Focusing on the Founders
Invoking the Founding Fathers is not just a pastime of history majors; it's an American obsession. Which is why there's still such a brisk trade in re-examining the founders' lives. In his latest book, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood explains how this elite fraternity destroyed any chance of others duplicating their achievements by making American society more democratic.
Why is there so much interest in the Founding Fathers?
It's both a longing for a gold standard of political leadership and a certain amount of nostalgia. ... In the end, it has something to do with the fact that America lacks a common ancestry. ... The Revolution and the ideology behind it have become the adhesive that holds us together. People always want to know what would happen if the founders came back to life today. ... I think that some of them would be quite pleased that the country has lasted. Hamilton, in particular, would be quite happy with a state with a huge bureaucracy and a huge standing army. He would have loved the Pentagon. He would have loved the CIA. Jefferson and Madison would probably be appalled because they wanted minimal government.
How revolutionary were the ideas that became our founding principles?
The British weren't big on equality, so when Jefferson said that all men were created equal, it had a resonance and power that continues to this day. It's probably the most important ideological force in our entire history.
To what extent were these Founding Fathers extremists?
They took a lot of risks. They destroyed the king in effigy and drove out many of the Loyalists. If [they] had been caught early on in the Revolution, they would have likely been hanged as traitors. [The monarchy] was not just a way of government; it was a way to organize society. It was patriarchal and hierarchical, and when you eliminate the king you are changing the whole nature of social relationships. The implications were momentous.
Did they foresee what their experiment would cause America to look like in the next 100 or 200 years?
The founders who lived into the next century were very disillusioned. [They] didn't expect the country to become so evangelically religious, so vulgar, so moneymaking, so capitalistic. Jefferson, in particular, expected a little more ... respect for the natural aristocrats.
Did all the founders feel that way?
They all expressed some regret. George Washington ... bemoaned the rise of political parties. Washington said that in the new climate of parties you could put up a broomstick for office and get it elected if you called it a "Son of Liberty." He said that there was no room for character in politics anymore. John Adams said it was a terrible world. Benjamin Rush felt everyone was drinking too much and spending too much money.
Did the Constitution work as designed?
Under Washington, the country seemed to work as they planned. But by 1800, it was a disaster--there was a tie in the presidential election. They hadn't anticipated parties, and they didn't know how to go about electing presidents except as an indirect system. So since 1796, the Electoral College hasn't worked as they planned, but we are stuck with it.