The Lost Founders

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. All of them sought wealth as a means to achieve the independence on which gentility depended.

A liberal education (or the wide reading and humane values associated with it), financial security, and ambition for a public role were all necessary to achieve the status they coveted, but not sufficient. Above all, to become a gentleman meant that one had to be acknowledged as such; which is to say, one needed to have the “character” of a gentleman. Whereas modern Americans equate character with a person’s inmost moral qualities, the eighteenth-century conception conflated personal integrity with the older idea of character as public reputation. Aspiring young men were literally “given a character” when older, established gentlemen testified to their worth by supporting them as candidates for political office or appointing them to positions of public trust. Because it was impossible to move upward in eighteenth-century society without a sponsor of higher social rank to vouch for one’s character, men (and especially ambitious younger men) were intensely concerned about matters of honor. They would, as Wood describes them, do almost anything to preserve their reputations, even if that meant risking their lives in duels or on the field of battle.

When men like Washington and Adams spoke of their desire for “fame,” as they candidly did, they described their deepest aspiration. What they understood by fame, however, had nothing to do with celebrity, a concept they would have found empty and abhorrent. Fame meant achieving the approbation of posterity: the highest recognition for honorable, heroic, selfless service to the public good. Fame was, therefore, the supreme manifestation of character.

The Founders’ consciousness that they acted on a public stage, defending the common good and pursuing fame, explains much about their leadership in the 1770s and 1780s. Unfortunately for them and their values, Gordon Wood writes, the Revolution released acquisitive, individualist energies that no one had foreseen, and which could not be contained. As the nineteenth century began and ordinary Americans seized the opportunity to pursue private interests without restraint, the disinterested aristocratic ideal central to the Founders’ identity crumbled. In a scrambling, self-interested, petit-bourgeois America, the common good became a concept that somehow arose from the sum of all individual strivings. The self-sacrificing political virtue that had been the supreme attribute of a gentleman fragmented into the private virtues of honesty, temperance, charity, prudence, and piety.

The earlier age had, of course, acknowledged these as admirable qualities, but they had little to do with the heroic, public sort of virtue that Washington had exemplified. Shopkeepers, clerks, even women might lay claim to private virtues, and did. These were, Wood points out, highly adaptive qualities for ordinary people who lived in the workaday world of commerce and domesticity, where ambition had less to do with leading armies and nations than with creating a decent home, raising a family, being respected by the neighbors, and attaining eternal salvation. Within a half-century after the Revolution, the emergent middle-class culture that reflected these domestic values triumphed throughout the Northern states, the first stage in its conquest of the nation at large. Character came to be understood in its now-familiar form, as integrity.

And with that, the world of the Founders vanished forever. They had, Wood says, “succeeded only too well in promoting democracy and equality among ordinary people; indeed, they succeeded in preventing any duplication of themselves.” By creating the nation in which their descendants practiced the pursuit of happiness as no other people had in the history of the world, the Founders had made themselves obsolete.

This is a grand, ironic story, tragic in its implications for the aged Founders, sobering in its implications for the present day. Wood sketches its outlines in an eloquent introduction, illustrates it in essays on Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Adams, and then examines two other Revolutionaries, Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr, who do not conform to the pattern. He concludes with an epilogue, “The Founders and the Creation of Modern Public Opinion,” which describes the 1790s, when the Federalists achieved their greatest power and flamed out in political defeat, taking the old deferential politics down with them. In the democratic age that followed, public opinion mattered infinitely more than the public virtue of political leaders.

Wood elaborates this basic argument in each successive character sketch and then recapitulates it in his conclusion. That he avoids repetitiveness in doing so testifies to both his skill as an essayist and the vivid personalities he describes. Even the least successful of his sketches, “The Greatness of George Washington”—unsatisfying because it leaves unexplored the connections between his military and political careers—still makes excellent reading. Washington’s obsessions with virtue, character, and fame provide clear evidence for Wood’s argument. The charm of this essay, however, is in its description of Washington’s post-presidential years—his disappointments with his countrymen, his fears for the future of the Republic, his earnest efforts to do his duty when called from retirement to command the army in 1798, and his uncertainty about how to proceed in a bitterly partisan political world. Because Wood refuses to reduce Washington to the archetypal Founder, the man who had played the part of Cincinnatus to such perfection that his contemporaries scarcely thought him mortal emerges here in sympathetic and fully human form, as someone who could delight in helping his wife arrange marriages for friends and acquaintances—a service the Washingtons rendered, Wood says, sixteen times.

