Monday, September 18, 2006

I finally got around to reading Peter Berkowitz's review of Revolutionary Characters by Gordon Wood. I must add this book to my (too long) to-read list. Just reading the review reminded me of great questions I've been bouncing around in my head for years. Which is more corruptible, the meritocratic elite (Jefferson's "natural aristocracy"), or the masses? Which kind of corruption is more dangerous? How much credit does the Constitution deserve for restraining abuses of power by both groups, and how much credit should go to American mores?

I'll limit my excerpting of the review to a paragraph on Washington that sums up why I think him America's greatest president. Perhaps my audience is already familiar with this bit of history, but a good retelling is a good retelling.

In a wonderful chapter on Washington, Wood shows that of all the founders, none made the cultivation of character and a reputation for public virtue more central to his life, and of all the founders’ achievements, none were more dependent on excellence of character than those of Washington. Wood concedes that there was something unlikely in Washington’s attainment of heroic stature in his own lifetime. 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. Rather, “he became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation.” Washington stunned the world a first time after leading the Continental Army to victory. 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. He stunned the world a second time, and for a similar reason: After having twice won election to the office of what many in the United States and Europe were prepared to view as a constitutional monarch, Washington announced that he would not seek a third term as president of the United States. In both of these acts of splendid renunciation, Washington confirmed his own public virtue as well as the principles of popular sovereignty and liberty under law for which his soldiers had fought and bled and died.


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