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Colonial 'Revolutionaries' Were Reluctant Rebels

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Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America
By Jack Rakove
Hardcover, 496 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List price: $30

Read An Excerpt

Back in the 1760s, the men we now enshrine as the Founding Fathers — the ones who created the American Revolution — weren't exactly revolutionary.

There was a farmer turned lawyer (John Adams), a military vet with a checkered record (George Washington) and a member of the colonial gentry who loved the bustle of London more than his family's Delaware farmland (John Dickinson), among many others.

They're all characters in historian Jack Rakove's new book Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America.

"With the possible (and doubtful) exception of Samuel Adams," Rakove writes, "none of these who took leading roles in the struggle actively set out to foment rebellion or found a republic. They became revolutionaries despite themselves."

Rakove won the Pulitzer Prize for history for his 1996 book Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution.

In his newest book, he argues that the American Revolution may never have happened without the miscalculations of the British governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. Those miscalculations sparked the Boston Tea Party, which in turn galvanized a disparate collection of colonial leaders.

"Once Americans start talking about what they want to do, they do reach a high degree of consensus," Rakove tells NPR's Guy Raz. "Everyone understands that unanimity in this crisis is more important than any one position."

Nearby Cousins, But Far Apart To Start

Two men who came at this from very different perspectives were Samuel and John Adams. They were distant cousins, both from Massachusetts. But the similarities ended there.

"Samuel Adams was, I think, the most consistent radical patriot of all the Americans," Rakove says. "He just seemed more devoted to the cause.

Jack Rakove i

Jack Rakove won the Pulitzer Prize for history for his book Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. He teaches history and political science at Stanford University Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service hide caption

toggle caption Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service
Jack Rakove

Jack Rakove won the Pulitzer Prize for history for his book Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. He teaches history and political science at Stanford University

Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

"John Adams is the one who goes back and forth. ... He's somewhat torn between his desire to pursue a political life — or at least to gain public recognition — on the one hand, and his desire to be a successful attorney."

But when the revolutionary crisis broke, John Adams poured himself into the cause, and soon eclipsed his cousin as a colonial leader and went on to become the second president of the young republic.

Madison, The Quiet Hero

Rakove says that while John Adams, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were getting the headlines, it was James Madison who became the quiet hero of the crowd.

"What made Madison different is that he had a remarkable capacity to reason both empirically and abstractly. ... Madison had the remarkable facility of balancing his keen observation of particular points and then taking a couple of big steps back and asking, 'What do these things really mean about the underlying structure of government?' "

And Madison, like his contemporaries, grew in the role.

"These were guys who were given an opportunity which they seized," Rakove says. "And in seizing it, they really discovered a set of talents, a set of abilities, that they never would have known otherwise."


Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America
By Jack Rakove
Hardcover, 496 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List price: $30

Adams, Dickinson, and Washington were still in their early forties when the crisis that led to independence erupted in the summer of 1774. They were, in that sense, the generation that made the American Revolution and provided its leadership. Yet none was a revolutionary in the modern sense of the term. None joined the protests of the 1760s and early 1770s out of a secret hankering for independence, or from calculations of ambition and power, or in resentment over the cruel hand that life and fate had dealt him. Each was ambivalent about engaging too deeply in public life. At any point before 1774, each would have preferred to see the Anglo-American dispute resolved peacefully. For Dickinson, that sentiment lasted even longer, down to the moment in July 1776 when he gave the last major speech in Congress opposing independence.

The notion that some generations are marked by distinctive experiences is, of course, hardly a great historical discovery. The journalist Tom Brokaw popularized the term "the greatest generation" as a badge of honor for Americans who came of age with the Great Depression and then fought the good war against fascism and Japanese militarism. Historians write of the Spanish "generation of 1898," who tasted the final defeat of a once-global empire, and the European "generation of 1914," who marched off to the guns of August, visions of military glory dancing in their heads, only to confront slaughter on an industrial scale in Flanders fields, on the Somme, at Verdun. American historians have long written about the Revolutionary generation and tried to grasp its distinctive characteristics. Gordon Wood, for example, gave his recent collection of essays, Revolutionary Characters, the subtitle What Made the Founders Different, and then located their defining generational trait in their attachment to a set of Enlightenment and gentlemanly ideals that America's democratic future would soon eclipse. Joseph Ellis's fabulously successful book Founding Brothers is subtitled The Revolutionary Generation, but Ellis curiously devotes his actual narrative to the post-Revolutionary period stretching from 1790 to 1804, with only the odd glance back to the Revolution proper. There may not be quite as many notions of what constitutes a generation as there are historians. Yet clearly anyone who tackles this theme needs to be as precise as possible about the experiences, attributes, and events that give a generation its defining character.

