- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006


By Gordon S. Wood

Penguin Press, $25.95,

336 pages


With about one percent of our current population, three million people, the Founding Fathers produced a generation that embraced such luminaries as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, James Madison and a host of other extraordinary men and women.

Even perennial villains like Aaron Burr are rather interesting figures in the history of the early republic. And of course, there are second and third tiers of personalities who are less known to us, but were fascinating players on the stage of our national drama.

Prominent historian Gordon S. Wood of Brown University is a master at sketching these revolutionary leaders, but his book is more important for the observations about the unique development of those individuals and what makes their aspirations and dreams so different from our current crop of political leaders.

Even Abraham Lincoln was in awe of them, calling the Founders “a forest of giant oaks.” They lived in an aristocratic, deferential society and moved in a world that emphasized the 18th-century values of gentlemanly behavior, candidness, dedicated manners and a respect for what used to be called liberal learning. They could be polite, without fear of being called “girlie men.”

The Founders exhibited a sense of “disinterestedness” or civic virtue (not uninterestedness), and stressed the need to be free from the allure of the marketplace or the vulgarity of tradesmen. Many of them, though, were the first in their family to go to college, and some figures such as Washington and Franklin never experienced collegiate education.

But taken together, they clearly saw themselves as actors who sought to separate their personal lives from their nobler public postures. The Founders were self-made men who pressed the importance of a working for a moral order. They fostered the decent and humane values of the American Revolution and hoped to advance the explosion of male equality and white democracy. They were not as enlightened on race and gender.

Those later democratic values changed American society very quickly, and led to an undoing of the very structured order that made the Founders possible. Thus, the very virtues we admire today have suffocated the different values that produced the Revolution and made the Constitution of 1787 a reality.

But actually we have new elites in place, rather than a plebiscite democracy, and no one can say with any seriousness that our current elites prize disinterestedness, balance, moderation and the liberal arts view of what constitutes being a true gentlemen.

For example, Washington was never seen as a great thinker, but he was surely a great man — which nearly all recognized in his lifetime. But still he was a son of the Enlightenment in his temperament and in the impressions he sought to convey. To take one issue: He refused to comment on religion, except in rare instances as his famous letter on toleration to the Jewish community in Rhode Island.

Jefferson was even more diffident: “our civil rights have no depedendence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” His colleague and friend, James Madison, pushed for a separation of church and state, to protect one from the other, rather than to promote sectarianism. The voice of the Revolution, Thomas Paine, was a sometime atheist.

These men in fact understood the baleful influences of religious enthusiasm in a limited republic of separate powers. Now we are surrounded by religious institutions, religious media ministers and members of the hierarchy emulating the very behavior that so troubled the Founders who knew well European history.

The basic problem, then, is can we have an 18th-century republic based on an 18th-century constitution and political theory in a 21st-century empire? The Founders feared luxury, factionalism, public passion and private apathy in national affairs. We have amended the Constitution’s basic structures and its understandings not by the amending process, but because we have destroyed so totally the character types that made the Founders possible.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two-volume history of the presidency, ” The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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