Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different

Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different

4.1 17
by Gordon S. Wood

See All Formats & Editions

In this brilliantly illuminating group portrait of the men who came to be known as the Founding Fathers, the incomparable Gordon Wood has written a book that seriously asks, "What made these men great?" and shows us, among many other things, just how much character did in fact matter. The life of each—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison,


In this brilliantly illuminating group portrait of the men who came to be known as the Founding Fathers, the incomparable Gordon Wood has written a book that seriously asks, "What made these men great?" and shows us, among many other things, just how much character did in fact matter. The life of each—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Paine—is presented individually as well as collectively, but the thread that binds these portraits together is the idea of character as a lived reality. They were members of the first generation in history that was self-consciously self-made men who understood that the arc of lives, as of nations, is one of moral progress.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

What explains the resurgence of interest in America's Founding Fathers? According to Pulitzer and Bancroft Prize winner Gordon S. Wood, part of the answer resides in our own yearning for disinterested leadership. The ten essays of Revolutionary Characters suggest, however, that the first generation of American leaders shared an 18th-century moral sense that would be impossible to replicate. Though sometimes irreconcilably dissimilar, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and their peers saw themselves as comprising the world's first true meritocracy.
Robert Middlekauff
At several points in this volume, most notably the essays on Washington and the epilogue, Wood argues that the founders contributed unwittingly to a democratic and egalitarian society that they never wanted. This is another point in favor of the history Wood provides in this splendid collection: He relates what he would have us believe, explains much of what was done and leaves us with an ironical appreciation of the founders' achievement.
— The Washington Post
Michiko Kakutani
This volume is at its most powerful when Mr. Wood uses his enormous knowledge of the era to situate his subjects within a historical and political context, stripping away accretions of myths and commentary to show the reader how Washington, say, or Franklin (the subject of a 2004 book by the author) were viewed by their contemporaries. He explains how the reputations of these men waxed and waned over the years, and how changing ideological fashions in history writing have continually remade their images: most notably, how the current academic focus on gender, class and race issues has marginalized the study of politics and political leaders and contributed to the vogue for debunking "elite white males."
— The New York Times
The Washington Post Book World
Elegant ... absorbing ... from one of our leading scholars of the American Revolution.
Jon Meacham
Illuminating ... poignant.
The New York Times Book Review
The Weekly Standard
If we can't turn back the clock, at least we can enjoy a master historian's refreshing reassessment of seven men whose legacies live on.... It has the integrity and, yes, the eccentricity of the Founders it celebrates.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Of those writing about the founding fathers, [Gordon Wood] is quite simply the best.
Publishers Weekly
Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize-winner Wood suggests that behind America's current romance with the founding fathers is a critique of our own leaders, a desire for such capable and disinterested leadership as was offered by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Provocatively, Wood argues that the very egalitarian democracy Washington and Co. created all but guarantees that we will "never again replicate the extraordinary generation of the founders." In 10 essays, most culled from the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, Wood offers miniature portraits of James Madison, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine. The most stimulating chapter is devoted to John Adams, who died thinking he would never get his due in historians' accounts of the Revolution; for the most part, he was right. This piece is an important corrective; Adams, says Wood, was not only pessimistic about the greed and scrambling he saw in his fellow Americans, he was downright prophetic-and his countrymen, then and now, have never wanted to reckon with his critiques. Wood is an elegant writer who has devoted decades to the men about whom he is writing, and taken together, these pieces add perspective to the founding fathers cottage industry. (May 22) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Presenting a series of essays he has published previously and heavily revised here, Pulitzer Prize winner Wood focuses on the Founding Fathers, whose achievements he notes are still so highly ranked by Americans today. Wood is at his best when writing about George Washington and Aaron Burr, noting with regard to the former that his character was perfectly suited to his time: his backing of the proposed federal Constitution was crucial, and he governed with "no precedents to follow." Wood crystallizes his own opinion of Burr by defining him as "a self-assured aristocrat using his public office in every way he could to make money." This book also includes essays on Jefferson, Franklin, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, and, in perhaps the book's one flaw, John Adams. Wood makes much of John Adams's pessimism about the future of the country while glossing over his real contributions to the independence movement and his writing of the Massachusetts Constitution, which is still in use today. All in all, this is a very readable book; recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/06.]-Karen Sutherland, Bartlett P.L., IL Law & Crime Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-There is no shortage of new titles assessing the character and contributions of America's founders, but this excellent book is particularly well suited to high school students. Wood has selected eight remarkable men to profile: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and Aaron Burr. After describing how their reputations have undergone changes through the years, sometimes honored, sometimes reviled, the author discusses the men in terms of their own times. A chapter is devoted to each one, but these essays are not simple biographical sketches. Wood establishes his subjects' social and economic backgrounds, but then focuses on their personalities and philosophies, revealed through their correspondence. Trying to establish a meritocracy during an age of aristocracy was a daunting process, and the founders often became one another's adversaries. Their shrewd and sometimes caustic observations showed the difficulties involved in coming to a consensus on vital issues. Insecurities, humor, brilliance, and bewilderment abounded, all described in a flowing, lively style. Readers will gain a new understanding and appreciation of these men, and may even be inspired to read some of the comprehensive biographies recommended by the author.-Kathy Tewell, Chantilly Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 infinitely harder thing to discern-for their own. Obsessed with race, class and gender, today's historians are often more intent on dehumanizing rather than simply debunking, the Founders, Wood notes. Without losing sight of the revolutionaries' often significant faults, he offers a welcome, if ironic, reminder of one of their lasting achievements: creating an egalitarian polity that had no place for aristocrats like themselves again. His meditations on the Founders' relationship to the Enlightenment and the creation of American public opinion bracket profiles of six revolutionaries who have entered the American pantheon and two (Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr) who have not. The author typically begins by discussing how different generations viewed a particular figure, then attempting to ferret out the reasons for that revolutionary's conduct. For instance, he shows that Benjamin Franklin's image as folksy self-made American is at odds with the Philadelphian's pre-revolutionary desire to become a gentleman in London. Above all, the Founders adhered to a "classical ideal of disinterested leadership" that fit their notions of character. This ideal suited a meritocracy such as their own, which broke with the English tradition of a corrupt hereditary aristocracy, but it was out of place in a rapidly evolving America that thrust obscure ordinary men into power. Wood explains his figures and their times in fresh ways, noting, for example, how Madison's frustrations in the Virginia legislature inspiredhim to curb state power at the Constitutional Convention, and why the Democratic-Republican opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 fostered the notion of truth as "the creation of many voices and many minds."Bracing, clear-eyed perspectives on why we are unlikely to see such a politically creative period again.
From the Publisher
Of those writing about the founding fathers, [Gordon Wood] is quite simply the best. (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Sales rank:
File size:
1 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Of those writing about the founding fathers, [Gordon Wood] is quite simply the best. (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Meet the Author