The other Founders pose fewer problems, for their frailties and ambitions keep their humanity in full view even as Wood shows how they fit into his general scheme. “The Invention of Benjamin Franklin”—a précis of his 2004 book, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin—outlines Franklin’s late, reluctant shift from royalist and empire-man to revolutionary, his reinvention of himself in France, his shifting self-representation in the Autobiography, and the evolution of his historical reputation. In a remarkably brief compass Wood animates a figure his countrymen could never quite figure out—until nineteenth-century biographers invented him yet again as a self-made man and gave the middle class a Ben Franklin it could embrace at last.

In “The Trials and Tribulations of Thomas Jefferson,” Wood shows less patience with a Founder’s foibles. What troubles him about Jefferson has little to do with the furtiveness and hypocrisy of his affair with Sally Hemings, which Wood passes over in a couple of paragraphs. Rather it is the fearfulness of the aged Jefferson, who took refuge in a fanatical conception of states’ rights and devoted himself to building the University of Virginia as a republican dike against the tides of Jacksonian barbarism and New England abolitionist aggression. Wood recognizes that Americans cherish the third president for his abiding faith in “the people”; yet he finds it hard to admire a man with so “little understanding of man’s capacity for evil and…no tragic sense whatsoever.”

By contrast Wood seems to like Hamilton almost in spite of himself, appreciating his ambition, intellect, and realistic grasp of power. As his essay’s title, “Alexander Hamilton and the Making of a Fiscal-Military State,” suggests, Wood’s approach to the first secretary of the Treasury emphasizes his determination to use the national debt, the national bank, taxation, and the army to make the United States capable of standing up to the great powers of Europe. Yet Hamilton was not, as some suppose, a man ahead of his time, but rather one who strove to replicate the financial and military regime of Britain in the 1750s. That Hamilton anticipated the means by which the twentieth-century United States created “the kind of powerful worldwide empire he could only dream of” is, in Wood’s view, purely accidental.

As a connoisseur of historical ironies, Wood could have found no subject more satisfying to contemplate than Hamilton—except Madison. He disdains the conventional view of Madison as “father of the Constitution” and prophet of modern interest-group politics in the tenth Federalist. Madison, he writes, favored a robust federal government solely because he hoped to keep the states from the kinds of mischief they had practiced under the Confederation in the 1780s. Madison was even more backward-looking than Hamilton. The federal government he envisioned would have acted toward the states like a medieval monarch imposing order on his nobles by arbitrating their differences, subduing the unruly ones by force, and allowing the cooperative ones to rule their fiefdoms as they pleased. Thus there was no contradiction between Madison’s early nationalism and his later advocacy of states’ rights. Once the Constitution was in force, Madison consistently defended the rights of states and minority groups against the power of the national government; even in 1814, when British invaders burned the Capitol and the White House, he refused to expand his presidential powers. This principled approach to governance is what Wood most admires in the Founders. Madison’s “conception of war and government,” Wood writes, “whether we agree with it or not, might help us understand better the world we have lost.”

John Adams looked askance at the Constitution and wrote A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America—all three volumes of it—to tell his countrymen where they had gone wrong. In “The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams” Wood describes Adams’s conviction that ambitious men would always seek power, and his enduring belief that the British constitution had historically been more effective than any other in counteracting this flaw in human nature by balancing the social orders of monarchy, aristocracy, and commoners against one another. America, too, needed a constitution that counterpoised the interests of the ordinary many and those of the exceptional few, with a powerful executive to hold them in balance. Adams’s reasoning was utterly out of step with the new Federalist arguments that government and society were separable, and that ingenious balances between executive, legislative, and judiciary branches could forestall government’s potential for tyranny. This sounded like nonsense to him, and in his forthright way he told his countrymen they were fools to believe it. The few who waded through the Defence concluded he was a crypto-monarchist. Surely his election as president in 1796 depended, at least in part, on the impenetrability of his prose; most voters could have had no idea what he thought of them, or of the proper role of a president.

