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Friday Interview: Revolutionary Characters

Prof. Gordon Wood discusses what made the Founders special

Today, Carolina Journal’s Mitch Kokai interviews Gordon Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Brown University professor who recently addressed a North Carolina History Project Headliner luncheon in Raleigh. He also discussed his recent book, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. (Go to to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: We’re going to start with some quotes from your book. One of the things that struck me right at the very beginning: “No other major nation honors its past historical characters, especially characters who existed two centuries ago, in quite the manner that we Americans do.” Why do you think that is?

Wood: I think it has to do with our sense of identity. We’re not a nation in the ordinary sense of the term. We don’t go back to time immemorial. To be a Brit is to be somebody who they recognize themselves as British, or the French. We’re a nation of immigrants, and as a consequence, we need to have something else to hold us together, and I think the values and the institutions that this generation of revolutionary characters created gives us our sense of identity, and that’s why we go back to them, to reaffirm and refresh ourselves, to reaffirm our values, our ideas of liberty, equality, constitutionalism. That’s what holds us tighter — these ideas. We’re not a nation in the usual sense of the term. To be an American is not to be somebody, but to believe in something.

Kokai: You also say that the Founders were preoccupied with their honor or their reputation or, in other words, the way they were represented and viewed by others. “These revolutionary leaders,” you write, “inevitably became characters, self-fashioned performers in the theater of life.” Why was that true?

Wood: That’s right. Our notion of character is personality. It’s inward. They were aware of other people’s views of themselves, and so they were aware of their reputations, and they were after fame, which is honor through time, if you will. “Honor” being, in the 18th century, what we mean by “reputation.” And so they were concerned about what people thought of them, and fashioned themselves to fit a certain kind of image they had of what a great character was.

Kokai: Let’s look at some of the individual Founders. Look at Washington. Your quote is: “Washington was truly a great man and the greatest president we ever had.” Why is that true?

Wood: Well, first of all, he’s the first, and that put a tremendous load on him. He really had a responsibility that no other president, even Lincoln, has ever quite had, and I think all by himself he held the nation tighter at a time when it could have easily fallen apart. So I think for that reason. But he’s also great because of the way he acted at the end of the war, when he gave up his sword, surrendered his sword to the Congress and went back to Mount Vernon. That was a magnificent act. It electrified the world because no general in modern times, or even going back to Caesar, had ever done such a thing. They all expected political rewards commensurate with their military achievements, but not Washington, and I think that just amazed the world, that he gave up power in that way.

Kokai: You also write in Revolutionary Characters that “no one has embodied America’s democratic ideals and democratic hopes more than Thomas Jefferson.”

Wood: Well, because of the “all men are created equal.” Lincoln made a great deal of that, and it’s been used by Martin Luther King, and every successive generation has looked back to Jefferson as the source of equality, which is I think by far the most powerful ideological force in American history, the sense that we’re all at some level basically equal, and Jefferson has stood for that value more than any other person.

Kokai: If we mention Jefferson, we have to mention his main antagonist, Hamilton, whom you describe as “nothing if not a hard-headed realist.” You say he had “nothing but contempt for the pie-in-the-sky dreams of the Republican leaders,” that is, the Democratic-Republicans led by Jefferson and Madison.

Wood: That’s right. He disliked the utopianism of people like Jefferson who he thought were pie-in-the-sky dreamers. He is the realist. He’s the hard-headed financial genius, and he had an image of America that we would be a great military fiscal state that could take on the European states on their own terms, something that Jefferson and Madison never shared. They didn’t want that kind of strong military state. But that’s the kind of state we’ve become, so Hamilton’s vision has been fulfilled, you might say.

Kokai: We’ve mentioned Jefferson and Hamilton. The other key figure at that time was James Madison, the father of the Constitution. Some historians have talked about a James Madison problem — that he changed his views from the early revolutionary days to the days when he took over as president. But you don’t see a James Madison problem.

Wood: Well, there seem to be two James Madisons: the one in the 1780s who was the father of the Constitution, who is frightened of the states and wants to build a presumably strong national government; and then there is the Madison of the 1790s who is frightened of the national government and leads the Republican Party in opposition to Hamilton and Washington and uses the states, in 1798, as the defense against this encroaching national government. On the surface, there seem to be two James Madisons. I think, however, there is only one. He simply had no idea of the kind of national government that Hamilton was going to create and, therefore, went into opposition pretty early in the 1790s.

Kokai: You also talked about some Founders who may not be considered as well as some others these days. I’m particularly thinking of Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr. And in talking about Paine, you mention in your writing that “Common Sense is the most radical and important pamphlet written in the American Revolution and one of the most brilliant ever written in the English language.” Despite that, Thomas Paine is not considered as highly as many of the other Founders.

Wood: He committed a great sin. At the end of the 1790s he came out with The Age of Reason, which was a vicious attack on Christianity, and it essentially destroyed his reputation in America. Teddy Roosevelt called him “that dirty little atheist.” He was never an atheist, but he certainly was anti-Christian. He made fun of Christianity, and that simply was beyond the pale, and it destroyed his reputation until really the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it began to recover. But still, he’s always been on the margins because of that, I think.

Kokai: And speaking of bad reputations, in talking about Aaron Burr you say: “Burr was a traitor, not to his country, but to his class, and that was the real treason of Aaron Burr.”

Wood: Well, he had everything going for him. He should have been one of the great founders. In fact, he was of course vice president under Jefferson at a time when it meant something to be vice president, and he had everything going for him. He was a Princeton graduate, but he never seemed to have the same values as the other Founders. He is the exception that proves the rule. He never talked about virtue. He never talked about character in quite the same way. He had no interest in fame. He never saved his papers, and having no interest in fame was what appalled Hamilton. He couldn’t believe it. And in the end, both ends of the political spectrum, Hamilton from the right and Jefferson from the left, brought Burr down because he was a threat to the whole experiment of the revolution — that is, that there was a possibility of virtuous politics.

Kokai: You mention in your book that the growth of egalitarian democracy ensures we’re never going to have another generation like the Founders.

Wood: Well, that’s right. Democracy demands a different kind of leadership, and that’s one of the prices we’ve paid for democracy. That’s why we shouldn’t look back nostalgically to these men because they were aristocrats, and they created the sources of their own demise by creating a democratic society. It simply became impossible. They did not run for elections. They stood for election. They were aristocrats, and we would not tolerate their kind of behavior today.

Kokai: So why then do we pay so much attention to the Founders to this day?

Wood: Well, I think we should still look back to their values and the institutions they created. Yes, I think that’s the source of our strength. That’s the source of our identity. That’s the source of our unity. We can’t count on McDonald’s and Starbucks to hold us together. The only things we have in common are these ideals that they voiced and articulated.