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Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (2006)

de Gordon S. Wood

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8542118,643 (3.92)23
A series of 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 is the idea of character as a lived reality for these men. For these were men, Wood shows, who took the matter of character very seriously. They were the first generation in history that was self-consciously self-made, men who considered the arc of lives, as of nations, as being one of moral progress. They saw themselves as comprising the world's first meritocracy, as opposed to the decadent Old World aristocracy of inherited wealth and station. Historian Wood's accomplishment here is to bring these men and their times down to earth and within our reach, showing us just who they were and what drove them, and that the virtues they defined for themselves are the virtues we aspire to still.--From publisher description.… (mais)
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Interesting. ( )
  Chica3000 | Dec 11, 2020 |
Gordon S. Wood begins Revolutionary Characters by stating in the preface regarding the founders of America that "No other 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 (p. 3)."

With that, he then discusses throughout this book why that is, and touches on how Americans' views have evolved or changed over time about our founders -- which includes Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton. Each chapter in this book tends to focus on one man.

Without intending to prove his point to today's readers -- this was published in 2004 -- he states on page 123:

"Despite periodic biographies and occasional op-ed tributes in the Wall Street Journal it seems unlikely that Hamilton can ever acquire a warm place in the hearts of most Americans."

Ironic, yes? Hamilton is much more considered a hero nowadays, thanks to Hamilton: The Musical . So, with this Wood is right, in that how we view history changes over time.

This book is also an excellent refresher on some events and promient people of the era. I would like to seek out more of Gordon S. Wood's works.

My only complaint is that Revolutionary Characters is male-centric, even though there are other books out there that focus on women's history from the same era. Come to think of it, I don't know of any that mixes the two gender perspectives together -- if there are, perhaps they are encyclopedic in format or focuses on say, both John and Abigail Adams. ( )
  ValerieAndBooks | Aug 8, 2019 |
Similar to the Idea of America in that Revolutionary Characters is a collection of previously written essays edited for a more popular audience. I actually fairly enjoy the format, which paints the main themes of Wood's work (the gentlemen culture, republicanism, and the birth of democratic culture) while still being accessible (unlike the very dense Radicalism of the American Revolution [worth a read, but hardly a poolside read]). The book consists of short biographical sketches of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, John Adams, Paine, and Burr. The chapters are less chronicles of the lives of the founders than illustrations in the general themes Wood explores elsewhere (for example, Wood sees Burr's real treason as a betrayal of the gentlemen class virtues by nakedly pursuing his self-interest instead of acting in a disinterested matter, and argues that Paine was America's first public intellectual, writing to the masses instead of the republic of letters [though ultimately undone by his candor in regards to his belief in deism]). Wood's introduction explains that the founding generation was truly unique and unleashed a democratic spirit that would ensure that such a ruling class would not be replicated in the United States. A running theme is that the founders created a public spirit that celebrated the people and the democratic spirit that eroded their own power base (natural aristocracy) and left many of them bewildered at the transformation near the end of their lives.

Washington is framed as the ideal gentleman and hyper concerned with his reputation (at least in modern eyes). Wood discusses the reputation that Washington established by surrendering his command at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, which was unprecedented and earned him the name of the modern Cincinnatus. Several times Washington was cajoled into making his decisions based on the impact on his reputation (once in regard to donating a gift of shares to what would become the university of washington and lee, in rejecting leadership of the society of cincinnati, both issues dear to his heart [these are mentioned in radicalism of the american revolution as well]). In fact, even when it came to presiding over the constitutional convention, Washington was finally convinced to preside to avoid the impression that he hoped the convention would fail so he could take over as a military dictator. Wood argues that one of Washington's greatest acts was to free his slaves on his death. Washington even privately concluded that if the country was to break apart, he would be on the side of the union. Also interesting was the ambiguous nature of the executive, which some (high federalists in particular, with Hamilton hoping that the United States would grow into a comparable european fiscal-military state [with ability to raise money and wage war]) regarded as an elected monarch. Washington was the only person capable of being trusted in this supreme position, throughout his term there were many trappings of european monarchy.

The chapter on Franklin is an abridgement of the Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (worth a read of its own). In particular Wood shows the transformation of Franklin from imperial servant to Revolutionary. Wood notes that unlike the other founders, Franklin already had an international reputation as a scientist, frequently considered permanently relocating to Europe and bragged of his connections to the imperial government. Franklin sought an imperial appointment as late as the 1770s, before being humiliated by the government for some political miscalculations (publically releasing the hutchinson letters). In one particularly spectacular moment, it is said that after his public humiliation Franklin told one official that he would "make your king a LITTLE KING". Wood argues that one of the reasons that Franklin became so patriotic was his loyalties were questioned because he was a late (though authentic, mainly through being spurred) convert to the revolutionary cause.

