The Center for the Teaching of America’s Western Foundations sponsored a lecture by the award-winning historian and author Dr. Gordon S. Wood.
The theme of the lecture was rebuilding democracy and is part of Mercer Lyceum which is the universities initiative on this theme.
Dr. Wood is Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University and the recipient of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for History and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize for his book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution. He has written, co-written or edited 20 books on history over his career.
The lecture was focused on the founding fathers of the United States.
Dr. Wood said of current Americans that, “we have a special relationship with the founding fathers that’s unique.”
Dr. Wood discussed the different fathers and what they might have thought about today’s issues.
“What would Thomas Jefferson say about affirmative action?” said Dr. Wood as he discussed their views on slavery.
The consensus was that most were against but realized that slaves were too important to the emerging economy.
Dr. Wood said, “we Americans are destined to look back at our fathers,” and that “our founding fathers have become the gold standard of which current politicians are measured against.”
Dr. Wood was careful to emphasize that the founders had their flaws like anybody else.
“[The founders] are the product of peculiar circumstances, they wanted wealth, they wanted position and they believed the people were the source of their authority.”
The founders were elites but a different kind of elitism than that found across the sea in the United Kingdom. They believed, unlike their counterparts, they were representing their people’s interests.
Dr. Wood believes that the founders were a product of eighteenth century Anglo-Saxon enlightenment, who believed that, “politeness is the source of civility.”
Dr. Wood proposed the four stage theory developed by Adam Smith who is most famous for his book, The Wealth of Nations.
The first stage is the Age of Hunters, the second is the Age of Shepherds, the third is the Age of Agriculture and the last is the Age of Commerce. The purpose of the theory was to give substance to economic determinism and explain the emergence of commercial societies like Britain, France and the United States.
Next came the idea of the gentleman and the proper character of the gentleman which meant being reasonable, honorable and cosmopolitan among other things.
Gentlemen should also strive to be disinterested which meant being impartial like a judge is supposed to be. The Virginia Military Institute has its own version of the Code of the Gentleman which describes, among other things, how to treat a lady and refraining from visiting one while intoxicated and to be spartan in regards to wealth.
The lecture provided new insights into who the founders were and more about their legacy. For information about future lectures, visit www.foundationscentermu.com.