Wood includes essays on Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr to demonstrate by way of contrast what the Founders were not. Paine, who made his living by his pen, was in Wood’s view “America’s First Public Intellectual,” but he was by no means a gentleman. In “Common Sense” and other revolutionary pamphlets, Paine wrote with a democratic directness that suggested common people could, and should, think for themselves. Leaders like Adams and Hamilton, who lacked such egalitarian principles, found it worrisome that Paine could express them so persuasively. The deism he proclaimed in The Age of Reason(1794) bothered them less because it resembled their own beliefs. The ordinary people who had been Paine’s loyal constituency, however, concluded that he had succumbed to “atheism,” and turned against him. In 1819, a decade after Paine died, the British journalist William Cobbett exhumed his bones to return them to England; no one in America regretted the loss.

A democrat ahead of his time, Paine is the exception that proves half of Wood’s argument about the Founders; Aaron Burr, as close to a true aristocrat as any American of the day, is the exception that proves the rest. “The Real Treason of Aaron Burr,” Wood maintains, was his willingness to use politics for private gain. His candid admission in 1832 that his political career had consisted of the pursuit of “fun and honor & profit” would have horrified the Founders; such base motives “threatened nothing less than the great revolutionary hope…that some sort of disinterested politics, if only among the elite, could prevail in America.” By then, however, the only Founder left was Madison. Burr, significantly, outlived him.

Wood likens Revolutionary Characters to the collection of portraits and busts of “American worthies” that Jefferson assembled in the 1780s, and the book does indeed give readers a view of the Founders as he understands them. But because the book is a collection of essays, the first of which was published thirty-seven years ago, it also offers more than that. In effect, it enables us to glimpse the development of Wood’s views of the Revolution from the beginning of his career to the present.

The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams” originated as a chapter in The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (1969), an expansion of Wood’s 1964 Harvard Ph.D. thesis. Like The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which his doctoral adviser Bernard Bailyn published in 1967, Wood’s book, which won the Bancroft Prize, was a history of ideas that treated the often extravagant pronouncements of Revolutionary leaders as expressions of serious political thought. The Constitution, he maintained, was an intellectually coherent synthesis of republican principles originally expressed in state constitutions that had been written during the previous decade.

The previously dominant view of the Constitution had depicted it as a counterrevolutionary document, drafted by aristocrats who wanted a strong national government to protect their investments. Charles Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States had advanced that view in 1913, creating the cornerstone of the Progressive account of American history. This powerful narrative characterized American development as a struggle between democratic and elitist forces from the time of the Revolution through the twentieth century’s confrontations between labor and capital, Main Street and Wall Street. Forrest McDonald had already undermined Beard’s argument in We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (1958), by subjecting his evidence to a devastating close analysis. Until The Creation of the American Republic, however, no persuasive alternative view of the Constitution’s origins and character had been proposed.

Between the late 1960s and the mid-1970s a broad new interpretation emerged in which political ideology, not class conflict, was the principal driving force of the American Revolution. Wood’s book was as fundamental to this so-called “republican synthesis” as Beard’s had been to the economic interpretation. Historians unwilling to discount class struggle as a cause of the Revolution, typically called neo-progressives (a group that included Eric Foner, Gary Nash, and Alfred F. Young), challenged the republican view, arguing that it implied a conservative Revolution and discounted the radical tradition in American history. These disagreements, voiced in the liveliest debate American historical scholarship had yet seen, persist to the present day.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s neoprogressive historians produced a remarkable body of scholarship dealing with urban workers, seamen, women, slaves, native Americans, and other groups outside the circle of white, Protestant, property-holding male householders who made up the political community of Revolutionary America. On the basis of these studies they maintained that the intellectual coherence of the republican synthesis had been achieved by leaving too much out, creating an excessively positive, optimistic national history. Where, they asked, was the social struggle? What had happened to the moral ambiguity of an American political culture that trumpeted liberty and equality, but tolerated slavery and denied women political rights? What about radicalism?

Wood’s answer, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991), proposed a broad synthesis of American history from the 1760s to the 1830s. It won the Pulitzer Prize and has arguably had even greater impact than Creation. Drawing on a vast range of scholarly writings, Wood told a story in which the Revolution was not a conservative event but rather an upheaval that shattered the monarchical political culture of late colonial America, introducing into common use a vocabulary of equality and liberty that allowed the colonists to become the most individualist, democratic, and capitalist people on earth.

It was mistaken, Wood wrote, to think that in not freeing the slaves and doing away with gender inequality the Revolution had failed, for the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements would have been impossible without it. The Revolution destroyed aristocracy, dignified labor, accelerated entrepreneurial and commercial development, overturned notions of sovereignty and state power, and transformed the very terms in which people understood the world and their place in it. “In short,” he wrote, “the Revolution was the most radical and far-reaching event in American history,” with legacies that endure to the present day.

