[This interview was conducted via email in December 2004 and published in a local (metro Atlanta) freethought newsletter. –JCS 12/24/2021]
Gordon S. Wood is one of the foremost experts on the American Revolution and the origins of the U.S. Constitution. Wood won the Pulitzer Prize in history for his 1991 book The Radicalism of the American Revolution. His latest work, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, explores how a staunch British loyalist was transformed into a revolutionary firebrand. Franklin, who was 70 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence, is one of the most famous Americans of all time. Scientist, publisher, and diplomat, Franklin was a true Renaissance man, yet most of what we think we know about him is wrong. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin provides a more balanced and realistic analysis of Franklin, and is a worthy addition to the recent wave of books that take a fresh look at the Founding Fathers.
Gordon Wood is the Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History [Emeritus] at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Q: What’s the biggest myth about Benjamin Franklin—and how did it get perpetuated?
Gordon Wood: That he was the “first American” and a devoted patriot and promoter of capitalism throughout his career. This image of Franklin was essentially created in the nineteenth century by businessmen needing justification for their rise and they had Franklin’s Autobiography as evidence for their image.
Q: Is the real Ben Franklin a man worth admiring?
Gordon Wood: By all means. He was a genius, a celebrated scientist, and probably the greatest diplomat we’ve ever had. Apart from his native genius, his most admirable quality was his belief in compromise and willingness to work with others to arrive at practical solutions to problems.
Q: What do you think Franklin would be doing if he were alive today—if he were a product of twentieth century America? Is there anyone around today who is remotely like him?
Gordon Wood: That is difficult to answer. Our world is so different from his. If born in the twentieth century, he probably would have remained a great scientist and later gotten involved in the politics of science. He always valued public service over science.
Q: Your life’s work has centered around the study of the American Revolution. What led you to focus on this era, as opposed to some other?
Gordon Wood: I think the Revolution is the most important event in American history, bar none. Not only did it legally create the United States, but it infused into our culture our highest ideals and noblest aspirations—our beliefs in democracy, liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people.
Q: If you were asked to propose a toast at a Fourth of July gathering, what would you say?
Gordon Wood: To the Unites States of America. May it always be an exemplar of the finest aspects of liberty and self-government.