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Looking For A ‘New’ Narrative Of Founding Fathers

Publication Date: 
May 31, 2010
Source: 
The New York Times - Books
Author: 
Dwight Garner

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

It’s one of the curiosities of American history that there is no definitive single-volume chronicle of the Revolutionary War, the kind of serious but approachable book that would grasp the conflict in the way that James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” grasps the Civil War. “One good schoolmaster is of more use than a hundred priests,” the founding father Thomas Paine thundered. This war still awaits its great popular educator.

It’s not that the American Revolution hasn’t produced entire platoons of excellent surveys, including — but far from limited to — Don Higginbotham’s “War of American Independence” (1971), Robert Middlekauff’s “Glorious Cause” (1982), Gordon S. Wood’s “Radicalism of the American Revolution” (1992), Joseph J. Ellis’s “Founding Brothers” (2000) and John Ferling’s “Almost a Miracle” (2007). But no real consensus has anointed one of them. In terms of sheer narrative thwack, historians have had better luck breaking off small slices of the period, as David McCullough did in “1776” and his biography of John Adams.

Into this hot fug comes Jack Rakove’s new book, “Revolutionaries,” which bears the subtitle “A New History of the Invention of America.” Mr. Rakove is a professor of history, American studies and political science at Stanford University. He was also the winner, in 1997, of a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution.” He sounds like an interesting man, the kind who sometimes gets his boots muddy. He has been an expert witness in Indian land claims litigation.

What’s “new” about “Revolutionaries”? Well, you have to squint to grasp the subtleties, which will mean more to scholars than to an educated general reader. But Mr. Rakove says that a historian needs to be “as precise as possible about the experiences, attributes and events” that gave the Revolutionary generation its defining character. Part of that precision means dismissing any sort of Tom Brokaw-like “greatest generation” haze and noting that there were really two generations of 1776, an older cohort that included men like George Washington and Samuel and John Adams, and a younger group that came of age with the Revolution, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

Mr. Rakove tells the story of the American Revolution from a multitude of shifting angles, dividing his book into sections that include liberators, lawmakers, generals, diplomats. “Revolutionaries” is a serious, probing work of history that boils down a career’s worth of thinking and research. It’s not a particularly memorable or stirring book, though, and certainly not the one-volume lightning strike some have sought.

Mr. Rakove’s search for new ways to approach the American Revolution has led him to linger long over the lives of many lesser-known participants. These include political moderates like John Jay, Robert Morris and also John Dickinson, the man who became, in July of 1776, the last to give a major speech in Congress opposing independence. Mr. Rakove spends pages on early constitutional thinkers like George Mason IV. He spends even more pages on Henry Laurens and his son John, who had an unfulfilled scheme to encourage slaves to fight in the war and open a door to their emancipation.

These stories aren’t dull, exactly. But too often the major players — Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, the Adamses — are left pacing in the hallway, and never quite come to life. Reading “Revolutionaries” is like reading a history of the Beat Generation that spends as much time on Gregory Corso as it does on Allen Ginsberg.

Mr. Rakove is not a propulsive writer of English prose. When Fanny Trollope, the mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope, traveled through this country for her book “Domestic Manners of the Americans” (1832), she complained that the accents of our language were redolent “less of freedom than of onions and whiskey.” Mr. Rakove’s prose could use more onions, and more pints of whiskey. (More tar, more feathers!) Too often it has a diffident, distracted air.

Here are a few of the things I admired about it, however. Mr. Rakove doesn’t lionize his historical personages. They’re unruly and full of gripes. (Franklin on John Adams: “He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, is absolutely out of his senses.”)

He is brilliant on the no-frills mien of American soldiers. He quotes John Adams remarking about some revolutionary troops: “They don’t step exactly in Time. They don’t hold up their Heads, quite erect, not turn out their Toes, so exactly as they ought.” Mr. Rakove’s excellent reply: “They had the characteristic slouch that would always distinguish an American army from its Old World counterparts — the ‘Willie and Joe look’ that the great World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin later captured.”

The legal profession takes a regular, reflexive drubbing in America. But Mr. Rakove reminds us how lucky we are that so many of our founders had closely studied law. He quotes Edmund Burke, who wrote that devotion to the law “renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defense, full of resources.” Burke added: “They auger misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”

My thought was to end this review of a sturdy book on an upbeat note. But then I remembered how Mr. Rakove ends “Revolutionaries,” with an impossibly wet sentence that, after you’ve slogged through more than 400 pages, is a bit like a slap in the face. Here it is: “How these unlikely provincial revolutionaries discovered the talents they did remains an enduring puzzle of our history, easier to ponder than finally to explain, yet one ever worth exploring.”