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. His 2009 book Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, won the 2010 New York Historical Society Prize in American History. Wood's other books include Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders DifferentThe Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of HistoryThe Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, and most recently, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, and he contributes regularly to The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
biff More than 1 year ago
Gordon Wood is among the most respected scholars of the Revolutionary ERA & this book informs the reader what made our "Founding Fathers" so exceptional. He tells the reader a different story of the "Founding Fathers" but there is a central thread running through the different stories- they were all exceptional men w/great integrity. They each brought a different view of what they wanted in a new Nation & brought w/them a moral progress. He describes by what process each of the founders contributed to the birth of America. Each of the founders were decent, honest & learned(some more than others). This was an erudite & learned book, highly recommended for all Americans
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. Wood strips away the myth and paints a portrait of some of our Founders in the light and context of their own time -- and he does so more successfully that dozens of other better known authors. After revealing each character, he sets them against aech other to interact as they would have -- and did in their time. You can see them. You can feel the intensity. He also does a great job of describing the intensity of THAT time, setting up the background until it becomes the present. We sample their "GREATNESS". We travel through history in a bubble of reality and then we experience their loss. Their undoing. Their demise. We "feel" and experience their weakness, their reality, their humanness. This book has a special place on the shelf. A remarkable read!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book focuses on the personalities of our founding fathers and dwells on their negative characteristics. Rarely are their accomplishments or positive qualities mentioned. Without knowing each personally, how could Mr. Wood presume to know their true thoughts, motivations and feelings? Even their sometimes voluminous correspondence was written and edited for posterity and was not revealing of the author. While pointing out their character ¿disinterested leadership¿, you get the feeling that the author is trying to say something positive about someone he really doesn¿t like. If you can handle some questionable negativity and appreciate their demonstrated character, it¿s an interesting book. Aaron Burr was an excellent example of a founding politician lacking character ¿ unfortunately today he would be a typical politician. Also, I was glad to see Thomas Paine included in the list of founding fathers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
'Nuf said
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Haymitch. Lots of... spunk! ((Haha, get it? And there's no need for some evil president in my world.))
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was a major fan of this book. While Wood was critical, to an extent, of some of the founders, it only served to humanize these men who often are deified. On the contrary, I believe this book painted honest portraits of great men of the period and went a great ways in combating some of the recent 'Founding Father Debunkifiers'. Like a math teacher provides formulas for equation solving, Wood gives us the information and insight that helps explain why some of these men did what they did. He provides a window to the nuts and bolts of the Revolutionary machine that were the Founders. These men werent half human, half divine beings receiving their inspiration from on high. They were real men of character (some more than other) that did what they did for reasons. Some self-serving, others honest.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Get it, read words like these: 'These colonialists had never lived without the presence of a king, ..'They were engaging upon a new nation dedicated to self rule'. Are you going away to college? ..Take this one with you for company!! E. Pluribus Unum!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the second book written by Gordon Wood I've had the opportunity to read, the other being '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 in my current obsession with the American Revolution. 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 even making an appearance in this book in the first place. Another criticism I have is Wood's tendency to make passing references to individuals not generally well known to most readers, (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 they are. This is a common flaw one finds in works by some academics who seem at times forgetful that they are writing for a readership that is somewhat broader than the professorial cliques within which they move. It is a rare scholar indeed who possesses both academic ability as well as a talent for engaging the reader. Prof. Wood appears decidedly better on the first point than the second.