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Creatures Of The Revolution

Publication Date: 
July 15, 2010
Source: 
The New York Times
Author: 
Virginia DeJohn Anderson

Professor Jack Rakove's book, Revolutionaries: The History of the Invention of America, is reviewed by Virginia DeJohn Anderson of The New York Times:

Alexander Hamilton, eulogizing the renowned general Nathanael Greene in 1789, claimed that without the American Revolution, Greene’s true genius might never have been revealed. Jack Rakove, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Stanford University, applies Hamilton’s insight about Greene to the entire cohort of Revolutionary leaders in his elegantly written new book. Part collective biography, part narrative history of the years 1773 to 1792, “Revolutionaries” adeptly explores the factors that led these remarkable men to reject British sovereignty and create a new nation. “The Revolution made them,” Rakove asserts, “as much as they made the Revolution.”

Both familiar figures (Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton) and less well-known men (John Dickinson, George Mason, Henry and John Laurens) populate the narrative. Each chapter links an account of their individual transformations from colonist to American with a particular phase of the Revolutionary era. John Dickinson, for instance, epitomized the predicament of the moderates, who clung to hopes of reconciliation until wartime violence and British intransigence nudged them toward independence. George Mason’s struggle to balance his patrician assumptions as a Virginia gentleman with more radical beliefs about popular politics exemplified the kinds of challenges facing the men who wrote the first state constitutions. As much as any other political figure, Rakove argues, John Adams was a creature of the Revolution. His extraordinary career trajectory — from provincial lawyer to constitutional theorist to foreign diplomat to national executive — was possible only because he lived in extraordinary times.

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While acknowledging this profound failure of the founders’ imagination, Rakove invites a renewed appreciation for the undeniable accomplishments of the first of America’s “greatest generations.” Still, his conclusion is too optimistic. It derives as much from his chronological framework as from the story he tells. Ending not with the ratification of the Constitution or Washington’s election but with Hamilton’s plan for a strong and fiscally sound central government, Rakove implies that this final achievement was more durable than it in fact was. Jefferson’s election a mere eight years later would begin the process of dismantling Hamilton’s program, and Andrew Jackson would deliver the coup de grâce during the Bank War of 1832-33.

The Revolution produced other kinds of revolutionaries than those included here. Daniel Shays, the Massachusetts farmer whose antitax rebellion in 1786-87 is generally considered a major impetus behind the Constitutional Convention, scarcely rates a mention. Patrick Henry, the original Tea Partiers of 1773 and other unruly folk whom many Americans invoke today as their inspiration likewise receive little comment. The leaders Rakove portrays, however, could hardly ignore these people in constructing a government that rested upon popular consent. Indeed, the true measure of the founders’ genius may well lie in the way they grappled with the centrifugal tendencies of the Revolution to create a federal system that has lasted for more than two centuries.