Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Gentlemen Revolutionaries

Peter Berkowitz reviews Gordon Woods' Revolutionary Characters: What Made The Founders Different in Policy Review. Here are two key points that I took away. The first is from Wood:
No other major nation honors its past historical characters, especially characters who existed two centuries ago, in quite the manner we Americans do. We want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action, or George Washington of the invasion of Iraq. The British don’t have to check in periodically with, say, either of the two William Pitts, the way we seem to have to check in with Jefferson or Washington. We Americans seem to have a special need for these authentic historical figures in the here and now....

The United States was founded on a set of beliefs and not, as were other nations, on a common ethnicity, language, or religion. Since we are not a nation in any traditional sense of the term, in order to establish our nationhood, we have to reaffirm and reinforce periodically the values of the men who declared independence from Great Britain and framed the Constitution. As long as the Republic endures, in other words, Americans are destined to look back to its founding.
Thus, as a secular nation, we need to maintain some sort of moral touchstone and the Founders are our Pantheon. The second is Berkowitz's characterization of Woods' scholarly approach to the Founders, which can be more broadly applied:
Contrary to the dominant tendencies of his profession, Wood is a historian who, without scanting the impact of larger social forces, respects ideas and the actions of outstanding historical figures — not least, in the case of America’s founders, the actions they undertook to implement their ideas about constitutional government. He has sympathy for the common opinion among nineteenth-century Americans, still shared by many Americans today, that the founders were great men, larger-than-life figures, brilliant thinkers and bold politicians who brought forth a new kind of nation dedicated to principles of universal appeal and application. He rejects for good and sufficient reason the effort to reduce the founders to place-holders for somebody else’s favorite — or despised — ideology and the attempt to reduce the founders to instruments of their time and circumstances. Wood is acutely aware that the founders’ Constitution involved a compromise with evil, but he inclines to Lincoln’s position that the ideas about freedom and equality on which it was based and the political institutions it established set the country on the path to slavery’s eventual extinction. In the process of examining the founders’ characters and principles, and the distinctive importance they attached to both, Wood restores the founders’ complexity and humanity while making their achievements all the more vivid and worthy of study.

(Via Political Theory Daily Review)

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