The latest from award-winning scholar and historian Gordon S. Wood, author of The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin
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.
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May 18, 2006
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Excerpt from Revolutionary Characters by Gordon S. Wood
The Greatness of George Washington
GEORGE WASHINGTON may still be first in war and first in peace, but he no longer seems to be first in the hearts of his countrymen. A recent poll asking who was America's greatest president showed that only 6 percent of those polled named Washington. He was ranked seventh among presidents. Young people in particular did not know much about Washington.
Polls of presidential greatness are probably silly things, but if they are to be taken seriously, then Washington fully deserves the first place he used to hold. He certainly deserved the accolades his contemporaries gave him. And as long as this Republic endures, he ought to be first in the hearts of his countrymen. Washington was truly a great man and the greatest president we ever had.
But he was a great man who is not easy to understand. He became very quickly, as has often been pointed out, more a monument than a man. Even his contemporaries realized that he was not an ordinary accessible human being. Every passing year made him less of a real person. By the early decades of the nineteenth century he had already become statuesque and impenetrable. "Did anyone ever see Washington nude " Hawthorne asked. "It is inconceivable." Washington "was born with his clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world."
Of course, as Emerson once said, "Every hero becomes a bore at last," and Washington was no exception. By the middle of the nineteenth century the eulogies of Washington had become so conventional and so prevalent that a humorist like Artemus Ward could not resist parodying them: "G. Washington was about the best man this world ever set eyes on. . . . He never slopt over! . . . He luved his country dearly. He wasn't after the spiles. He was a human angil in a 3 kornered hat and knee britches."
Despite the continued popularity of Parson Weems's biographical attempt to humanize Washington, the great man remained distant and unapproachable, almost unreal and unhuman. There were periodic efforts to bring him down to earth, to expose his foibles, to debunk his fame, but he remained massively monumental. By our time in the early twenty-first century he seems so far removed from us as to be virtually incomprehensible. He seems to come from another time and another place, from another world.
That's the whole point about him: He did come from another world. And his countrymen knew it almost before he died in 1799. Washington was the only truly classical hero we have ever had. He was admired as a classical hero in his own lifetime. Among his fellow Americans only Franklin rivaled him for international acclaim, and Franklin's reputation was confined to science and philosophy. Washington was much more of a traditional hero. And he knew it. He was well aware of his reputation and his fame earned as the commander in chief of the American revolutionary forces. That awareness of his heroic stature was crucial to Washington. It affected nearly everything he did for the rest of his life.