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.
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The situations are often very complex, as real human situations usually are. Rakove tells us, for example, about John Jay stationed in Madrid and then Paris, navigating the diplomacy of the Revolutionary War and ultimately helping to wrest a favorable peace treaty from the British without alienating the French. Jay had to deal with the mutual loathing of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams as well as the contingencies that made diplomacy complicated: the changing instructions of home governments and the amount of time it took instructions to reach envoys, which depended, in turn, on who could carry letters to which destinations and what weather conditions speeded or slowed shipping. The accidents of individual health also mattered, along with the fact that "Paris in the 1770s was as full of spies as Cold War Berlin"—the kind of telling observation Rakove sprinkles throughout the book to bring his story to life. By combining vast amounts of detail with such pithy summaries, Revolutionaries draws readers into the thick of the action.
This method can seem a bit strange at times. Robert Morris, the Pennsylvania merchant and Revolutionary financier, makes an appearance as "Bob," while John Laurens, the idealistic and headstrong heir to a massive South Carolina slave-trading fortune, is usually "Jack." Without doubting for a moment that the friends of Morris and Laurens called them Bob and Jack, I still found Rakove’s informality of address jarring. But his method also pays substantial dividends. He lets us watch British Gen. John Burgoyne march toward his disgrace at the battle of Saratoga, in October 1777, as Washington and other Americans undoubtedly saw him. Burgoyne was a "fop" who did not travel light. His army carried "a few dozen wagons" for his "wardrobe and larder, and a German marching band, complete with trumpets." He also brought his mistress, though his retinue was modest compared with that of the leader of his German mercenary corps, who had his wife and three young children in tow.
Burgoyne’s army marched south toward Albany and the Hudson River as half of a two-pronged attack; the other prong was formed by troops under the command of Gen. William Howe sailing up the Chesapeake Bay toward Philadelphia, Howe having decided to scuttle the original plan to assist Burgoyne by pushing north up the Hudson. Instead of ferrying down Lake George, Burgoyne and his army spent twenty-four days slogging through dense forest in midsummer. American forces did everything they could to slow them further, aided by "battalions of patriotic mosquitoes." These delays not only enabled Washington and Congress to resolve a dispute between the Northern generals, replacing Philip Schuyler with Horatio Gates, but also added critical strength to the Continental army as "a flood of New England militia, fresh from the harvest," arrived to meet Burgoyne’s miserable ("hungry, cold, and soaking wet") troops. Hence Saratoga, the turning point of the war, where Burgoyne surrendered an army of 6,000 men. With the French persuaded that the United States was viable as an ally, victory was only a matter of time.
Military history is often written in this manner, with the narrative shifting among the various participants watching one another and adjusting to changing circumstances with more and less success. The more significant payoffs of Rakove’s method are apparent in the chapters on political history. The fact that the Virginia delegation, and especially James Madison, arrived in Philadelphia on time in the spring of 1787 while others dallied, Rakove argues, probably made it possible for the Constitutional Convention to succeed. While the Virginians waited for their colleagues to arrive—George Washington was particularly irate about the delay—they met for a few hours each day to frame the Virginia Plan, which would guide the convention and shape its debates. "Had the other states been punctual, the convention might well have meandered into discussing general goals and principles or naming a committee to shape an agenda before finally getting down to deliberation."
But the most striking—and most significant—payoff is Rakove’s account of the origin of the Revolution. The colonies joined together to fight for independence from Britain, he explains, not because they objected to taxes or had forged an identity as "Americans." It was not because they had developed radical new ideas about liberty, equality or monarchy, and it certainly was not because a habit of conspiratorial thinking led them to sniff tyrannical threats in every breeze. The colonies rebelled because of the very real tyranny of the 1774 Coercive Acts, themselves the result of a specific sequence of events. The Tea Act of 1773, intended as a corporate bailout for the East India Company, generated protests in most colonies. Most of the colonial governors kept the peace by refusing to allow the tea ships to drop anchor, in effect siding with the protesters against the king and Parliament. In Massachusetts, however, a unique sequence of events had led Governor Thomas Hutchinson to decide that provoking a confrontation was the best way to deal with the protesters. He got the confrontation he wanted in the Boston Tea Party. When George III, Lord North and other British leaders reacted to the Tea Party by passing the Coercive Acts, they made a colossal mistake that transformed a prosaic political struggle into revolution and war.
There were five Coercive Acts, and two were especially significant. One abolished all representative political institutions in Massachusetts; the other blockaded the port of Boston in an effort to starve the town into submission and, especially, to compel it to pay for a very expensive cargo of tea. The Massachusetts Government Act and the Boston Port Act were not liable to misinterpretation, in Massachusetts or the other colonies. Nobody needed a "Tea Party" ideology to interpret them or the British Army that was occupying Boston as tyrannical. Even if the Massachusetts colonists were notorious hotheads, which they certainly were, their soon-to-be compatriots recognized that a British administration that would punish Massachusetts with such ferocity would do the same to them in an analogous dispute. And so assemblies up and down the Atlantic Coast scrambled to mobilize, equip and train their militias, provoking additional confrontations with the governors who represented British authority in North America.
Oddly enough, Rakove barely mentions another event that has become a set piece of this narrative: the recruitment of about 800 enslaved African-Americans into the British Army in what was known as the Ethiopian Regiment. The Virginia governor, Lord Dunmore, had fled from Williamsburg after a skirmish with militia prompted by his effort to impound the colony’s gunpowder supply (not long before, the Massachusetts governor, Thomas Gage, tried the same thing, causing the outbreak of fighting at Lexington and Concord). From his ship, Dunmore issued a proclamation offering slaves their freedom if they fought with the British. White Virginians were aghast: armed African-Americans meant serious danger, and liberated African-Americans meant the loss of valuable property. When the British "excited domestic Insurrections among us," as the Declaration of Independence would soon complain with reference to this incident, they pushed more and more white Virginians into the struggle.
Rakove has little to say about slavery generally. Most of what he does say is organized around the quixotic effort of Laurens, several years later, to persuade white South Carolinians to create their own African-American regiment by promising to emancipate the recruits. This discussion of slavery oriented around Laurens, and a similar discussion of racism oriented around Jefferson, fits with Rakove’s goal to explain the Revolution through a collective biography of its leaders. Rakove does not pretend to be synthesizing the whole national experience, and when slavery shapes the actions of his major actors, he explains the details in the matter-of-fact language the actors would have used (or actually did use) themselves.
Revolutionaries, in other words, is a founding fathers book. It is rich in detail, written with verve and very smart about early American politics. Rakove writes about the founders with sympathy but not reverence. His "great man" approach may strike his colleagues as old-fashioned, but if Rakove can take a sizable swath of the public where he finds them, show them the founders as real people in motion instead of as Olympian gods and teach them that history is the story of what actually happened instead of a fund of morality tales or precedents for present-day action, he will have accomplished a valuable public service. I want to see Revolutionaries in the airport bookstores, and I hope that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt does the job.