Posted: January 31, 2011
he first two thirds of Jack Rakove's Revolutionaries is masterly. A professor of history and political science at Stanford, and Pulitizer Prize-winner for Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996), Rakove synthesizes for the general reader with great clarity and seeming ease a vast body of scholarship, yielding what is the single best treatment to date of the American struggle for independence. He does this by exploring the careers of roughly two dozen American political leaders who were thrust into the historical maelstrom as revolutionaries. The last third of the book, foreshadowing the partisan divisions of the 1790s, is marred by an all-too-common bias, with subtle but distinct ideological overtones. Despite this, Rakove's book remains an achievement of great distinction.
The first chapter focuses on Massachusetts's most celebrated "advocates for the cause," Samuel and John Adams. In addition to painting their portraits, it explains what made the Bay Colony and New England in general so radical, and persuasively argues that the expression of this radicalism, the famous Tea Party, was a turning point in history. Rakove then turns to the moderates of the mid-Atlantic states, men like Robert Morris, John Jay, John Dickinson, and James Wilson. Although less known to the general public than the Adams cousins or the glittering panoply of Virginians, these men were indispensable to the achievement of independence. Reluctant revolutionaries who largely entered public life in response to the crisis of the 1770s, they hoped to the end for reconciliation with the mother county. Once committed to independence, however, their service to the American cause became a matter of personal honor. What made them so moderate, as Rakove explains, was their immersion in an emerging regional culture of commercial capitalism and economic development, which made them wary of abstract principle and eager for compromise.
Rakove rounds out the first section of the book with a sterling chapter on George Washington as commander-in-chief. In addition to narrating the war, he examines the vital question of Washington's character, from the defensive Fabian role he reluctantly adopted for much of the struggle, to his exalted role as the American Cincinnatus who laid down his arms at war's end and nipped in the bud a nascent coup d'etat by his unpaid officers. Washington insisted, too, that his officers act like gentlemen, despite their often plebian origins. It was to this gentlemanly character that Washington appealed when urging his army to stand down when the war was over. "Washington never allowed the army to disdain its civilian superiors," writes Rakove; he insured the principle of civilian control by intertwining it with military honor. Rakove rightly reminds the reader how important this was: the Continental Army was the only national institution besides the largely inept Congress itself.
Next, the book turns to the challenges facing the nation after its independence had been declared. Rakove begins with the problem of creating a new constitutional order in the states, focusing on the efforts of George Mason IV of Guston Hall. Little known today by the general public, he was one of the leading political thinkers of revolutionary Virginia and the principal author of its first constitution and its celebrated Declaration of Rights. Equally impressive is Rakove's survey of subsequent constitutional development, from the arguments over bicameralism in Pennsylvania and Maryland to the installation of an independent executive in New York and the whole panoply of constitutional architecture for drafting and ratification in Massachusetts. Throughout, he shows American constitutionalism was more than a legal issue: "Americans were a people who wrote constitutions, and the constitutions they wrote defined their character as a people."
In a gem of a chapter on slavery, Revolutionaries explains how inescapable was the clash between the ideals of the American Revolution and the practice of chattel slavery. Rakove focuses on the emancipatory schemes of South Carolina merchant-cum-planter Henry Laurens and his dashing, idealistic, and rather rakish son Jack. By 1776 the elder Laurens embraced the cause of gradual emancipation. But it was his son Jack who, when the British invaded the Deep South in 1778, took the radical step of proposing emancipation for slaves who would serve in the military. Most readers are probably unaware of this scheme, or of the fact that it was embraced on two separate occasions by both General Washington and the Confederation Congress. Its rejection by the Georgia and South Carolina legislatures, despite the desperate need for manpower, marked the tragic limits of revolutionary idealism and saddled the new republic with its greatest burden and the greatest stain on its character. With a chapter detailing Benjamin Franklin's, John Jay's, and John Adams's exploits as diplomats advancing America's interests abroad, Rakove brings the story of America's struggle for independence to a close. Rarely has the tale been told with as much verve and good sense.