Wood’s first book had argued that a movement begun in defense of local rights had become a revolution by the sheer force of the ideas used to justify resistance, which ironically produced radical conceptions of political representation, sovereignty, and rights. But the irony of Radicalism went much further. Nothing, Wood argued, worked out as the Revolutionaries anticipated. Provincial leaders responded to imperial reforms by imitating what they imagined to be the values of the British aristocracy, only to unleash changes that produced a rambunctious democracy of common men dedicated to nothing so much as getting ahead. Liberal democracy thus was the Revolution’s unanticipated legacy for that unforeseeable republic, the United States; an imperfect nation, no doubt, but one genuinely devoted to the principles of equality and liberty it has continued to profess throughout its history.

Only three of the pieces in Wood’s volume date from the period between the publication of Creation and Radicalism. Like Creation,the book in which it first appeared, the Adams essay is a work of intellectual history; it is less Adams himself than his Defence of the Constitutions that stands at its center. The epilogue, originally called “The Democratization of Mind in the American Revolution,” appeared in 1974. As its original title suggests, it was an essay in ideological history, working out the implications of Creation for the politics of the 1790s; it looked back to the earlier book rather than ahead to a synthesis that Wood had yet to conceive. Only with the essay on Burr, published a decade later, is it possible to see some hint of the importance of “character” to the Revolutionary generation, at least in the sense that Burr lacked it.

The essays that Wood wrote after the publication of Radicalism show a growing concern with individual experience in the Revolution. This may in some way be traceable to the critical reactions of historians who faulted him for writing a genteel narrative that minimized social conflict and played down actual experience in favor of generalizations about social and cultural change. On the whole, however, the essays on Washington (1992), Jefferson (1993), Paine (1995), and Hamilton (2001) seem less to respond to critics than to manifest a growing fascination with character, chance, and leadership that culminated in Wood’s third major book, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin(2004).

The Franklin essay, a summary of themes developed there, stresses not only the importance of Franklin’s self-invention as a gentleman, but the contingency of his career. It was by no means certain that a royalist who lived all but two of the years between 1757 and 1775 in London, cultivating imperial connections, could bring himself to support the Revolutionary cause; even now it is astonishing that he emerged from that great transformation with his reputation—his character—intact. The essays on Franklin and Madison (2006) may be more satisfying to read than the one on Washington, which preceded them by more than a decade, simply because Wood had thought more deeply about the relationships between character and its development amid the vicissitudes of life than he had yet done in Radicalism, which emphasized the broad historical landscape more than the figures who moved through it.

The last piece written for Revolutionary Characters, presumably, was the introduction. In this perspective it seems not only to sum up the broad themes that Wood proposed in Radicalism, but to advance beyond them by emphasizing the social mores and family backgrounds of the Founders, and the unpredictability of life in general. Because Wood frames the biographical sketches that will follow in these terms, the ironies so evident in Creation and Radicalism acquire a darker, tragic tone. The Founders were men, above all, of seriousness and high purpose, who believed that the revolution they had led would fail in the absence of a new “culture of gentility and virtuous leadership.” Only such a culture, they thought, could sustain a civic-minded ruling class across the generations and make the American experiment a success.

In the end, of course, those hopes perished long before the Founders themselves (except Franklin) did, “done in by the very democratic and egalitarian forces they had unleashed with their Revolution.” Unequipped by their educations and experiences to see this new world as anything but chaotic, they despaired of posterity’s capacity to understand what the Revolution had been about, much less to honor their memories. The dream of fame that had sustained them through hardship and discouragement increasingly seemed to them, in old age, to have been a kind of cruel joke.

Readers looking for straightforward heroes from American history to address the concerns of the present moment will not find them in Wood’s complex, self-conscious, disillusioned Revolutionaries. But if the Founders’ lives add up to a tale of hopes disappointed, a story shaded by regret and loss, it can still offer satisfaction to readers with enough perspective to know that life as envisioned when young differs greatly from what one can see of it when looking back from the vantage point of maturity. By describing so vividly the experiences of these men and the complicated reality of life in the Revolutionary era, Wood has produced a valuable, persuasive account of the Founders and their significance in American history. By conveying it in the form of a meditation on the limits and transcendence of human striving, however, he touches a chord even deeper, and more universal, than that. The result is a remarkable book.