated by relentless self-improvement.…

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