Book Review: Revolutionaries by Jack Rakove


Author: Jack Rakove
Title: Revolutionaries
Publication Info: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2010.
ISBN: 9780618267460

Summary/Review: Subtitled “A New History of the Invention of America,” this historical look at the American Revolution and the framing of the United States Constitution does take a different approach than the typical popular history of the era.  Rakove tries to emphasize that founders of the United States were ordinary men who rose to the occasion to make the best of the opportunities that the revolution provided for nation-building.  He also emphasizes that these founding fathers rarely agreed.  The strength of this book is that if offers an intellectual history of the arguments that America’s founders and the compromises that they needed to agree to.  Rakove also deserves credit for including figures whose names rarely appear in popular history – such as George Mason, John Dickinson, Charles Carroll, John Jay, Henry and John Laurens, Richard Henry Lee and Robert Morris   –  alongside John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin.  The book systematically discusses the origins of the revolution, the decision for independence, the course of the war campaign, diplomatic missions in Europe, United States governance under the Articles of Confederation, the framing of the Constitution, and the successful establishment of the new government.  My main criticism of this book is that Rakove is often too generous in discussing the motivations of his subjects.  For example, most historical works interpret George Washington wearing a military uniform to the Continental Congress as a deliberate part of a campaign to gain the command of the army, but Rakove makes it seem like happenstance.  Regardless, this is a well-written and engaging history of the nation’s founding and I recommend it to anyone interested in the time period.

Other little tidbits I liked:

  • John Adams liked Rembrandt’s work, especially “The Prophetess Anna,” the portrait of his mother with a bible that my son liked at the Rijksmuseum.
  • In a letter written in 1784 to Samuel Mather, Benjamin Franklin expresses a desire to return to his childhood home of Boston and perhaps “lay my bones there.”

Favorite Passages:

“We think of happiness as a personal mood or state of mind.  In the eighteenth century its connotations were broader. . . Happiness was a condition that whole societies as well as individuals could enjoy.  It implied a state of social contentment and not merely personal cheeriness and good humor.  Happiness was one of those broad concepts that both private and public meanings, subject for philosophical inquiry rather than psychological babbling.  For Jefferson the concept of happiness was something to ponder as well as pursue.” – p. 300

“Traditionally, bills of rights were thought to operate as a restraint on government by providing people with a basis for knowing when their rulers were overstepping their power.  But that function no longer fit the political life of the republic.  ‘Wherever the real power in a government lies, there is the danger of oppression,” Madison observed.  “In our Governments the real  power lies in the majority of the community, and the invasion of private rights is cheifly to be apprehended, not from acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.'” – p. 394

Recommended books: Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis, The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood, and Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Steven Waldman
Rating: *** 1/2

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