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Interview with Gordon Wood: Revolutionary Characters

Historians/History




Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

Gordon Wood is is Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History at Brown University. His latest book, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (Penguin), prompted this interview. In April he was the subject of an HNN Doyens profile.

Q. Thomas Jefferson is often remembered as the champion of The People. But as you note in your chapter on the Sage of Monticello, Jefferson in his final years grew disillusioned with the direction of the country. What was so discouraging?

Gordon Wood JPGJefferson in his old age became more parochial and more southern. Indeed, some of his later letters make him something of a fire-eating defender of slavery. He disliked the growth of the North which he thought was a hotbed of Federalist bigotry and religious enthusiasm mingled with Yankee money-making. That Andrew Jackson almost became president in 1824 appalled him. He thought Jackson was a primitive, violent man unfit for the presidency. All in all he thought the country was going to hell in a hand-basket.

Q. I couldn't help but think as I read your account of Jefferson that in an ironic way his disillusionment with America parallels the modern liberals' disillusionment. To many liberals America today seems less promising than it did in the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier and Great Society days. So in a way liberals have new and unexpected reasons to identify with Jefferson. Did you think as you were writing the chapter that this might be the case?

I certainly did not think of Jefferson's disillusionment as comparable to whatever disillusionment modern liberals might have. The only parallel might be with the seemingly sudden growth of evangelical Christianity. As late as 1821 Jefferson thought that the entire country was going to become Unitarian. That's how out of touch he was with what was going on.

Q. Hamilton in recent years has been adopted by many business people as their patron saint. I was therefore surprised to read that you think that Hamilton is mistakenly regarded as a champion of business. Why?

Hamilton was an 18th century aristocrat, not a businessman. He championed his financial system and the Bank because he rightly believed they were good for the country. He wanted to attach the major merchants and creditors to the federal government because he believed that they would bring others along with them. But he stupidly ignored the real sources of American business and capitalism, the hundreds of thousands of artisans who were the proto-businessmen of the future. These artisans really accounted for the take-off of the northern economy in the years after 1800. They had been Federalists in 1787-88, but when Hamilton and the Federalists ignored their interests in the 1790s, they soon became Jeffersonian Republicans.

Q. One of the most interesting observations you make is that Americans are unique in turning to the Founders of their country for guidance about current issues. Just recently Richard Brookhiser devoted an entire book to the subject, providing the answers he thinks the founders would give to the questions we face. Why do we do this?

I think we go back to the Founders to renew and reaffirm our faith in the values and ideals of the nation. We are not a nation in the usual sense of the term. To be an American is not to be somebody, but to believe in something. And that something is the ideals and values that came out of the Revolution and the framing of the Constitution. So the Founders give us a sense of who we are and what we believe in. Almost everything we believe as a people--our noblest ideals and highest aspirations--come out of the Revolution--our belief in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, self-government, the well-being of ordinary people--so it is not surprising that we should want to know about the men who created these ideas, institutions, and values.

Q. You make it clear that John Adams felt misunderstood by his countrymen and that he misunderstood them. And yet his dour outlook resonates in the same way that Henry Adams's often does. Are we possibly more receptive to John Adams now because he seems less naive than many of the other Founders?

You could be right. He had a pessimistic view of human nature and of Americans. Yet paradoxically his last years were happier than Jefferson's. He was a cranky guy but someone who attracted the affection of those around him.

Q. Ronald Reagan frequently cited Tom Paine but perhaps George W. Bush should. Your Paine sounds very much like Bush (in this one respect at least) when the president goes on about the natural pacific nature of republics. Comment?

I think that view of democracies is more widespread than simply Bush. Tom Friedman has made similar comments about democracies not going to war with one another. Of course, it all depends on what is meant by democracy. Simply holding elections is not enough. Minority rights and concepts of liberty seem to be more important than simple majority rule. Paine's view was not unique to him. Other 18th century liberals, including Jefferson and Madison, held similar views.

Q. I was fascinated with what I would describe as your class interpretation of the Sedition Act passed by the Federalist Congress during the administration of John Adams. You argue that the Federalists acted not so much because they objected to the harshness of the attacks as the quarter from which they emanated. Can you explain what you meant?

The Federalists were frightened out of their wits by the kinds of people who not only were writing the scurrilous newspaper pieces but also were winning elections. Matthew Lyon, the former indentured servant, who had become a very successful businessman and editor in Vermont, was a nightmare for the Federalists. He got into the Congress and was the congressman who wrestled on the floor of the House with Congressman Griswold from Connecticut in 1798. It was beyond the ken of the Federalists than men like that should get into government. They were appalled and outraged at the same time.

Q. Finally: Are you working on a new book? If so, can you tell us what it's about?

I am completing a volume in the Oxford History of the United States for the period 1789-1815.


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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/6/2006

I read recently (and believe it is true) that Ohio was rushed to statehood in 1803 without enough population (as required by the Northwest Ordinance?), in order to furnish Thomas Jefferson with its three electoral votes in the election of 1804... This could also have something to do with why there was no census taken in Ohio in 1810. Tom apparently wasn't too happy with his margin in 1800, nor averse to breaking the rules to improve it.