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Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America Hardcover – May 11, 2010

3.8 out of 5 stars 61 customer reviews

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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.

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?

A: 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)

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (May 11, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618267468
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618267460
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.3 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #685,125 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Jack Rakove (seen recently on The Daily Show) provides in these pages the portrait of a remarkable generation (yes, remarkable) and their role in our nation's founding. Revolutionaries traces the story of the United States of America from a brief but informative prologue in the colonial period well past the Revolution, into the tumultuous 1790s.

Clear, crisp, original portraits of familiar names like John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington emerge in the book, but so too do people lost from view today. Particularly enjoyable is Rakove's depiction of figures like John Dickinson and Jack Laurens, who only rarely receive the veneration accorded to their peers. Also emerging with particular clarity is the much-maligned John Jay.

Revolutionaries moves adroitly between colonial politics, the wartime struggle, and the myriad dilemmas of post-Revolutionary life. Throughout, it offers a vivid, flowing and remarkable (yes, remarkable) depiction of a generation's struggle to shape the world around it.

At a time when Americans seem to expend more energy celebrating the founders than understanding them, Revolutionaries is a welcome window into the tumult of the 18th century. We owe it to them not just to put them on a pedestal, but to understand their world, their dilemmas, and the real differences between them. Revolutionaries, like Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty, is a vital tool for this task.
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Format: Hardcover
With "Revolutionaries" Stanford professor Jack Rakove attempts to somewhat demythologize the Founding Fathers by stripping away the hagiography that has been built up around them over the 200 plus years since the Revolution. Rakove is particularly interested in how these men from varied, yet largely unexceptional backgrounds came to become Revolutionary leaders. None particularly desired or sought to be thrust into the crucible of their age, and yet once propelled in this maelstrom all excelled in their particular roles. Most were largely private men, engaged in their respective professions, who became immensely public persons as a result of their support of the Revolution. They were in essence fairly ordinary men made extraordinary as a result of the Revolution and "Revolutionaries" is the story of how they came to be.

Rakove traces the evolutionary changes many of the Founding Fathers went through from the early years of the 1770s through to 1792, and readers of his earlier books The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (1979) and Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996 and a Pulitzer Prize winner) will likely see much here that is familiar. Unlike revisionist historians Rakove isn't here to reinterpret the Founding Fathers or demonize them, but to remind us they weren't always Founding Fathers and that their courses of action during the Revolution weren't necessarily pre-ordained. Any of these men could just have easily become a Loyalist as many of their contemporaries did. While Rakove is hardly breaking new ground here it is well presented in a prose that is easily accessible to lay readers as well as historians and scholars.
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Format: Hardcover
I just finished this book, and I really enjoyed it .
So, I went search to see what other reviewers thought of it. And now I'm disgusted!

Amazon.com's Book Reviews are not the forum for griping about cost. Only illiterates would base a literature review on the pricetag.

If you don't like the price, don't buy it here. But what does that have to do with the quality of the writing?!

Listen, intellectuals: If you want a well thought-out, original portrayal of the historic figures we've so readily come to associate with the "Forefathers" archetype, then this is the book for you. Really, it's a decent read.

As for Amazon Book Reviewers, please review products on the merits of the products themselves, not the pricetags placed upon them by their retailers or publishers. That's not what these reviews are for.
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Format: Hardcover
I admit that I am not usually drawn to American history. Most of my reading is about Middle Eastern history, and America's role(s) in it. But this book made me excited about my own country's history, more than any other book in a long time (except, perhaps, the great one about Adams that came out a bit ago). It's incredibly well written; it is a page-turner, without losing any academic rigor, and it's rich with historical insight, not surprising from a Pulitzer Prize winner. I encourage anyone grappling with the modern "Tea Party" movement to sit down with Revolutionaries. This is what it was actually about.
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Revolutionaries tackles the well-tilled ground of the Revolutionary War and America's journey to independence. Chronicling the men, the times, events and ultimately the breach with "Mother England" resulting in the birth of our nation, the author attempts to distinguish whether our Founding Fathers drove the circumstances or the circumstances drove them. (The answer is yes to both depending on the individual.) One may wonder if we need another book on these historically poignant times and the answer is absolutely. A new perspective and new information are always welcome; unfortunately - for this reader - this book doesn't provide either.

In a word I found this book muddled. Although the book's premise is valid with many of the familiar historical figures - For instance Samuel Adams was a true red, white and blue revolutionary from the get-go; George Washington took much longer in crossing the independence chasm and there are many more examples including Ben Franklin, John Adams, John Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson - the thesis and even the telling of the story gets bogged down with curiously chosen anecdotes and quotes - most, if not all of which, you've read elsewhere.

Unfortunately this "new" history is anything but. You'll be much better served reading books on this subject by Joseph Ellis, David McCullough, A. J. Langguth, Ron Chernow, Thomas Fleming and David O. Stewart.
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