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.
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.