Colonial 'Revolutionaries' Were Reluctant Rebels George Washington was a military veteran with a checkered past. John Adams was a farmer turned lawyer. And according to historian Jack Rakove, the men we know as America's Founding Fathers were, in general, disinclined to revolt. Rakove's new book is Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America.
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Colonial 'Revolutionaries' Were Reluctant Rebels

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Colonial 'Revolutionaries' Were Reluctant Rebels

Colonial 'Revolutionaries' Were Reluctant Rebels

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

The men we've enshrined as the founding fathers, the revolutionaries who created the foundations of our democracy weren't exactly revolutionary. There was the farmer-turned-lawyer, a military vet with a checkered record and a member of the colonial gentry who loved the bustle of London more than his family's Delaware farmland.

Mr. JACK RAKOVE (Author, "Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America"): (Reading) 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 ferment rebellion or found a republic. They became revolutionaries to spite themselves.

RAZ: That's historian Jack Rakove. In his new book, "Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America," Rakove charts the formative years of John Adams, George Washington, John Dickinson and the country they created.

Jack Rakove, welcome to the program.

Mr. RAKOVE: Happy to be here.

RAZ: This moment in American history has been told and chronicled so many times and so many different ways. What did you feel hadn't been said about it?

Mr. RAKOVE: Well, I think two things that I really wanted to stress in the book; one was the extent to which the crisis that brings independence in 1776 spirals as directly as it did out of the particular events in Massachusetts, the events around the Boston Tea Party and the British parliament's reactions to it.

Second thing that I really wanted to do throughout the book was to demonstrate that all the men that we think of as the American leaders from that point on were really sucked into politics in many ways not against their wishes but in many ways surprisingly, that they were leading very provincial lives, that they weren't thinking political issues day-in and day-out, that they weren't planning on founding a republic or even a nation.

But a crisis of enormous magnitude breaks upon the Americans in many ways really unexpectedly in the early months of 1774 and catches everybody up in it.

RAZ: Did that then radicalize important key players who were not radicalized up to that point?

Mr. RAKOVE: I'd be careful about saying radicalized but it brings them into the public sphere. They have to start debating what exactly is it we're going to do. And there's some amount of disagreement or uncertainty as to exactly what course of resistance the colonies ought to take, which is why the first Continental Congress is held starting in September 1774.

The key thing to demonstrate is that once Americans start talking about what they want to do, they do reach a high degree of consensus. It doesn't satisfy everyone all at once, it doesn't always satisfy John and Samuel Adams, who are the subjects of my first chapter, because they think the Americans should be doing something more. But everyone understands that unanimity in this crisis is more important than any one position.

RAZ: I want to ask you about Samuel and John Adams. They were distant cousins; arguably, the sort of the two most important men of the revolutionary era from Massachusetts. You write that Samuel Adams was eclipsed by the independence movement that he helped to start and that John Adams was liberated by it.

Mr. RAKOVE: Yeah. Samuel Adams was, I think, the most consistent radical patriot of all the Americans. He's the one who everyone looks up to as the single most dedicated advocate of the kinds of resistance measures that Americans were undertaking.

RAZ: And initially he was sort of regarded as a fire brand?

Mr. RAKOVE: Well, I don't like that term. I think it says too much about him. And sometimes in class, I call him a proto-Trotskyite, but that's really unfair to Adams to treat him that way. In many ways, his politics is not that different from that of many people around him. It's just he was somewhat more devoted to the cause.

John Adams is the one who goes back and forth in his feelings about political life in this period. He's been an active supporter of resistance going back to the Stamp Act, he's played an active part. But in the early 1770s, 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 just to be a successful attorney to take care of...

RAZ: Right. He was kind of an establishment figure. I mean, he had defended the British soldiers who committed an atrocity at the Boston Massacre.

Mr. RAKOVE: Right. And he felt it was right for Boston and the town that the soldiers be properly defended because in some ways they've been forced to do what they had to do. But - so Adams in the early 1770s goes back and forth. But then, when the crisis breaks and when he's elected to the first Continental Congress, all of a sudden, the kind of political career he dreamt about, I think since he got out of Harvard, is open to him and he pours himself into the cause.

RAZ: Who did you come across in - either in the research for this book or in the research over the course of your career, whose contributions to the founding of America have been greater than remembered by the public, kind of a quiet hero?

Mr. RAKOVE: A quiet hero. Well, I think the one I really most associate with is James Madison. I mean, not so quiet in one sense because he's so politically active.

RAZ: And we associate him with the Constitution.

Mr. RAKOVE: With the Constitution. But Madison was quiet in the sense, you know, Madison wrote very little for publication. You know, when his papers will be done being published some time in the decades ahead - there will be 50-something volumes...

RAZ: Wow.

Mr. RAKOVE: ...most of what he wrote was actually private material. He wrote the essays for the federals and he wrote various other sets of essays. He's a great political thinker but he writes, I think, mostly for himself. And understanding how Madison thought, the way in which he thought, this is, I think, the - one of the biggest challenges I've been working on in recent years.

RAZ: How was Madison able to influence the writing of the Constitution in the way he did to put his stamp on it?

Mr. RAKOVE: I think what made Madison different is that he had a remarkable capacity to reason both empirically and abstractly. You know, most of us, I think, we, one way or the other, some people are deeply empirical and they become historians; some people are deeply theoretical and let's say they become political scientists. But Madison had the remarkable facility of balancing his keen observation of particular points and then taking a couple big steps back and asking what do these things really mean about the underlying structure of government?

And this is really true when he wrote about federalism. Madison's analysis of the kind of federalism we had before the Constitution has this remarkable combination of looking at what went wrong in 1776, what we've learned since 1776 and then taking a step back. And he really restates federalism in terms of what academics now call game theory at a time when game theory doesn't really exist.

RAZ: Jack Rakove, we talk about the founders almost as if they were divine. But as great as these men were, were they necessarily more capable or wiser or more intelligent than the best leaders that we produce today?

Mr. RAKOVE: No, I don't think so. I happen to think that human intelligence -not an easy thing to talk about - but it's been pretty well distributed across he generations. So, to deify them in that sense to historians simply sounds false. On the other hand - and this is a big on the other hand - if you think about Washington's charismatic leadership, if you think about Jefferson's commitment to equality, if you think about Hamilton's state-building policy, if you think about Madison's constitutionalism, if you think about Benjamin Franklin's notion of how to conduct diplomacy, these were guys who were given an opportunity, which they seized. And in seizing it, they really discover a set of talents, a set of abilities, that they never would have known otherwise.

RAZ: Jack Rakove is a professor of history at Stanford University. His latest book is called "Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America." Jack Rakove, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. RAKOVE: Well, thanks so much for having me.

RAZ: And you can read an excerpt from the book "Revolutionaries" at our website,

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