Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different

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Penguin, 2006 - History - 321 pages
3 Reviews
Even when the greatness of the founding fathers isn't being debunked, it is a quality that feels very far away from us indeed: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Co. seem as distant as marble faces carved high into a mountainside. We may marvel at the fact that fate placed such a talented cohort of political leaders in that one place, the east coast of North America, in colonies between Virginia and Massachusetts, and during that one fateful period, but that doesn't really help us explain it or teach us the proper lessons to draw from it. What did make the founders different? Now, the incomparable Gordon Wood has written a book that shows us, among many other things, just how much character did matter.

Revolutionary Characters offers a series of brilliantly illuminating studies of the men who came to be known as the founding fathers. Each life is considered in the round, but the thread that binds the work together and gives it the cumulative power of a revelation is this idea of character as a lived reality for these men. For these were men, Gordon Wood shows, who took the matter of character very, very seriously. They were the first generation in history that was self-consciously self-made, men who understood the arc of lives, as of nations, as being one of moral progress. They saw themselves as comprising the world's first true meritocracy, a natural aristocracy as opposed to the decadent Old World aristocracy of inherited wealth and station.

Gordon Wood's wondrous accomplishment here is to bring these men and their times down to earth and within our reach, showing us just who they were and what drove them. In so doing, he shows us that although a lot has changed in two hundred years, to an amazing degree the virtues these founders defined for themselves are the virtues we aspire to still.

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REVOLUTIONARY CHARACTERS: What Made the Founders Different

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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 ... Read full review

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As with another of Gordon Wood's works,'The Radicalism of The American Revolution', I'm sorry to say that, in both instances, I've been somewhat disappointed by the analytical style with which Wood approaches his subject matter. Unfortunately, for me, this is somewhat akin to reading a didactic analysis of a great story rather than the great story itself and I found myself struggling with boredom and counting the pages to the end of each chapter so that I could get on to my next book. While I do not question Prof. Wood's academic capabilities, I do think that he tends more toward historical analysis than historical narrative. This analytical style leads inevitably to conclusions and statements that sometimes appear somewhat subjective. One example is the inclusion of Aaron Burr in this collection of character analyses. On one hand, Wood acknowledges that Burr is not generally considered a 'founder' of the United States yet repeatedly refers to 'the other founders' when comparing Burr with Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, etc. as if Burr were among them. His subsequent analysis of Burr's character as completely lacking the qualities of the true founders begs the question of why Burr is making an appearance in this book in the first place. Another criticism involves Wood's tendency to make casual references to certain individuals such as the 18th century English literary figure Samuel Johnson (to whom Wood refers three times as 'Dr. Johnson' and once as 'Samuel Johnson') without explaining who Johnson was. This is an all-too-common flaw one finds in works by certain academics who seem at times forgetful that they are writing for a broader readership that may be less familiar with these subjects than the professorial cliques within which they move. It is a rare scholar indeed who possesses both academic virtuosity as well as a talent for engaging and informing the reader. Prof. Wood appears decidedly better on the first point than the second.
J. Intili, MD


one The Greatness of George Washington
two The Invention of Benjamin Franklin
three The Trials and Tribulations of Thomas Jefferson
four Alexander Hamilton and the Making of a FiscalMilitary State
five Is There a James Madison Problem?
SIX The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams
seven Thomas Paine Americas First Public Intellectual
eight The Real Treason of Aaron Burr
epilogue The Founders and the Creation of Modern Public Opinion

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About the author (2006)

Gordon S. Wood is the Alva O. Way University Professor and professor of history at Brown University. His 1969 book, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, received the Bancroft and John H. Dunning prizes and was nominated for the National Book Award. His 1992 book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Emerson Prize. Wood contributes regularly to The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.

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