Founding Fathers

Wood Because the Jefferson post struck up some good discussion, let me tell you about a book I’m reading, Revolutionary Characters, by Gordon Wood, a former history professor of mine at Brown. Wood is probably the foremost historian of early America alive today, though his brand of history — focused on dead, white males who were political leaders — is no longer en vogue. The history I’ve written myself is usually about the intersection of gender, class, ideology, and media, but I appreciate Wood’s perspective. Some of his stances do strike me as conservative, but less in the contemporary, political sense than in a deeply historical sense, in which he sometimes seem to mourn what was lost in past more than he valorizes social progress.

The book is basically a collection of essays on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and John Adams. By embracing popular democracy, each man, Wood writes, helped usher in an age in which the Enlightened, intellectually-rigorous leadership of the early United States would be replaced by a politics held hostage to a dumbed-down and rancorous mass culture. Wood gets at the central problem of any democracy: What do we do when the people are just wrong?

Wood openly admits his project is to restore the "Founding Fathers" to their rightful place as heroes of American history. But he wants to replace the myths about these men — Washington was honest to a fault, Franklin was a jolly businessman — with truths. Thus, Wood focuses on Franklin’s transition from colonialist Empire-lover to disillusioned Revolutionary. We’re reminded that unlike Washington, Jefferson never freed his slaves, despite his writings condemning the practice. But that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate Jefferson’s lifelong project of bringing erudition to America. From architecture, to philosophy, to wine, to the value of public education, Jefferson’s legacy is large.

And of course, it’s nice to remember that two of our most revered historical figures — Franklin and Jefferson — were confirmed Francophiles.

5 thoughts on “Founding Fathers

  1. BF

    I wouldn’t really identify his material as dead-white-men history because that places alongside the worst examples of myth-making and whitewashing. He is really an intellectual historian. His “Creation of the American Republic” is probably the best answer to the radical-individualist conservative view of the founding.

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  2. Sean

    As someone else who took a couple of courses with Gordon Wood, this is pretty much a solid impression of him (though I haven’t had a chance to read his new book). Still something else to note that what a lot of people consider conservative about Wood is not a sense of past nostalgia, but his very emphasis on ideas and the Founders rather than more en vogue histories dealing with gender, race, class and economics, and the like. In my mind, all of the above have an important place, and I was at least glad that Wood recognized that in terms of his course readings and assignments (if not his lectures) while also getting his two-sense in there strongly.

    Not to mention that there’s something to be said about looking back nostalgically for guidance to the Founders’ hard-developed ideals. Take the concept of the upper chamber of a bicameral legislatures, which evolved through state governance during the Articles period before informing a general sense of what the Senate ought to function as. As I was reading and writing on that topic, I couldn’t help but juxtapose it positively with what the Senate actually looked and behaved like in the present day….

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  3. Murphy

    Gordon Wood is fine if you only hope to achieve a pass/fail acquaintance with American colonial history.

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