Gordon Wood Speaks to full house on "What Made the Founders Different"

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Pulitzer prize-winning author Gordon Wood, professor emeritus of history at Brown, addressed an audience of 500 in the Bryan Campus Life Center on Thursday, February 16, 2012. Wood was the guest of the Program in Political Economy and the Project for the Study of Liberal Democracy, which is co-directed by Daniel Cullen and Stephen Wirls. Addressing the question: What Made the Founders Different?, Professor Wood  explained that America’s revolutionary leaders thought of character in connection with the outer rather than the inner life; they were concerned above all with cultivating (and preserving) a public persona and a new understanding of the criteria of a “gentleman.” Most of the Founders were first in their families to receive a college education, and they were self-made rather than family-made men whose claims to recognition rested on merit and achievement rather than “blood.” The fame that the founders relentlessly, perhaps obsessively, pursued derived from their achievements as statesmen, and their devotion to the public good harkened back to classical republican values. And yet, the Founders were also thoroughly modern in their devotion to republican principles. Wood described them as transitional figures; the democratization of society which their efforts wrought made men such as themselves less likely to appear in the future. Wood also described the Founders as men living in a creative tension, caught between a new world civilization that still existed on the edge of “barbarism” and the cosmopolitan center of the old world they had revolted against. Wood speculated that this condition of identifying simultaneously with the culture center and periphery accounts for those strange upsurges of creative genius in unlikely places: eighteenth century Scotland, Ireland, and the American colonies. Wood fielded several questions about the continuing relevance of America’s foundational ideas and institutions, warning that we cannot simply look to the past for guidance or for the affirmation of this or that ideological agenda; and yet, what it means to be an American remains bound up, not with an ethnic idea of nationhood, but with the political character forged by the principles of the revolution and the constitution.

In addition to his public lecture, Professor Wood visited Gail Murray’s colonial and Revolutionary history class and met in informal colloquia with Rhodes faculty and students.