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Revolutionaries: A New History Of The Invention Of America

by Jack Rakove
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publishing date: 11/05/2010
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780618267460
  • ISBN: 0618267468


Product Description
In the early 1770s, the men who invented America were living quiet, provincial lives in the rustic backwaters of the New World, devoted primarily to family, craft, and the private pursuit of wealth and happiness. None set out to become "revolutionary" by ambition, but when events in Boston escalated, they found themselves thrust into a crisis that moved, in a matter of months, from protest to war.

In this remarkable book, the historian Jack Rakove shows how the private lives of these men were suddenly transformed into public careers--how Washington became a strategist, Franklin a pioneering cultural diplomat, Madison a sophisticated constitutional thinker, and Hamilton a brilliant policymaker. Rakove shakes off accepted notions of these men as godlike visionaries, focusing instead on the evolution of their ideas and the crystallizing of their purpose. In Revolutionaries, we see the founders before they were fully formed leaders, as individuals whose lives were radically altered by the explosive events of the mid-1770s. They were ordinary men who became extraordinary--a transformation that finally has the literary treatment it deserves.

Spanning the two crucial decades of the country's birth, from 1773 to 1792, Revolutionaries uses little-known stories of these famous (and not so famous) men to capture--in a way no single biography ever could--the intensely creative period of the republic's founding. From the Boston Tea Party to the First Continental Congress, from Trenton to Valley Forge, from the ratification of the Constitution to the disputes that led to our two-party system, Rakove explores the competing views of politics, war, diplomacy, and society that shaped our nation.

Thoughtful, clear-minded, and persuasive, Revolutionaries is a majestic blend of narrative and intellectual history, one of those rare books that makes us think afresh about how the country came to be, and why the idea of America endures.

A Q&A with Jack N. Rakove, Author of Revolutionaries

Q: What surprised you most about our "founding fathers?"

A: When all is said and done, when we grant this generation its fair share of shortcomings, the basic fact remains that the enterprise of completing the Revolution summoned a pretty remarkable group of men into positions of leadership. No one set out to become a revolutionary by ambition, but all found themselves thrust into events by a situation that moved rapidly from protest to war within a matter of months. Here they were, living these quietly provincial lives in the rustic backwaters of North America. Yet when a crisis escalated beyond anyone's expectations they discovered a remarkable array of talents that each individual applied to his own particular tasks and duties. Whether it involves making sense of Washington's sense of strategy, Hamilton's brilliant grasp of public policy, Jefferson's deep though not untroubled commitment to equality, Madison's sophisticated constitutional thinking, Franklin's pioneering ideas of cultural diplomacy, or the slavery dilemma that vexed the Laurenses, it is impossible to come away from reconstructing the course of American history after 1774 without being impressed by the quality of their responses.

Q: You give us a glimpse of many of the founders before they did the work that made them famous. From your vantage point, who was most transformed by the Revolution?

A: This is a tough one, since in one sense, they were all transformed and there's no handy scale of measurement. One could knock out some of the older characters and say that Mason, Laurens, and Franklin simply moved into new roles that became available to them. There's a strong case for Washington as the dominant political figure for the whole generation, someone who has put his youthful military interests behind him and becomes the commander of both the Army and eventually the Republic. Jefferson would have been happy as an occasional public servant and master of his plantation; instead he becomes a legislative draftsman, then a diplomat, and finally, and I still think somewhat surprisingly, the leader of a whole political movement. And there's something to be said for the younger generation. It wasn't clear where Madison was going with his life at all in the early 1770s, yet ultimately he becomes the leading modern constitutionalist. Hamilton, in the absence of the Revolution, would;probably have stayed in New York and become a legal giant; instead he becomes a leading architect of public policy, and in his way, probably more ambitious than any of his contemporaries. Since I'm a well-known Madisonian, I suppose I have a bit of sympathy there, but it is a tough question and readers might want to think about it themselves.

Q: You write about a man named Jack Laurens, who might be unfamiliar to readers. What about his story compelled you, and why is he a worthy subject?

A: Jack Laurens is an attractive figure in so many ways, not least because he did have a sort of militarized death wish that led to his meaningless death in a minor skirmish at a moment when there were no consequences worth risking. It speaks volumes for his sensitivity to the brutality of American slavery that he was willing to go as far as he did, particularly coming from a society in South Carolina that was destined to play a depressing role in later events. Yet his attitude toward slavery, and the pragmatic doubts his father cast upon it, also suggest something of the limitations within which he was working. Slavery was unjust, a condition imposed on captives who were hardly responsible for their fate; yet freedom from its grasp was something they had to earn, at great risk, and not merely something they deserved. Yet at the same time, one has to wonder whether Laurens might have embodied the kind of leadership class the South might have had but failed to develop.

Q: Have you ever speculated as to what might have happened had these crises been avoided and the Revolution averted?

A: More than many of my colleagues, I happen to think that the whole Revolution was easily avoidable--which is why I really wanted to put the little passage on Edmund Burke's analysis of the errors of British policymaking at the end of the first chapter. There were, it is true, some deep considerations in Britain that made the desire to use Parliament to buttress imperial authority in North America an attractive, if badly considered, option, so that perhaps, on some other occasion, the same conflict might have erupted. But I also think that the specific, decisive crisis of 1774 really did rest on the very peculiar circumstances in Massachusetts, on Governor Hutchinson's decision to stand on the law where officials elsewhere figured out ways to avoid it, and on considerations in London that a more thoughtful government could easily have avoided. No Tea Party, no crisis in 1774, no raft of parliamentary legislation, no need for Congress...and so it goes.

