Even when the greatness of the founding fathers isn't being debunked, it is a quality that feels very far away from us indeed: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Co. seem as distant as marble faces carved high into a mountainside. We may marvel at the fact that fate placed such a talented cohort of political leaders in that one place, the east coast of North America, in colonies between Virginia and Massachusetts, and during that one fateful period, but that doesn't really help us explain it or teach us the proper lessons to draw from it. What did make the founders different? Now, the incomparable Gordon Wood has written a book that shows us, among many other things, just how much character did matter.
Revolutionary Characters offers a series of brilliantly illuminating studies of the men who came to be known as the founding fathers. Each life is considered in the round, but the thread that binds the work together and gives it the cumulative power of a revelation is this idea of character as a lived reality for these men. For these were men, Gordon Wood shows, who took the matter of character very, very seriously. They were the first generation in history that was self-consciously self-made, men who understood the arc of lives, as of nations, as being one of moral progress. They saw themselves as comprising the world's first true meritocracy, a natural aristocracy as opposed to the decadent Old World aristocracy of inherited wealth and station.
Gordon Wood's wondrous accomplishment here is to bring these men and their times down to earth and within our reach, showing us just who they were and what drove them. In so doing, he shows us that although a lot has changed in 200 years, to an amazing degree the virtues these founders defined for themselves are the virtues we aspire to still.