The “revolutionaries” of Jack Rakove, the founding fathers
It is one of the curiosities of American history that there is no definitive one-volume chronicle of the Revolutionary War, the kind of serious but accessible book that would capture the conflict in the same way that James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” captures the Civil War. “A good schoolmaster is more useful than a hundred priests,” Founding Father Thomas Paine thundered. This war still awaits its great popular educator.
It’s not that the American Revolution hasn’t produced whole platoons of excellent investigations, including – but far from limited to – Don Higginbotham’s “War of American Independence” (1971), “Glorious Cause” by Robert Middlekauff (1982), Gordon S. Wood’s “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” (1992), “The Founding Brothers” by Joseph J. Ellis (2000) and “Almost a Miracle” by John Ferling (2007). But no real consensus has consecrated any of them. In terms of sheer narrative blow, historians have had better luck breaking small slices of the period, as David McCullough did in “1776” and his biography of John Adams.
Into this hot smoke comes Jack Rakove’s new book, “Revolutionaries“, which bears the subtitle “A New History of the Invention of America”. Mr. Rakove is a professor of history, American studies and political science at Stanford University. He was also the winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his book “Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution”. He seems like an interesting man, the kind who sometimes gets his boots muddy. He has served as an expert witness in Indian land claims litigation.
What is “new” about “revolutionaries”? Well, you have to squint to catch the intricacies, which will mean more to scholars than an educated generalist reader. But Mr Rakove says a historian must be “as specific as possible about the experiences, attributes and events” that gave the revolutionary generation its defining character. Part of that clarification means dismissing any sort of haze of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” and noting that there were really two generations of 1776, an older cohort that included men like George Washington and Samuel and John Adams , and a younger group who came of age with the Revolution, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.
Mr. Rakove tells the story of the American Revolution from a multitude of changing angles, dividing his book into sections that include liberators, legislators, generals, diplomats. “Revolutionaries” is a serious and in-depth work of history that encapsulates the value of a career of reflection and research. It’s not a particularly memorable or moving book, and certainly not the one-volume crush that some have been looking for.
Mr. Rakove’s search for new ways to approach the American Revolution led him to dwell for a long time on the lives of many lesser-known participants. These include political moderates like John Jay, Robert Morris and also John Dickinson, the man who, in July 1776, became the last to deliver a major speech in Congress against independence. Mr. Rakove spends pages on early constitutional thinkers like George Mason IV. He spends even more pages on Henry Laurens and his son John, who had an unfulfilled plan to encourage slaves to fight in war and open a door to their emancipation.
These stories aren’t boring, exactly. But too often, the main cast – Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, the Adams – are left in the hallway and never quite come to life. Reading “Revolutionaries” is like reading a Beat Generation story that spends as much time on Gregory Corso as on Allen Ginsberg.
Mr. Rakove is not an English prose propellant. When Fanny Trollope, the mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope, travels this country for her book “Domestic Manners of the Americans” (1832), she complains that the accents of our language smell “less of freedom than onion and whisky”. . “Mr. Rakove’s prose could use more onions and more pints of whiskey. (No more tar, no more feathers!) Too often he looks shy and distracted.
Here are some of the things I admired about it, though. Mr. Rakove does not boast of his historical figures. They are unruly and full of resentment. (Franklin on John Adams: “He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often wise, but sometimes, and in some things, he is completely out of his mind.”)
It’s shiny on mine with no frills from US soldiers. He quotes John Adams remarking on certain revolutionary troops: “They don’t walk exactly in Time. They don’t hold their heads up straight, don’t point their toes, as exactly as they should. Mr Rakove’s excellent answer: “They had the characteristic sag that would always distinguish an American army from its Old World counterparts – the ‘Willie and Joe look’ that the great WWII draftsman Bill Mauldin has captured later.”
The legal profession takes a regular and reflexive beating in America. But Mr. Rakove reminds us how lucky we are that so many of our founders studied law closely. He quotes Edmund Burke, who wrote that devotion to law “makes men sharp, inquisitive, dexterous, quick to attack, ready to defend, resourceful.” Burke added, “They feed bad government from afar; and smother the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.
My thought was to end this review of a solid book on an optimistic note. But then I remembered how Mr. Rakove ends “Revolutionaries,” with an incredibly wet sentence that, after crawling over 400 pages, is kind of like a slap in the face. Here it is: “How these unlikely provincial revolutionaries discovered the talents they did remains a lingering puzzle of our history, easier to ponder than ultimately explain, but still worth exploring.”
Is that the last sentence? That’s it? It’s not even a sigh, it’s a moan.