"Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America"
By Jack Rakove
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 496 pp., $30
Reviewed By Kirk Davis Swinehart for the Chicago Tribune
Since the end of the American Revolution, in 1783, historians of varying writerly talent and intellectual means have been promising new histories of those signal, rapturous events known collectively as “the founding moment.”
Titles that deliver on this extravagant promise are about as rare as hens’ teeth. Oftener than not, each year brings a raft of books less new than newish. That’s partly because the apparently fathomless enthusiasm for books about the War of Independence, and all the mental and emotional wrangling that followed in its wake, depends heavily on long-cherished assumptions about the war’s essential virtuousness. Straying too far from the accepted storyline—good versus evil—presents a clear and present danger for authors who want to sell a lot of books. Given a choice, most Americans would prefer to read a book that affirms—however modestly—their sense of the Revolution as a good war executed by selfless men. It’s one thing to give the founders a human face, and quite another to dwell overlong on the founders’ ugly vanities and ruthless ambitions.
Historians who subject the founders to intense, often obsessive, moral scrutiny have a devoted following unto themselves, of course. And if otherwise credible historians of the period sometimes trumpet too loudly the achievements of America’s so-called founding generation, it’s generally to counteract the shrillest naysayers. Not that there’s any excuse for peddling nationalism as scholarship; patriotic hagiography, even in its subtlest manifestation, is nauseating to read. But no more so than revisionist histories of early America that project our fondest, unrealized utopian dreams onto disenfranchised people who left no paper trail. Looking for a reliable guide to help you distinguish between reality and fantasy? There isn’t one. But if you’ve spent enough time listening to both sides do battle, you’ll be able to say—as Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography—“I know it when I see it.”
Which is all to say that early American history, as an academic field, has grown intensely polemical over the last decade or so, with historians dividing themselves into two broad camps: those who believe that the founders bear further study, and those who profess otherwise.
Jack Rakove, an accomplished historian and professor at Stanford, knows well this rugged and treacherous terrain. If he doesn’t claim membership in the first camp, members of the second camp consigned him there no later than 1996, for writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the labyrinthine—and still highly relevant—debates that attended the framing of the Constitution.
In his superb new book, “Revolutionaries,” Rakove returns to a number of the intellectual themes that animated his previous book, “Original Meanings,” including, among others, the evolution of a distinctly Anglo-American school of legal thought. This time, however, Rakove has widened his scope, extended his reach far beyond the Constitution and its framers. “Revolutionaries” is a book about the ideas that shaped a variety of American institutions, from the army to slavery to diplomacy. But it isn’t a book about the life of the mind alone. “Revolutionaries” succeeds, too, as a wholly absorbing collective portrait of men who set aside their regional differences and substantial reservations about war to unite behind a cause that colonists struggled to support as late as 1776.
Others have marveled at the implausibility of the Revolution’s success and the equal implausibility of America’s emergence, in the fractious years that ensued, as a country. But it’s one thing to stand in awe of the final result, and quite another to explain in lush detail exactly how a fledgling, unlikely country took root.
How did a band of reluctant revolutionaries become, in Rakove’s words, “American nationalists”? It didn’t happen overnight. Men such as Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington—to name only the best-known players—had to persuade themselves as well as others of the war’s legitimacy before they could wage it, never mind win it. As Rakove puts it, “The leaders of the colonial protests against Britain were . . . provincials before they were revolutionaries, revolutionaries before they were American nationalists, and nationalists who were always mindful of their provincial roots.”
In eight chapters that flow seamless together—and yet might plausibly stand alone—Rakove gives stirring portrayals of very dissimilar men maturing in profoundly individual ways and then coming together around their shared provincialism. By “provincial” Rakove doesn’t mean unsophisticated or unworldly, although some in London certainly took a dim view of the colonists’ aspirations to refinement (Mount Vernon, after all, is no Blenheim Palace). For Rakove—as for historians of colonial societies more generally—“provincial” in this instance refers to a common identity forged by disparate colonists living far from an imperial capital.
Determining when thousands of men and women scattered across thirteen colonies first identified themselves as Americans is tricky, imprecise business. Rakove doesn’t wade into that hopeless debate. He asks subtler questions of his cast—which wasn’t, he argues, a single generation but rather two generations: “an older cohort who led the colonies into independence . . . and another that came of age with it.”
Historians have tended to gloss over this generational divide, perhaps in the service of simplicity but also, it would seem, in the service of drama. If Rakove’s larger aim in Revolutionaries is to demonstrate that members of both generations banded together at least partly because they all were colonial subjects, his second—and subtler—aim is to observe at close range the influences that individual members exerted on each other. So it is that Washington emerges, refreshingly, not only as a general or poor military tactician, but also as a man of tremendous persuasive gifts. Without Washington’s inspiration, political moderates such as John Jay and Robert Morris might not have entered the revolutionary fray when they did. Yet Rakove doesn’t depict moderates as shortsighted. If not for these men’s initial resolution to chart a middle—potentially conciliatory—course, intemperate radicals might have splintered the movement before it had a chance to gain momentum.
Rakove offers a fresh perspective—welcome and long overdue—on numerous familiar subjects, especially the role of diplomacy and foreign travel in broadening the prospects and worldview of John Adams. But his chapters on slavery and Jefferson are real standouts. In Henry and John Laurens, a slave trader father and his would-be abolitionist son, Rakove discerns a complex family struggle that mirrored a bigger struggle being played out within the colonies and on the world stage.
Rakove approaches the third President with similar ingenuity. While serving as ambassador to France, Jefferson developed a relationship with an urbane and wildly successful artist named Maria Cosway, the daughter of an English (or perhaps Irish) father and an Italian mother. Rakove finds in that relationship yet another aspect of Jefferson’s famously conflicted attitudes toward affairs of the heart and flesh. “The Jefferson who grew enamored of Maria Cosway was the same moral authority who counseled younger women against the sexual wiles of European women.” Good or bad? That’s not the point. “For those who regard history as an exercise in moral judgment, where a wiser present summons a flawed past to the bar of its superior rectitude, Jefferson makes an easy mark. But moral condemnation, deserved or not, is not historical explanation.”
Fair-minded critics may take issue with Rakove’s claims about the unreasonableness of taxing colonists and with his emphasis on the Revolution’s cerebral dimensions. But the War of Independence, like all wars, was fought on multiple fronts. Perhaps inevitably, in these violent days, the temptation is to write about the Revolution as a destructive, cruelly divisive war. Which it emphatically was. Yet Rakove’s rendering of the Revolution as a creative, unifying force is as legitimate as any. As someone who has spent ten years studying the terrible psychological and physical violence visited upon Loyalists during what British contemporaries called a civil war, I must confess to being humbled—and elevated—by Rakove’s elegant interpretation of a war that was as at least as intellectually tempestuous as it was brutal.
You can’t have ideas without people. An obvious fact, perhaps, but one that historians of ideas tend to forget, compelled as they are by arguments rather than, say, quirks of character or extramarital affairs. Few historians possess the insight to make sense of men who had a habit of mystifying their dearest intimates. Fewer still have the talent to discuss personalities and intellects with equal facility. In Revolutionaries, Jack Rakove shows himself a master of historical writing on the grand scale.
Kirk Davis Swinehart, a frequent contributor to the Tribune, teaches history at Wesleyan University.