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Thursday, April 12, 2012

“Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America”, by Jack Rakove

496 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN-13: 978-0618267460

For the better part of a century, Americans have alternated between idolizing the nation's revolutionary generation and muckraking it: one moment the revolutionaries are portrayed as demigods, the instruments of Divine Providence; the next moment they are reactionaries, fighting to protect property and slavery. In Revolutionaries, Jack Rakove's beautifully written group portrait of the founding generations, they are placed where they belong: in their own time and their own place. Rakove shows how two generations of American provincials got swept up by history and came to make history of their own, and through their stories he delivers a smart and readable account of the revolutionary crisis, the war itself, the chaos of the 1780s, the making of the Constitution, and the first years of the early Republic. Each of the major players, from John Adams to Alexander Hamilton, comes vividly to life in his account, with all their strengths and flaws (and for those who have imbibed the John Adams worship of the last decade, Rakove's more nuanced account will be a particularly useful elixir).

The story starts with the great English political thinkers, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, each of whom built the philosophical superstructure that resulted in the celebration of individual rights and the right of revolt to preserve these liberties. But the precipitating cause, without which the Revolution may not have occurred or would have occurred much later than it did, was a series of misjudgments by the British Parliament during the 1760's, resulting ultimately in the imposition of heavy taxes on the colonists. This was the infamous Stamp Act of 1765. Events tumbled forward, leading to the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and then open rebellion in 1775 in Concord and Lexington.

Rakove's story is told in a series of sketches, far deeper grained than thumbnail sketches, of some of the principal movers in the rebellion. During the run-up to the Revolution, the extent of conservative thought and loyalty to the crown continued to run deep in many sections of the colonies. Inevitably, however, as the British government raised the stakes of the contest, placing increasing control on the colonies, this loyalist sentiment faded sharply into the background. Professor Rakove discusses this shifting sentiment through the eyes of three conservative who ultimately lost confidence in the British government: John Dickinson and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania and John Jay of New York. The more familiar figures of the American Revolution come into sharper focus and we see them, through the author's eyes, in a somewhat different light. John Adams is prickly, intensely ambitious and almost rude. Ben Franklin enjoys the Revolution from his diplomatic post in London and Paris, allowing him to pursue the sensuous treats of these cities. Thomas Jefferson appears as vain, self-absorbed, a financial disaster, and hypocritical. It was Jefferson, after all, who reminded us in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" but who kept scores of slaves, even engaging in the sexual exploitation of one of them. James Madison fares far better: his contribution to the Revolution came after the war was won and the new nation turned to creating the rules of its government, beginning in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. No American provided more incisive political thought to the construction of the government than Madison. Alexander Hamilton's role began in the military but his contribution was greatest in his vision of a strong, central government. His impetuosity, so much a part of his personality, resulted in his untimely death just as the nation was reaching takeoff. 

Through all of this stalks the Indispensable Man, George Washington. Unquestionably, without Washington's genius America would not have withstood the confrontation with British might. He organized the army, maintained its spirit and functionality through seven difficult years of fighting. He shuffled his generals, finally finding the right key man in Nathanael Greene to lead the American forces in fighting the final stage of the contest, ultimately leading to the British surrender in Yorktown, Virginia. His presence at the Constitutional Convention was decisive in leading opposing views to coalesce around the major principles of the final document. His Presidency defined the importance of the role of the executive branch but also recognized the role of the legislative branch to make the laws.

This is a great story, complicated in parts but so well told that this reader comes away with a better understanding of what was actually happening to cause the major events with which we are all familiar. A wonderful book of American history.

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