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The lives and characters of prominent historical figures have always evoked great interest in the academic community. Specifically, personal characteristics of America’s founders remain the subject of controversial debates about moral and pragmatic principles of American democracy that they persistently advocated. In Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, Gordon Wood constructs the portraits of the revolutionary leaders by examining their philosophical convictions and shows their exceptional moral complexion by comparing their political theories.
The generation of the revolutionary leaders consists of well-educated and impartial public officials who believed in the importance of cultural self-elevation. In fact, Wood portrays America’s founders as the patriotic leaders who were highly aware of their historical mission. The American revolutionaries exemplified the contemporary image of devoted state officials. The philosophical principles of the eighteenth-century Anglo-American Enlightenment demanded strict adherence to etiquette (Wood 12-13). For many US citizens, the successful political career necessitated the moral elevation that presupposed the cultivation of “politeness, grace, taste, learning, and character” through the liberal education (Wood 15). Thus, good manners and sophistication were cherished above the aristocratic lineage as the primary criterion for political leadership. Despite their family backgrounds, the revolutionary leaders considered economic independence and academic accomplishments to be compulsory prerequisites for impartial public service (Wood 15). The amassment of personal fortune and knowledge offered concerned citizens the relative amount of time and opportunities for the promotion of public prosperity without the desire for enrichment (Wood 16). Such “disinterestedness” in personal gains excluded power abuse whereas financial security permitted the rise above materialistic aspirations and the cultivation of virtuousness and nobility (Wood 16). Therefore, the author praises the impartiality of politicians. The revolutionary leaders’ lack of interest in the promotion of personal agendas allowed them to become the inventors of Western political theory grounded in high principles of patriotism and democracy. Although the US Founding Fathers were not the politicians or intellectuals in the modern sense of the word, they embodied the contemporary spirit of individualism that advocated self-elevation through hard work and education.
The painful awareness of the historical moment is a distinguished feature of the revolutionary leaders that explains the lack of equally devoted politicians at the present time. The strict code of public conduct compelled the prominent figures, including G. Washington, T. Jefferson, and B. Franklin to take into account the possible implications of their public performance. The necessity to meet social expectations largely determined the success of their political careers. For instance, the historical significance of Washington’s professional accomplishments may be compared only to his sense of self-awareness. The hero of the American Revolution was the persistent advocate of social conventions that prescribed the familiarity with good manners and politeness (Wood 37). Due to the acute awareness of his duty and social pressure, Washington greatly contributed to the rising authority of the presidential office by acquiring the attributes of monarchical rule and showing an obvious disregard for the counseling functions of the Senate when the president issued the Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793 (Wood 51-57). Since only Washington’s “immense prestige and good judgment” postponed the outbreak of the Civil War by pacifying the bipartisan struggle between Federalists and Republicans, the assertive style of the US chief executive gave birth to the concept of republican monarchy, vigorously promoted by John Adams (Wood 50-56). Wood masterfully forges the link between social performance and professional qualities that permitted Washington to shape modern views on the strength of presidential power. The virtuousness and sense of duty urged the first US President to avoid the participation in the intraparty rivalry and unite the country. Thus, the moral complexion of the revolutionary leaders sets them apart from later generations of prominent political figures.
The author successfully proves his claim about the exceptionalism of the revolutionary generation of politicians by depicting the detailed portraits of these historical figures. Namely, Wood repeatedly highlights the influence of the Anglo-American Enlightenment on personal beliefs of the revolutionary leaders. The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, was particularly determined to promote liberal values. Being the son of the wealthy and uneducated planter, Jefferson received a liberal education at the College of William and Mary and believed in the society governed by men of sophisticated tastes and natural talents (Wood 102). The strong belief in the promising potential of average individuals led Jefferson to advocate “superiority of society over government” whereas “the common moral sense of ordinary people” may enhance the establishment of democracy (Wood 106). Thus, the cultivation of strong individuality guaranteed the healthy functioning of the state government, according to Jefferson’s liberal ideology. Unlike Jefferson who gradually climbed the social ladder, Benjamin Franklin joined the revolutionary movement with the established international reputation of the prominent scientist and imaginative writer (Wood 74). The scholar managed to become the wealthy executive and join the Philadelphia City Council after his retirement in 1748 (Wood 77). Despite the suspicious attitude of his compatriots, Franklin proved his loyalty to the revolutionary cause by winning the support of the French monarchy and securing “loan after loan from an increasingly impoverished French government” (Wood 86). The evidence strongly suggests that the philosophy of the Enlightenment produced a generation of outstanding politicians whose liberal thinking and natural talents largely contributed to the formation and preservation of American democracy. The detailed analysis based on the credible assertions have significantly satisfied my curiosity related to the lives and characters of the revolutionary leaders.
The book contains the brilliant interpretations of personal qualities of America’s founders. While all revolutionary leaders are the product of liberal ideology, they considerably differed in their understanding of democratic principles. For instance, Jefferson strongly believed in the idea of limited government. The renowned politician argued that the moral sense should serve as the guiding principle of state building whereas the amiable treatment was vitally important to the maintenance of social harmony (Wood 107). Therefore, Jefferson hated bureaucratic institutions, rejecting the idea of state sovereignty as the corruptive mechanism of control and regarding the United States as the loosely attached confederation (Wood 107-108). The chief advocate of liberalism clearly praised individual accomplishments over self-asserted interests of the federal government. John Adams, on the other hand, promoted the idea of the mixed constitution that presupposed the establishment of a balanced government with the bicameral legislative body and independent executive (Wood 193). In Adams’ opinion, the infusion of monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements into the contemporary government could eradicate social disorder that Adams claimed to witness under the established republican rule (Wood 189-190). The author masterfully compares the revolutionary visions of the famous public officials in order to underscore the uniqueness of their worldviews despite the common philosophical convictions. Therefore, the book is a comprehensive historical narrative about the pioneers of American liberalism whose diverse opinions shaped the political traditions of the United States. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different is a book which is highly recommended for the general public and academic scholars.
In conclusion, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different focuses on the philosophical convictions of the American revolutionary leaders, as well as highlighting the uniqueness of their moral complexions and individual views on the future of American democracy. The book offers the detailed descriptions of the political figures and proves the author’s arguments by providing brilliant interpretations of available historical evidence. Wood’s work is recommended for a large audience since it contains the compelling arguments about the personal qualities and professional characteristics of the revolutionary leaders.
Wood, Gordon S. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. The Penguin Press, 2006.
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