In the early 1770s, the men who invented America were living quiet, provincial lives in the rustic backwaters of the New World, devoted primarily to family, craft, and the private pursuit of wealth and happiness. None set out to become "revolutionary" by ambition, but when events in Boston escalated, they found themselves thrust into a crisis that moved, in a matter of months, from protest to war. In this remarkable book, the historian Jack Rakove shows how the private lives of these men were suddenly transformed into public careers--how Washington became a strategist, Franklin a pioneering cultural diplomat, Madison a sophisticated constitutional thinker, and Hamilton a brilliant policymaker. Rakove shakes off accepted notions of these men as godlike visionaries, focusing instead on the evolution of their ideas and the crystallizing of their purpose. In Revolutionaries
, we see the founders before
they were fully formed leaders, as individuals whose lives were radically altered by the explosive events of the mid-1770s. They were ordinary men who became extraordinary--a transformation that finally has the literary treatment it deserves. Spanning the two crucial decades of the country's birth, from 1773 to 1792, Revolutionaries
uses little-known stories of these famous (and not so famous) men to capture--in a way no single biography ever could--the intensely creative period of the republic's founding. From the Boston Tea Party to the First Continental Congress, from Trenton to Valley Forge, from the ratification of the Constitution to the disputes that led to our two-party system, Rakove explores the competing views of politics, war, diplomacy, and society that shaped our nation. Thoughtful, clear-minded, and persuasive, Revolutionaries
is a majestic blend of narrative and intellectual history, one of those rare books that makes us think afresh about how the country came to be, and why the idea of America endures.
A Q&A with Jack N. Rakove, Author of Revolutionaries Q:
What surprised you most about our "founding fathers?" A:
When all is said and done, when we grant this generation its fair share of shortcomings, the basic fact remains that the enterprise of completing the Revolution summoned a pretty remarkable group of men into positions of leadership. No one set out to become a revolutionary by ambition, but all found themselves thrust into events by a situation that moved rapidly from protest to war within a matter of months. Here they were, living these quietly provincial lives in the rustic backwaters of North America. Yet when a crisis escalated beyond anyone's expectations they discovered a remarkable array of talents that each individual applied to his own particular tasks and duties. Whether it involves making sense of Washington's sense of strategy, Hamilton's brilliant grasp of public policy, Jefferson's deep though not untroubled commitment to equality, Madison's sophisticated constitutional thinking, Franklin's pioneering ideas of cultural diplomacy, or the slavery dilemma that vexed the Laurenses, it is impossible to come away from reconstructing the course of American history after 1774 without being impressed by the quality of their responses. Q:
You give us a glimpse of many of the founders before they did the work that made them famous. From your vantage point, who was most transformed by the Revolution? A:
This is a tough one, since in one sense, they were all transformed and there's no handy scale of measurement. One could knock out some of the older characters and say that Mason, Laurens, and Franklin simply moved into new roles that became available to them. There's a strong case for Washington as the dominant political figure for the whole generation, someone who has put his youthful military interests behind him and becomes the commander of both the Army and eventually the Republic. Jefferson would have been happy as an occasional public servant and master of his plantation; instead he becomes a legislative draftsman, then a diplomat, and finally, and I still think somewhat surprisingly, the leader of a whole political movement. And there's something to be said for the younger generation. It wasn't clear where Madison was going with his life at all in the early 1770s, yet ultimately he becomes the leading modern constitutionalist. Hamilton, in the absence of the Revolution, would;probably have stayed in New York and become a legal giant; instead he becomes a leading architect of public policy, and in his way, probably more ambitious than any of his contemporaries. Since I'm a well-known Madisonian, I suppose I have a bit of sympathy there, but it is a tough question and readers might want to think about it themselves. Q:
You write about a man named Jack Laurens, who might be unfamiliar to readers. What about his story compelled you, and why is he a worthy subject? A:
Jack Laurens is an attractive figure in so many ways, not least because he did have a sort of militarized death wish that led to his meaningless death in a minor skirmish at a moment when there were no consequences worth risking. It speaks volumes for his sensitivity to the brutality of American slavery that he was willing to go as far as he did, particularly coming from a society in South Carolina that was destined to play a depressing role in later events. Yet his attitude toward slavery, and the pragmatic doubts his father cast upon it, also suggest something of the limitations within which he was working. Slavery was unjust, a condition imposed on captives who were hardly responsible for their fate; yet freedom from its grasp was something they had to earn, at great risk, and not merely something they deserved. Yet at the same time, one has to wonder whether Laurens might have embodied the kind of leadership class the South might have had but failed to develop. Q:
Have you ever speculated as to what might have happened had these crises been avoided and the Revolution averted? A:
More than many of my colleagues, I happen to think that the whole Revolution was easily avoidable--which is why I really wanted to put the little passage on Edmund Burke's analysis of the errors of British policymaking at the end of the first chapter. There were, it is true, some deep considerations in Britain that made the desire to use Parliament to buttress imperial authority in North America an attractive, if badly considered, option, so that perhaps, on some other occasion, the same conflict might have erupted. But I also think that the specific, decisive crisis of 1774 really did rest on the very peculiar circumstances in Massachusetts, on Governor Hutchinson's decision to stand on the law where officials elsewhere figured out ways to avoid it, and on considerations in London that a more thoughtful government could easily have avoided. No Tea Party, no crisis in 1774, no raft of parliamentary legislation, no need for Congress...and so it goes. Q:
Of the various legacies you discuss, from the Constitution to our relationship with the outside world, which has been the most important/lasting? A:
As a constitutional scholar, it would be extremely difficult for me to suggest that there could be anything other than the Constitution that would fit this bill--it's just the inner Madison in me, I suppose. But perhaps that begs the question somewhat. American nationality is not something we should take for granted: it was very much the product of the Revolution, and the Constitution was in some ways a seal upon something that had already been decided, though also essential to its very preservation. Q:
What's the one message you'd most like readers to take away from Revolutionaries
To think what it was like to have been pursuing the kinds of lives these men led, caring about public affairs yet primarily devoted to the pursuit of private visions of happiness, and then to be sucked into a political vortex in 1774 and given the opportunity to join in the formation of an independent national republic.
(Photo © Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)
Starred Review. This superb book is about a few of the men—revolutionaries despite themselves—who helped birth the U.S. and give it political and moral dimension. In keeping with its subtitle, it's new in being a distinctive, fresh retelling of this epochal tale. Rakove, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Original Meanings
, doesn't linger over the war for independence. That's because his eye is on the strands of thought, experience, and vision that led through the Declaration of Independence, diplomacy, state constitutions, and the Constitution of 1787 to the remarkable breakthroughs in thought and intention that marked the nation's youth. The result is a sparkling, authoritative work whose principal defect is lack of attention to those not among the elite. Men like John Dickinson, George Mason, and Henry and John Laurens, rarely leading characters in similar works, put in strong appearances here. But the focus is on the big five: Washington, Franklin, John Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton. Everyone interested in the founding of the U.S. will want to read this book. (May)
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