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.”