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December 1, 2008

Revolutionary Characters

What Made the Founders Different
Gordon S. Wood – ISBN – 9781594200939
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History, 2006

Here is a unique look at the founding fathers and what made them different. Foremost was character, not then understood as we do today. It was not the inner personality with its hidden contradictions and flaws (which accounts for the regular public bashing of the founders by current politicians and intellectuals.) The understanding was that of their public personae: their outer life. They endeavored to demonstrate that they lived up to the values and duties that the best of their culture imposed upon them. They did not see themselves separate from their world or the culture. Not, that is, in isolation. They were not individualists concerned with their social identities. They “performed” within society as civic minded people, by necessity; and hid their personal feelings for the sake of civility and public personae.

They sought, sometimes unsuccessfully but always sincerely, to play a part . . . to be natural aristocrats. They measured their status by enlightened values and benevolent behavior--in opposition to birth--which hereditary aristocrats from time immemorial had valued. After all, most founders were first generation gentlemen.

That understanding makes clear why the intellectuals of today, with their sense of standing against, and often deprecating the prevailing culture. Moderns delight in seeing themselves as adversaries. They strike out and judge because they do not understand, or perhaps just enjoy showing how noble they are in adjudicating the past by current values and attitudes. It is obvious they consider themselves superior, though I can’t think of one who equals of any of the founders.

The 18th century enlightenment represented roll-back of the boundaries of darkness and barbarism; the spreading light and knowledge. It encompassed science, religion, philosophy and politics as it struggled to address tyranny and ignorance in order to deliberately create civility and refinement. The concern was the imposition of order and reason on the world by “aesthetically contemplating” an ordered universe. Never before had this been done.

We often ponder why we can never replicate the extraordinary generation of the founders. Where are people those people now? The simple answer is that modern society values most its egalitarian democracy. In the early nineteenth century the voices of ordinary people began to be heard as never before, and soon overwhelmed the high-minded desires and aims of the revolutionary leaders who brought them into being. A society of equals in all parameters is a society of mediocrity. The founders succeeded far too well in promoting equality among ordinary people, and in so doing succeeded in preventing forever the duplication of themselves. (What we have achieved might more accurately, if provocatively, be described as demo-crazy.)

With these explanations and caveats he begins his discussion of the principal founders in a way which makes them understandable to anyone willing to listen. Noble persons these were. Slave owners . . . some of them. Opinionated . . . all of them, but their views were subject to change thru earnest debate. Unwilling to challenge certain norms of their society . . . some of them, but virtually all of them understood that it was impossible to become one nation by bickering over the basic tenets of their society.* Most of them, for instance, held that slavery would be eliminated over time. Moreover, they could not see how to terminate it by fiat. It was yet another of those basic inequalities suffered by many which they were endeavoring to handle, fairly, and ultimately overcome. They were, after all, undertaking to found a nation the likes of which had never existed in all of history. Nor had it been considered beyond a certain ethereal, philosophical mode. (This I believe to be the principal misunderstanding of moderns when dissecting the founders.*)

Indeed, America has been so successful that it no longer considers the presence of such heroes as essential to the workings of government, which is at root both saddening and destructive. Instead we have our culture of fame and/or notoriety: those celebrated for trivialities, or simply for being well-known.

His discussions are both profound and enlightening. It is impossible come away without a sense of awe of each of the founders as he explores their innermost workings, their foibles, weaknesses and strengths. It is a truly masterful work and ought to be required reading for anyone who chooses to have an opinion about America or its founders. Their interactions as they deliberated are discussed: their disagreements, their attitudes about everything from standing armies, national banks, judges, elected officials, political theory, etc. In context he goes into the relations of the original 20-30 years of existence of our republic.

Read it and weep for modern brigades of insipid politicos and legions of vapid intellectuals who make a mockery of history, too ignorant to recognize their ignorance and hypocrisy, usually pretending they are the equal of the founders when they’re not fit to service their chamber pots!
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*What follows, while lengthy, adds meaningful depth to remind of the difficulties surrounding the formation of the United States. It is “lifted” completely, if not as quotations per se, from Bill Bryson’s Made in America (ISBN 9780380713813), another book very much worth reading . . . or rereading, as I find myself doing.)

The United States began as one of the largest countries in the world, with disparities in population, wealth and political outlook. This presented near insurmountable obstacles to finding common purpose. Proportional representation would give Virginia and Pennsylvania over a third of the nation’s political power while leaving Delaware one-ninetieth. Hence, little states feared big ones. Slave-owning states feared the others; Eastern states with fixed borders feared those of the West with a measureless continent as their back porch, with the potential of “rude frontiersmen in tasseled buckskins” controlling the destiny of all. All had distinct, two century histories of which they were quite proud, while none relished the dispensation of even the smallest measure of autonomy to unproven central authority. The challenge of the Constitutional Convention was not to give powers to the states, but to take powers away from them, and to do it in a way they would find palatable.

In less than four months, some thirty men created a framework for government that has lasted to this day. It was like nothing ever before seen. Page Smith (an recognized historian of the period) observed that this was “the most remarkable example of sustained intellectual discourse in history.” Never before or since, Bryson opines, “has any gathering of Americans shown a more dazzling array of talent and of preparedness.” To this effort they contributed, without compensation (or air conditioning), an entire summer of their lives, spending five hours six days a week, and countless additional hours before and after scheduled meetings researching, thinking and debating the various propositions and decisions before them: “Polybius, Demosthenes, Plutarch’s Lives, Fortune Barthelemy de Felice’s thirteen-volume Code de l’Humanite in the original French, and much more. In a single speech Alexander Hamilton referenced the Amphyctionic Councils of ancient Greece and the Delian Confederacy. These men "knew their stuff.” All were brilliant, thoughtful, provocative and profoundly well educated, and they were great enough to put aside their differences.

They debated and determined “the foundations of our government: the legislature, the presidency, the courts, the system of checks and balances, the whole intricate framework of American democracy—a legacy that is all the more arresting when you consider that almost to a man they were against democracy in anything like the modern sense.”

Most favored an America ruled by an informal aristocracy of propertied gentlemen like themselves. But James Wilson of Pennsylvania moved that the executive be chosen by popular vote, which “dumbfounded” the assemblage. In the end the election was given to the states by creating the Electoral College. They determined that the House of Representatives be elected by popular vote while the Senate was appointed by the individual states (the latter, quite unwisely in my opinion, overturned in 1912.)

While it is true that the preamble of the constitution was “pirated” from the Iroquois treaty of 1520, the Iroquois treaty had nothing more to do with their deliberations upon the Constitution itself.

Last, and exactly to the point, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania (best known for being the founder most often ignored) asked sarcastically during the debates over slavery: “Are they Men? Then make them Citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is there no other property included?” (This in reference to slaves counting for three-fifths of a person.) What self respecting man goes to the Coast of Africa, in defiance of the “sacred laws of humanity, tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages [and then insists his state] shall have more votes in a Government instituted for protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with a laudable horror so nefarious a practice.” In the end a difficult compromise was reached, slaves were included as fractional persons, and the word slavery was not used in the Constitution.

Posted by respeto at December 1, 2008 2:11 PM