Review by David A. Hollinger
San Francisco Chronicle
Ideas about history are common coin in ongoing exchanges about the character and political direction of the United States. Citizens need to be able to spot counterfeits. Jack Rakove's new book about the American Revolution helps us to do just that.
Refreshingly accessible and deeply informed, Revolutionaries is just what you need when someone on the Internet or cable TV offers to give you the ideas about history now being offered by the tea party movement in exchange for those you got from well-trained teachers.
The Federalist Papers as an argument against a strong federal government that undercuts the policies of the Obama administration? Tea party leader Dick Armey of Texas made this claim recently. When a skeptical reporter asked him about Alexander Hamilton, the chief author of the Federalist Papers, Armey declared that only "ill-informed professors" thought Hamilton was an advocate of a powerful national state. Ah, yes, professors.
Revolutionaries is written by a distinguished professor at Stanford University who, unlike Armey, knows the difference between a federalist and an antifederalist. This book is a richly detailed, heavily documented, but eminently readable account of the men who led the Revolution, wrote the Constitution and persuaded the citizens of the 13 original states to adopt it. Rakove concludes with a compelling chapter on Hamilton's indefatigable efforts to do just what the tea party activists deny he sought to do: to create a powerful central government to which the states would be subservient.
But Revolutionaries is much more than a convenient inventory of truths by which the tea party version of the founding can be refuted. Though Rakove does provide us with a cogent summary of what scholars know about the political history of the late 18th century, what gives his book real distinction is the skill with which he delivers this knowledge through a series of interlocking biographical narratives. Hamilton is one of Rakove's most important subjects, but so, too, are Samuel Adams, John Adams, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.
Rakove shows us how these legendary figures were a bundle of results as well as forceful agents of history. They were made by the Revolution, he keeps reminding his readers, not just the makers of it. Too often, books about these men, taken together or presented individually, render them larger than life, and abstract them out of the dense social, cultural and political matrix that defined their opportunities and their challenges. Rakove manages to demystify the leaders of the Revolutionary era even while clarifying the terms on which they continue to deserve our admiration.
He pulls this off by focusing on how the immediate circumstances of each individual constrained and enabled their actions in their communities, in their colonial and state assemblies, in the Continental Congress, in the Constitutional Convention, in far-flung diplomatic assignments and in the writing of the Federalist Papers.
The reader is never allowed to escape the contingency of history: At one point after another, Jefferson or one of the other principals could have been led to do something different, and with uncertain results for the entire process of establishing the new nation. Rakove is especially attentive to domestic circumstances; he shows how often family obligations and commitments shaped the space in which political action took place.
The overall impression left by Revolutionaries is one of deliberation. Rakove recounts the often painstaking efforts of his cast of characters to balance local interests and short-term gains with more comprehensive and long-range calculations. Anyone who thinks that the American Revolution was basically a tax revolt will have their illusions shattered by this book.
It is indeed the honest searching carried out by the leaders of the Revolution that most invites our respect today. Although Rakove does not say it in so many words, his subjects are important to us today not simply for the political foundation they provided for the United States but also for their example of thinking through - deliberately - the opportunities and challenges a given generation confronts.
What makes this conclusion so important is its defiance of a common pathology in our thinking about our national origins. We too often treat the Founding Fathers as having set us upon a highly specific political course that it is our mission to follow as closely as possible, no matter how much the times change.
Rather, we need to think our way through our own dilemmas, within the broad and flexible constitutional framework we owe to Rakove's revolutionaries. We must not expect Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson to do our thinking for us. That we should do for ourselves.
David A. Hollinger, a professor of American history at the University of California at Berkeley, is president of the Organization of American Historians.
Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America
By Jack Rakove
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 487 pages, $30