REVOLUTIONARIES: A NEW HISTORY OF THE INVENTION OF AMERICA
By Jack Rakove
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30, 487 pages
America has long been fascinated by its Civil War, which has inspired thousands of books and scores of TV series. It pays much less attention to the revolution that brought independence to the first modern republic and that was a turning point in Western history.
The American Revolution was the movement of a colonial people for independence, the first of many. It represented a spurning of monarchy, the means by which much of the world was governed in the 18th century. At the same time, it was not a “class” revolution, for Patriots and Loyalists alike drew heavily from the landed gentry, urban professionals and merchants. Although our Revolution manifested some aspects of a civil war, with Patriots engaged against Loyalists, there was little of the terror that would follow later revolutions in France and Russia.
This book presents new reflections on the American Revolution from Stanford University historian Jack Rakove, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who brings impressive qualifications to his work. He finds that America’s revolutionaries had much in common: “The leaders of the colonial protests against Britain were … all provincials before they became revolutionaries, revolutionaries before they became American nationalists, and nationalists who were always mindful of their provincial roots.”
The movement toward full independence might never have matured in the 18th century except for a series of ill-advised actions in London. Mr. Rakove comments, “It took a peculiarly flawed process of framing bad policies and reacting to the resulting failures to convince the government of George III and Lord North that the best way to maintain the loyalty of their North American subjects was to make war on them.”
“Revolutionaries” is not a chronological account of the American Revolution but a series of essays, three on what the author describes as “The Crisis,” two on “Challenges” and two more on “Legacies.” It is notable for Mr. Rakove’s insightful biographical sketches encompassing lesser-known figures such as John Laurens and Edmund Randolph as well as luminaries such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Jefferson, he writes, “locked the principle of equality into the nation’s political creed, but whose vision of domestic happiness depended on the exploited slaves whose freedom he imagined only as an abstraction.”
After acknowledging the contributions of New England radicals such as John and Sam Adams, the author emphasizes that the Revolution could not have gained momentum without the support of middle Colonies such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. “Their contributions became all the more important,” he writes, after the Declaration of Independence “was followed by a string of military defeats that brought the cause to the brink of collapse and many moderates to the point of despair, privately worrying that the estates they had labored to amass might prove forfeit to a vindictive Crown.”
British blunders fueled a growing sense of nationalism in the Colonies, but there was no sense of egalitarianism. “Although members of the elite had to know how to … treat their social inferiors with candor and sympathy,” Mr. Rakove writes, “they never forgot the disparity in manners, culture, and aspirations that distinguished one class from another.”
Even within the Colonial elite, there were interesting regional differences. Middle-class Northerners were accustomed to putting in long hours in their offices and counting houses. Southern planters were accustomed to mornings on horseback, overseeing their fields. The different lifestyles contrasted in gatherings such as the Continental Congress. A Rhode Island legislator complained, “The Southern Gentlemen have been used to do no Business in [the] afternoon so that We rise about 2 or 3 o’clock & set no more that day.”
What did nurture a sense of nationalism was George Washington’s army. As it assembled outside Boston in 1775, the Colonial soldiers posed a very tepid threat to British regulars. “The abuses in this army, I fear, are considerable,” Washington wrote to fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee, and its training “in the Face of an Enemy, from whom we every hour expect an attack [is] exceedingly difficult & dangerous.” But the training, and the siege of Boston that followed, turned the Colonial rabble into a national army. In July 1775, Washington informed his soldiers “They are now the Troops of the United Provinces of North America and it is hoped that all Distinctions of Colonies will be laid aside.”
Washington himself was not a genius on the battlefield; it took two years for him to absorb exactly what he could expect his soldiers to accomplish against British regulars. Mr. Rakove concludes, “However much [Washington] would have welcomed a decisive clash with the enemy … he regularly subordinated his impulses to his broader understanding of the revolutionary struggle, the limitations of his troops, and the counsel of his advisers.”
This reader was surprised to learn that the possibility of employing slaves as soldiers was an important issue in the Revolution. In 1776, Congress endorsed a proposal to recruit 3,000 black soldiers from among Southern slaves, with their owners to be compensated appropriately. The recruits would be clothed and armed at government expense but not paid. Those who served “well and faithfully” would be emancipated at the war’s end and paid 50 dollars.
It was Washington’s cold logic that nipped this proposal in the bud. To allow some slaves to enlist would “be productive of much discontent” among those not chosen. And if the Colonies should take the lead in arming slaves, Washington wrote, the enemy would follow suit.
Were Washington and his distinguished associates our “greatest generation”? The author does not address this question directly and notes that there were two sets of leaders - an older group that led the move for independence, including Washington and the Adamses, and a younger group, including Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who came of age with it.
But all in all, Mr. Rakove’s revolutionaries were an impressive bunch. They put great stock in virtue - a word that has evolved over the centuries but which carried great weight in Revolutionary times. “For the revolutionaries of 1776,” Mr. Rakove writes, “virtue meant the ability of citizens to subordinate private interest to public good.”
We could use a bit more “virtue” today.
Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.