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Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the book's final section, tracing the legacies of the revolution in the careers of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. These chapters are filled with valuable information and thoughtful insights—the analysis of Madison is everything one would expect from one of the nation's leading Madison scholars. But the treatment of Jefferson is another matter. All too often Rakove pulls his punches, sometimes portraying the Sage of Monticello more favorably than he deserves.
Two examples give the sense of this subtle bias. First, there is the question of Jefferson's rather dim view of the federal convention and the Constitution it produced. To his credit, Rakove acknowledges the Virginian's reservations, attributing them to his absence from the American scene (he was in Paris as our emissary). "Had Jefferson been at home," Rakove writes, "he would have been less cavalier" about the crisis of the Confederation. Perhaps. But it is worth noting that henever accepted the document as binding "We the People"; to the end, he insisted it was a mere compact between the states. It was this understanding that underlay not only his defense of states' rights but his doctrine of nullification. The reader deserves to know this vital, troubling element of Jefferson's "strict construction" of the federal Constitution.
Then there are Jefferson's tortured musings on racial difference in Notes on the State of Virginia. Again, Rakove acknowledges Jefferson's clearly racist overtones, noting that his comments "anticipated and even helped legitimate the virulent racism of the next century." But he might have said more about the great lengths Jefferson went to in the Notesto catalogue the inferiority of enslaved African-Americans, from their overly active, bestial libidos to their painfully limited intellect, emotional range, and imagination. And though he is quite right that Jefferson never used racism to justify slavery, he is wrong to claim that Jefferson invoked racial differences "to make the case for emancipation—albeit followed by colonization." In fact, Jefferson's scientific racism was meant to explain why gradual emancipation could not be achieved without the forced expatriation of the freedmen. It was the cost and complexity of this expatriation that explained, for Jefferson at least, the failure of his fellow Virginians to act on their purported anti-slavery convictions. Indeed, the unequal costs of colonization ultimately led Jefferson to embrace the doctrine of diffusion—that is, the idea that emancipation would be most easily achieved by spreading slavery uniformly throughout the union, spreading the future burden of emancipation evenly. Rakove fails to mention this element of Jefferson's anti-slavery position, just as he fails to note that he never proffered any of his emancipatory schemes during his otherwise long and active political career.
This same Jeffersonian bias bleeds into the final chapter on Hamilton. Rakove rightly praises him for his promotion of commercial development and public credit as vital to national security, but overemphasizes national security as the motive that drove Hamilton to embrace state finance and modern capitalism. Like most purveyors of the Anglophone Enlightenment, Hamilton saw commerce and manufactures as vital to the cause of liberty, humanity, social mobility, and enlightenment itself. It was this larger vision that drew the allegiance not only of Washington, as Rakove notes, but of most of the leading revolutionaries of both radical New England and the moderate mid-Atlantic—a fact not mentioned in the text.
Then there is the following characterization of the emerging political feud between Hamilton and the two Virginians: "Jefferson's bitter remarks on his rival seem little less petty" than Hamilton's sarcastic charge that his opponents had a "womanish" affection for France and aversion to Britain. Hamilton's tone may have been petty, but the basic charge that their hostility to Britain was irrational—insofar as it ignored the reality of America's relative weakness and economic dependence on British trade—was more than borne out by Jefferson's disastrous embargo and Madison's even more disastrous and needless declaration of war in 1812. By contrast, Jefferson's claim that Hamilton was secretly conspiring to install an American monarchy (or aristocracy) was palpably absurd.
Hamilton's most fundamental charge against Jefferson had nothing to do with policy at all. It concerned the question of Jefferson's public and political character: namely, how a high-ranking member of an administration could foment and covertly lead a partisan opposition to that very administration, and even launch an opposition newspaper with government funds. This question of public character ultimately led many of Jefferson's fellow revolutionaries, including Washington, to break with him. Rakove would have served his readers better if he had at least touched upon such a momentous question. But he has served them excellently well overall. This is a book from which the reader can learn a great deal, with pleasure.