TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 June 2015
This is one of those history books that is a must-read for anyone interested in American history or even in current public policy debates, i.e. the "original intent" argument. Though it covers a crucial period that I thought I knew quite well (1770 to about 1830), this book turned my assumptions upside down over and over again - I was utterly fascinated with its argument and the elegance of its delivery. It is one of the best history books I have ever read.
Wood starts with a description of the colonial system, which mimicked the aristocratic tradition of the old country. The social hierarchy and system of privilege and patronage created a kind of caste system: on top were those appointed by the King of England, who served at his will and beyond birth rights, their skills were those of the courtier at court, lobbying for favors based on loyalty and, for want of a better word, sucking up to the king. They felt it was their duty to serve - an entitlement carrying honor - and there was little separation between their interests in the public and private spheres - no one questioned their right to enrich themselves as a direct consequence of their office and station. Their obligations to the lower classes were paternalistic and supposedly disinterested, i.e. only rich landowners would operate "without" the parochial interests that would distort their mission to do what was best for the common people. Meanwhile, the lower classes were expected to know their place and appreciate (or not question) the pseudo-aristocrats who claimed the right to run everything and own most of it as well; they lived lives bound to local institutions, with severely limited possibilities and horizons.
According to Wood, the mindset of the founding fathers was almost identical to the pseudo-aristocrats they replaced, except that in their case, they were espousing the ideals of the Enlightenment, which they - as self-proclaimed disinterested, educated landowners - were the best qualified to interpret and apply. In their Federalist incarnation, they played the role of paternalistic gentleman whose personal interests would never conflict with their good intentions for the masses. With Hamilton as their exemplar, they pursued a policy of nation building from the national center of power, building institutions that would strengthen the whole both militarily and economically. In the political sphere, they pursued simple patronage arrangements to build support, completely oblivious and uninterested in cultivating the popular vote or even to jigger the gears of the electoral system, e.g. Burr's efforts to get out the vote and influence who voted were disdained as unworthy - politicians were supposed to be amateurs rather than professionals who needed to make a living in their field, parties were to be eschewed as divisive representatives of selfish interests, etc.
While Jefferson and Madison began to oppose Federalist policies for their centralizing tendencies, they shared the sense of gentlemanly entitlement to disinterested power. What emerged that was truly new were both a vast array of competing interest groups and the rise of capitalist economic techniques that could mobilize resources far beyond what was possible under the colonial regime. Political parties emerged to represent these groups and interests, citizens became extremely mobile while pursuing their fortunes (often in land speculation as part of the movement to the West), and politics became a nittygritty profession.
This is where Wood's argument becomes extremely relevant. To a one, the founding fathers became disillusioned, even enraged, with how the American political system evolved - they lost their monopolies on power and economic resources and found themselves pushed into the background by the forces they had unleashed (which were popular, passionate, often religious, irrational, i.e. reflections not of the Enlightenment but the Romantic movement). The republic went on just fine without them and - take note, Mr. Bork - their original intentions were dismissed as obsolete by the next generation that took the reigns of power. In other words, Wood argues convincingly, the "original intent" argument is complete and utter nonsense, an anachronism that is wielded for a contemporary political agenda that has virtually nothing to do with what the founding fathers were thinking. Wood did not articulate it in such blatant terms, but that interpretation is the logical extension of the entire book.
Readers should take note that this is an advanced text geared for the most part to academics - it reads like an academic proof as well as a dense essay and is not a narrative. At a minimum, I would place it at the advanced undergraduate level. If the reader wants the basics or stories, this is not the book for that.
Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm. Wood is one of the most gifted writers of history that I have ever read.