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.