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Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America Hardcover – May 11, 2010
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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.
A Q&A with Jack N. Rakove, Author of Revolutionaries
(Photo © Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)
From Publishers Weekly
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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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, come 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.)
If you've always wanted to know something more about the revolutionary generation and its challenges than the cartoon versions offered by our politics and popular culture, Rakove's Revolutionaries is the perfect place to start.
The book begins with a detailed narrative of the politics preceding the Revolution and events that led to the breakdown in relations between the colonies and Great Britain. The succeeding chapters are organized in a way that every chapter addresses particular facets and themes of the Revolutionary era through particular characters. The book contains a chapter about: General G. Washington, J. Madison, T. Jefferson, A. Hamilton, B. Franklin/J. Adams/J. Jay, and lesser well-known figures like the Laurens family, Dickinson, Morris and several others.
There are 2 particular aspects of Jack Rakove as a historian and a scholar that make him great: he is extremely detail-oriented and nuanced in his narrative and the accompanying political interpretation of events and characters; and he is genuinely neutral and objective in his interpretations and rarely, if ever, makes any definitive conclusions (let alone bold ones). These traits make him my absolute favorite historian!
I highly recommend this book to any student of history. Also, consider Jack Rakove's even more serious, Pulitzer Prize winning book: http://www.amazon.com/Original-Meanings-Politics-Making-Constitution/dp/0679781218/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1358652050&sr=8-1&keywords=original+meanings
In this way, you see Washington as a conventional plantation man, who had little military experience when compared to the professionals form Europe, yet grew into his role as generalissimo and then politician once the opportunity presented itself. Similarly, Franklin was a businessman and scientist, comfortable with England as his adopted home, but he transformed himself into a formidable diplomat, securing the indispensable commitment of Louis XVI to aid America militarily. Madison, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton receive the same treatment, with emphasis on their evolution as leaders and thinkers. Each of those founders - the colossuses of the revolution - is viewed from a different angle, that of how they developed professionally. It is fun and a great review of events that have settled too easily into myth.
Most interestingly, Rakove gives a great deal of space to lesser known figures, who had their own visions and ideas, some of what could have led to significantly different political outcomes. One of the most fascinating was the audacious John Laurens, the son of a plantation owner who advocated offering freedom and citizenship rights to slaves who fought for the revolutionary cause. He was an intimate of Hamilton and quite a firebrand. But there is also Dickinson, an early political celebrity whose career was fatally damaged by his refusal to advocate a break with Britain in 1776. He comes off very sympathically, as does Morris and Monroe.
However, it is not always easy to perceive where Rakove is headed or why he includes certain details. While he does address many of the central dilemmas of the time - the strange moral disapproval of slavery by slave-owners who had the power to do something about it and chose not to, for example - I felt that the book left me hanging in the end with more questions than answers. Of course, this ambiguity can be a plus, because it inspires me to read further, but I was expecting more of a resolution or even summing up than the author offers.
That being said, this is a truly new history on many might-have-beens. I will no doubt feel compelled to re-read this at a later date and may view it differently, so dense is the perspective and detail. Rakove is also a beautiful writer. Warmly recommended.