We can talk or blog all we want about the Internet shortening attention spans, the twenty-four-hour news cycle undermining reflective journalism and the printed book going the way of the cassette tape, but Americans seem to have a bottomless appetite for stories of the founding fathers. A historian might have a hard time interesting the public in a serious study of the contemporary Middle East, but disclose some new details about which wines Thomas Jefferson drank, which horses George Washington rode, or which pistols Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr employed in their fatal encounter at Weehawken (yes, the duel, but you already knew that!), and your 800-page tome will be a hit in airport bookstores across the land. Sometimes, with a lot of skill and some luck, you can even interest the fabled "general reader" in some serious historical analysis.
There seems to be no danger of Americans succumbing to founder fatigue. Whether we idolize them, demonize them or treat them as ordinary people with virtues and flaws (and good luck with that, as the scolds will brand you a blasphemer, apologist or both), this market appears to be inalterably bullish. And why not? Twenty-odd years ago, there was a bumper crop of earnest scholarship in sociology and other disciplines about the values that constituted the American "civil religion," defined as a kind of nationalistic ethical creed with a vaguely Christian accent and epitomized by the 1952 words of President Eisenhower: "Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is." Today, however, in a political culture that compels us to take or leave specific Christian doctrines, it’s looking like founder worship is all we’ve got left—complete with its own schisms, heresies and excommunications. Because Jefferson expressed some religious skepticism, the Texas public schools now limit the contexts in which he is studied. In the revised curriculum standards adopted in March, Jefferson was dropped from the list of figures who "inspired revolutions." Discussion of his presidency and leadership are presumably still acceptable, though that pesky Declaration of Independence remains problematic. "The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God" indeed!
Asked about the Texas curricular reform on the radio recently, Jack Rakove, a professor of history and political science at Stanford and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, dismissed it as "completely nutty." I agree. Many other historians have responded differently, with solemn warnings about the dangers of politicizing the past. This response is understandable in an intellectual climate in which Glenn Beck can aspire to be the nation’s history teacher. Still, it is hard to reason with the loquacious charlatans and artless believers who have offered themselves up for the ridicule of American humorists from Finley Peter Dunne in the 1890s to H.L. Mencken in the 1920s to the tag team of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert today. Rakove’s new book, Revolutionaries, is a little too highbrow for Beck’s market share, but it may give the book-writing popular historians (the David McCulloughs and Doris Kearns Goodwins of the world) a run for their money.
Revolutionaries tells the story of the American Revolution by narrating the experiences of particular historical figures in what is often deeply engrossing detail. We learn about the origin of the Revolution by getting to know John Adams, about the war through a focus on George Washington, about the framing of the Constitution through James Madison and so on. Rakove uses these stories to make a series of arresting observations and one very big argument: the way to understand the political history of the Revolution—or, for that matter, any political history—is to pay close attention to events as they unfolded for historical actors in real time. The key to this history is not ideology, though Rakove definitely thinks some ideas were more important than others. Nor is it economic interests, though these also plainly motivated certain actors at certain moments. What matters most is the particular situations historical actors confronted and especially the ways they perceived them. Rakove never surrenders his critical distance, but he enables the reader to peer at particular situations through the eyes of his subjects.