Q: Of the various legacies you discuss, from the Constitution to our relationship with the outside world, which has been the most important/lasting?

A: As a constitutional scholar, it would be extremely difficult for me to suggest that there could be anything other than the Constitution that would fit this bill--it's just the inner Madison in me, I suppose. But perhaps that begs the question somewhat. American nationality is not something we should take for granted: it was very much the product of the Revolution, and the Constitution was in some ways a seal upon something that had already been decided, though also essential to its very preservation.

Q: What's the one message you'd most like readers to take away from Revolutionaries?

A: To think what it was like to have been pursuing the kinds of lives these men led, caring about public affairs yet primarily devoted to the pursuit of private visions of happiness, and then to be sucked into a political vortex in 1774 and given the opportunity to join in the formation of an independent national republic.

(Photo © Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

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  • The book other historians wished they had written
    From Amazon

    Over the past 40 years I have accumulated a large library of Rev War related books and only a very few are what I would call "excellent." As I read them, I would always feel just a little let down that there was not some insightful writing that really told the underlying story of particular events. I frequently said to myself that there is more to these stories and someday it will be revealed. Well, this book has delivered big time in both detail and nuanced, delightful writing. I highly recommend this book for details that you would not otherwise have known as they relate to why our "Founding Fathers" made the transition from subjects to citizens. It was gut-wretching for so many of them and I feel that I can now relate more readily to them and understand why some were revolutionaries and others loyalists. I wonder myself how I would have chosen when my neighbors were clamoring around shouting for this and that. This is a great ride and if you want information about the deeply held feelings that these people held, then, by all means, take a look. You will not be disappointed.

  • Revolutionaries
    From Amazon

    There has been no dearth of good books written recently about the Founding Fathers. One might even question the need for another book covering this well trod ground. But Jack Racove's Revolutionaries comes at the topic from a slightly different angle that can only add to our better understanding of the subject. Like Joseph Ellis in The Founding Brothers, he paints vivid pictures of many of the major participants in these events through anecdotes from their respective lives. Where the author, an acclaimed writer and historian, adds to our understanding is through sketching the evolution of thinking of the major players in this most critical period in our nation's history. The central theme of Racove's book is that these men made the Revolution, but equally so the Revolution made these men. None of these individuals were predestined to have a major role in the making of this country, and in fact none of them began this period as revolutionaries with the possible exception of Sam Adams who is only mentioned in passing. These unlikely revolutionaries started as outspoken, thoughtful men who fervently wished to heal the wounds created by the strife between Great Britain and their American colonies, but were ultimately unable to do so largely due to Britain's misguided decisions. And in the process these men were unalterably changed. The book gives us an insight into how these men were changed. Nothing else can adequately explain the appearance of these remarkable individuals who began as leaders of the resistance who morphed into leaders of the rebellion, held their own against the pre-eminent military power in the world, and capped their experiences by producing the inimitable Constitution. This intellectual history of the revolutionary period in American history is described through the evolution in thinking of many of the key individuals of the time. These vivid portraits tell us who they are, what they did and most importantly what they thought. Many of these men are well known quantities such as John Adams, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. But other contributors are lesser known, yet of considerable significance, such as George Mason, drafter of the first state constitution and along with Madison the father of the Bill of Rights; John Dickinson, author of the Articles of Confederation and the influential Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania; and Henry Laurens, President of the Second Continental Congress. In the telling of the story of these ordinary men who became extraordinary men, we see the competing views of politics, war, diplomacy and society that shaped this nation and in the process gave a generation its defining character.

  • A Must Read
    From Amazon

    This is an unusual look into our founding fathers. It deals with their thoughts, their relationships to one another, and attempts to discover what special talent they had that allowed them to rise to the occasion of the revolution and framing The Constitution. A perspective that is unusual and makes this a "Must Read".

  • Story of how they came to be
    From Amazon

    Revolutionaries moves cleverly between colonial politics, the wartime struggle, and the countless dilemmas of post-Revolutionary life. Right through, it offers a glowing, graceful and noteworthy portrayal of a generation's struggle to shape the world around it. Rakove traces the evolutionary changes many of the Founding Fathers went through from the early years of the 1770s through to 1792, and readers of his earlier books The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (1979) and Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996 and a Pulitzer Prize winner) will likely see much here that is familiar. Rakove offers a fresh perspective--welcome and long overdue--on numerous familiar subjects, especially the role of diplomacy and foreign travel in broadening the prospects and worldview of John Adams. But his chapters on slavery and Jefferson are real standouts. In Henry and John Laurens, a slave trader father and his would-be abolitionist son, Rakove discerns a complex family struggle that mirrored a bigger struggle being played out within the colonies and on the world stage.

  • Very interesting, enlightening
    From Amazon

    This book gives an inside view of the American Revolution. Instead of focusing on the battle plans and the aspects most people are familiar with, it exposes the politics and the politicians who shaped the events of this era. It is not a fast read, and it is not for some who wants quick pat answers on the founders of this country. It takes personalities that are often maligned- John Dickenson for example, and exposes their motivations and backgrounds so that you can better understand the person. It gives you the good and bad of these figures, and allows you to take the person as a whole, which is a welcome relief from the hero worship that is so widespread these days. It also gives an excellent background of the British side of things, which is something I had no knowledge of before. We understand what the word "constitution" means historically, and how the founders created a new defintion of constitution that revolutionized the world. This book helps the reader understand what really made our revolution so revolutionary. It was more than just breaking from a mother country, they redefined governement and politics. All in all, very interesting read, very much recommended!

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