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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. But the spirit in which we explore our inheritance is a matter not of destiny but of choice, and a more learned or lucid guide to the founding than Gordon Wood would not be easy to find.
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. The largest puzzle concerns the connection between eighteenth-century America and America today: How did the founders, in carrying out their intentions, bring into existence a country that would come to have no place for men of their convictions and conduct?
There is no doubt that the founders were men of ideas, were, in fact, the leading intellectuals of their day. But they were as well the political leaders of their day, politicians who competed for power, lost and won elections, served in their colonial and state legislatures or in the Congress, became governors, judges, and even presidents. They were intellectuals without being alienated and political leaders without being obsessed with votes. They lived mutually in the world of ideas and the world of politics, shared equally in both in a happy combination that fills us with envy and wonder.
We know that something happened then in American history that can never happen again. Though thoroughly committed to enlightenment, the sovereignty of the people, and popular government, the founders, including Jefferson, Wood stresses, were not democrats in our sense of the term. They believed themselves to constitute a genuine elite. At the same time, they were conscious, and indeed proud, of how the elite to which they belonged differed from those of England and Europe.
Indeed, of the eight founders Wood explores, only Aaron Burr was born into substantial wealth and privilege. Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams, and Paine were all, to varying degrees, self-made men, certainly compared to the landed nobility that governed eighteenth-century England. Civility and refinement were of the essence.
And he was a liberal in an old-fashioned and equally crucial sense: He believed in natural rights and that under a government that protected them one could attain a wider, freer, more generous vantage point. Noting that the eighteenth-century English-speaking world invented the modern idea of the liberal arts education, Wood argues that John Adams was quite correct to understand the formation of a gentleman as its highest aim. Whether by birth they be descended from magistrates and officers of government, or from husbandmen, merchants and mechanics, or laborers; or whether they be rich or poor.
By placing the attainment of aristocratic status, at least in principle, within the reach of all, the founders sought to harmonize the need for excellence with the claims of equality. Disinterestedness referred to the ability to set aside private interest and personal advantage to exercise the public virtues that advanced the common good. In prizing it, the founders were both more idealistic and more realistic than we are.
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On the one hand, they firmly believed in the attainability of the ideal. On the other hand, they were quite convinced that the attainment of disinterestedness depended on the acquisition of wealth sufficient to relieve the gentleman of the need to work. It was not that they regarded work as contemptible, but rather that they thought those whose livelihood was tied to work would necessarily approach politics in the grips of selfish calculation. Few of the founders themselves could easily afford to set aside their private affairs to attend to the public interest.
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Yet this was consistent with their political outlook. He was not a learned man, he was not a military genius, he was not a great orator, and he was not a brilliant statesman. Even as many of his countrymen would have welcomed a military dictatorship under his command, and to the astonishment of Europeans who could not conceive of a victorious commander doing anything other than seizing political power, Washington resigned his commission and returned to his beloved Mount Vernon.
These are great books!
We are blessed with so many wonderful books that it would be very difficult to limit a list to five. Thanks, Todd! It was hard to narrow it down. At some point, I will write a more complete list.
I need to read the Seven Storey Mountain. Sorry, we didn't find anything.
Putting the Gentle in Gentleman. Here are five of the books I recommend for every Catholic man. The Introduction to the Devout Life by St. The Secret of Mary by St. The Confessions of St. Get a copy of this book and leave it on your nightstand. Read it again and again. Conclusion The saints have made it clear—if we want to grow spiritually, we must read the writings of those who have gone before us.
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‘Kill All the Gentlemen’ — seven centuries of class struggle in rural England
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