At the start, we need to recognize that there were at least two generations of 1776: an older cohort who led the colonies into independence (such as the Adamses, Washington, Mason, Dickinson) and another that came of age with it, "young men of the Revolution" (such as John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, who, coincidentally, co-authored The Federalist essays of 1787–1788). Scholars often blur or collapse this distinction by speaking simply of the "founding generation" or "the founders" — terms that elide the distinct political movements that culminated in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the federal Constitution of 1787 into one larger process of forming an independent national republic. Yet the experience of the older cohort, who had to decide upon independence, could not have been wholly identical with that of the younger group, who were only reaching maturity as independence was being declared for them.

There were other traits, however, that many of these men shared. Each grew up in provincial societies that were imperial outposts on the far shore of the Atlantic world, and their provincial status may have been their most profound shared experience. Not that it took the same form for each. In Massachusetts, John Adams was only one of many talented men who resented the monopoly of high offices held by the extended family of Thomas Hutchinson and their allies. Like colonists everywhere, Adams gloried in the triumphs of the Seven Years' War, but the closed circle of imperial favor in the Bay Colony grated on his own ambitions. John Dickinson labored under no such disadvantages. He repaid the hospitality that Thomas Penn showed him in London by opposing Benjamin Franklin's futile campaign to have the Crown strip the Penn family of its proprietary right to the government of Pennsylvania and Delaware. Yet Dickinson acted not out of personal loyalty to the Penns but rather from a principled desire to protect the distinctive political culture that had flourished in Pennsylvania ever since William Penn launched his "holy experiment" in the 1680s. Though not formally a Quaker himself, he was steeped in Quaker political philosophy and its pacific virtues of moderation and respect. In Virginia, George Washington had abandoned his quest for a military career, but marriage and his reputation for bravery brought him into the highest stratum of his colony's planter elite. The ambitions of all three men were bounded and shaped by the distinctly provincial worlds they knew.

The leaders of the colonial protests against Britain were thus all provincials before they became revolutionaries, revolutionaries before they became American nationalists, and nationalists who were always mindful of their provincial roots. Understanding how these traits and experiences fit together and played upon one another is essential to explaining the puzzle that keeps drawing Americans back to the founding era — and which this book has been written to explore. Whether we call them "Revolutionary Characters" or "Founding Brothers," or whenever we ponder The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders (the subtitle of another recent set of essays by Bernard Bailyn), we find ourselves asking one recurring question: how do we explain the appearance of the remarkable group of leaders who carried the American colonies from resistance to revolution, held their own against the premier imperial power of the day, and then capped their visionary experiment by framing a Constitution whose origins and interpretation still preoccupy us over two centuries later?

Like many simple questions, it is not easily answered. The sense of historical destiny that surrounds the Revolution challenges our capacity to think our way back into the contingencies of the past and to appreciate how improbable an event it was. Part of that improbability lies in the record of misguided decisions that led the British government to fulfill its worst fears by driving the colonists down the road to independence. 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. But that improbability immediately leads us to another that is a central theme of this book. The men who took commanding roles in the American Revolution were as unlikely a group of revolutionaries as one can imagine. Indeed to call them revolutionaries at all is almost ironic. With the possible (and doubtful) exception of Samuel Adams, none of those who took leading roles in the struggle actively set out to foment rebellion or found a republic. They became revolutionaries despite themselves. Or rather, they became revolutionaries because a crisis in a single colony spiraled out of control in 1773-1774, and the empire's harsh response to the challenge to its authority persuaded colonists everywhere that the British government really was bent on abridging their basic rights and liberties. Until then, the men who soon occupied critical positions in the struggle for independence were preoccupied with private affairs and hopeful that the troubles that had roiled the empire in the 1760s would soon be forgotten. To catch them (as we repeatedly shall) at those moments when they individually realized that would not be the case is to understand that the Revolution made them as much as they made the Revolution.

Excerpted from Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove. Copyright 2010 by Jack Rakove. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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