The essays on Adams, Madison and Jefferson are interesting in that they show some of the nuances of the "first" party system. Wood notes that the federalists and republicans were not modern parties in any meaning of the word. The federalists considered themselves the government, and considered the republicans to be subversive elements challenging the government (this was particularly interesting in context of the sedition acts, which the federalists thought was legitimate to protect the government, while the republicans developed an early argument for the marketplace of ideas, which symbolizes the birth of public opinion), while the republicans considered themselves a temporary alliance meant to restore true revolutionary values (similar to English Whigs). Jefferson and Madison represented a strain of revolutionary thought that assumed that if left alone the natural impulses of society would allow civilization and people to prosper. Central to their belief was the role of trade in connecting peoples peacefully (similar to Kant's perpetual peace argument) and the rationale behind the disastrous embargo (which Wood notes still exists as economic sanctions). Jefferson and Madison thought that monarchical power was tied to warfare, standing armies and tyranny and stood in direct opposition to Hamilton. Wood argues that there is no "Madison problem" (between the Madison of the Federalist, and the Madison of the Kentucky Resolutions). Wood argues that Madison was always concerned about the abuses of the popular legislatures (in his virginia plan, both houses were proportional, and congress would wield a veto over state laws against the Union. Madison also suggested that there be a judicial/executive council to wield this veto. When these were rejected, Madison thought the constitution would fail. Ultimately, Madison supported SCOTUS judicial review) but did not favor the fiscal/executive/military state that Hamilton supported (which was ultimately the most forward looking). Wood's essay on Adams is interesting as well. Adams was outside of the country during the crucial period of the convention. While Adams supported the tripartite structure, he relied on classical rationales of republicanism, which saw each branch as representative of an order of society (the senate- aristocracy, the house- the populace and the executive/monarchy to balance the two). Adams based this on his pessimistic view of humanity as jealous and scrambling for honors. While most political theory by that point agreed with the conclusion, it did not agree with the rationale, which rested on a theory of popular sovereignty (the people doling out its sovereignty to the government which have parts of that authority as agents of the people). Overall, an enjoyable read that does not repeat the rote popular biographies but not dense enough to give you a headache in the sun. ( )
  vhl219 | Jun 1, 2019 |
The subtitle about what made the Founding Fathers "different" is a pun. By taking each of them separately, Wood brings out the differences and disputes between them, unsettling any sense that the Founding was a moment of idealistic consensus. Instead of the Constitution being treated as gospel and the Founding being seen as a period of definite ideals to hark back to, his essays show how the aims and organization of the new nation were always and already subjects for disagreement and division. There were Washington, obsessed with his reputation for virtue, and Burr, the value-free conspirator; Jefferson, the utopian for the free enterprise of the sociable individual, and Hamilton, the progenitor of the fiscal-military state; Madison, the putative Father of the Constitution, who favored a federal veto of state laws eligible "in all cases whatsoever", and whose Virginia Plan was unrecognizably altered into a federal model with a Senate posted to defend the interests of each State, starting out alongside Hamilton but then siding against him with Jefferson; John Adams, the pessimistic conservative, who believed in the inevitability of inequality and elitism, and in the necessity of stringent government power to control the passions of the populace, who despaired of America's corruption from the start and could not abide the notion of popular sovereignty, and Paine or Patrick Henry, plain-speaking tribunes of the common man. Not even at its outset was there a harmonious idealism from which today's Americans can draw any simple lesson. ( )
  wa233 | Oct 26, 2018 |
This is the second Gordon S. Wood book on the Revolution I've tried to read. And while I got about 60% of the way through this one, I just didn't care to finish. I read for pleasure and his writing style is way too academic for my tastes. I've read MANY books on the late 18th century regarding our founding and am very passionate about it. But I'm more interested in reading ABOUT history than getting analysis from an historian to the degree that Wood offers. ( )
  Jarratt | Sep 1, 2018 |
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A series of 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 is the idea of character as a lived reality for these men. For these were men, Wood shows, who took the matter of character very seriously. They were the first generation in history that was self-consciously self-made, men who considered the arc of lives, as of nations, as being one of moral progress. They saw themselves as comprising the world's first meritocracy, as opposed to the decadent Old World aristocracy of inherited wealth and station. Historian Wood's accomplishment here is to bring these men and their times down to earth and within our reach, showing us just who they were and what drove them, and that the virtues they defined for themselves are the virtues we aspire to still.--From publisher description.

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