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The Wise Men

THE HISTORY OF our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other,” wrote John Adams to his friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, in 1790. “The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrized him with his rod—and henceforth these two conducted all the policy, negotiation, legislation and war.” That can hardly count as Adams’s considered judgment on the Revolution’s history: he wrote those words in a personal letter and at a moment when he feared being relegated to the bottom drawer of history. Yet his lament foreshadowed the view, embraced by professional historians in the 1970s, that too much of the Revolution’s history until then had been told exclusively as the story of a few great men.

Jack Rakove’s book is unabashedly a collective biography of revolutionary leaders, a bit in the mold of Richard Hofstadter’s classic, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. The early chapters focus on the cousins Adams (Samuel and John), on John Dickinson, and on George Washington. The final chapters cover the trio of key party leaders in the early Republic: Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. Between them, we are introduced to figures who are no longer household names, including George Mason, Henry and Jack Laurens, and Arthur Lee. Rakove works these familiar individual lives and stories together into a seamless and authoritative narrative of the Revolution, which shows against all the odds that there is something new still to be said about even these deadest and whitest of dead white men.

The story of the first part of Revolutionaries is one whose basic elements we all learned by rote in elementary school: British taxation and American resistance, “no taxation without representation,” and the Boston Tea Party. We are, if anything, too comfortable with this period, or at least with how we know it: the characters and the events have the well-worn quality that comes from being handled too much, too often, with the loving tenderness particular to national myths. Advertising does its part to reinforce the familiar feel of this era. Benjamin Franklin with his half-glasses sells us plumbing and tax advice. Proud Sam Adams hawks beer. A stern, bewigged George Washington impersonator stars in an Alabama House candidate’s political ad. (Nor is this new: Franklin famously wrote in 1779 that the proliferation of his image in France, on everything from fans to snuffboxes, had made his “Face…now almost as well known as that of the Moon.”)

Rakove uses rich descriptions of the Founders’ daily lives to quicken the plaster-cast heroes. While the First Continental Congress (meeting in Philadelphia in the fall of 1774) was debating how to respond to harsh British sanctions against the city of Boston, delegate George Washington was off on a shopping spree. Among other things, he bought “a bell, Irish linen, snuff…ribbed hose, a sword chain, four nutcrackers” and “six knives for gutting mackerel.” Rakove also ferrets out the passion for food that comes as such a surprise in the makeup of no-nonsense, workaholic John Adams. And this predilection, so ordinary in itself, also serves to remind us of the temporal distance that exists between the Founders and us. How many statesmen today start their day, as Adams did, with a tankard of hard cider, or extol the virtues of bread baked aboard ship?

With his attention to the texture of life, Rakove spots things that have eluded a lecture hall’s worth of previous scholars. He argues—for the first time, to my knowledge—that the most important training that George Washington had for running an army, starting in the late summer of 1775, was his experience as a plantation owner. Washington got the job because of his service in the Virginia provincial militia in the 1750s. (Indeed, he not-so-subtly advertised his suitability for it by wearing his uniform to sessions of Congress.) Yet this experience, which consisted of commanding a small company of provincial troops nearly twenty years earlier, offered little guidance for the challenges of supplying a whole army, managing a staff, and determining a continent-wide plan of military action. So Washington’s rapid mastery of all of these complex managerial operations, Rakove suggestively observes, should be traced back to his life as a manager of plantations, which required many of the same skills.

It is a cliché, but a true one, to say that the war of independence, which is mostly covered in the middle section of the book, was essential to the creation of American nationhood. The decade of conflict with Britain from 1765 to 1775 had brought the North American colonists into sympathy with one another and united them in opposition to Britain. But the colonists only really began to think of themselves as Americans, as a people and a nation apart, once the war began in earnest in 1776.

Rakove recounts the process of nation-building from within and without, focusing first on how revolutionaries made constitutions for the new states and then on their struggle to win diplomatic recognition from European powers. Well-known for his work on the federal Constitution of 1787, Rakove offers here a crystal-clear account of the complex ideological and political issues with which the “first constitution makers” had to contend. He brings a similar analytical clarity to his account of revolutionary diplomacy, a subject if anything even more convoluted than the state constitutions. He succinctly describes it as “essentially a tale of three treaties, three cities, and (on the American side) three men.” But his story never becomes schematic: Rakove’s descriptions of the personal rivalries and alliances among the diplomats, among missions as well as within them, give grain and complexity to the narrative.

Fittingly, Rakove uses the middle chapter of this section of his book to wrestle with the American nation’s original sin—that is, of course, slavery. The protagonists here are a father and son, Henry and Jack Laurens. Henry was one of the wealthiest slave-owners and planters in South Carolina and, for over a year, President of Congress; Jack was a member of Washington’s general staff. In early 1778, Jack hatched a project to enlist a group of the family’s slaves to fight as a regiment in the American army. Though far from original—slaveholders throughout history had similar thoughts about arming and occasionally freeing their slaves—the idea was forward-looking and, potentially at least, a brilliant stroke for all concerned. The colonists would get a new fighting force, which Jack would command, and the enslaved people would eventually gain their freedom.

Over the course of a little more than a year, Jack and Henry went back and forth over what Jack called (with perhaps a dollop of irony) “my black project.” Henry, though sympathetic in principle, raised all sorts of objections. Most were practical, though even those usually rested on the racist notion that slaves were not capable of handling freedom. In the end, though, the decisive argument turned out to be the resistance of the South Carolina planter class. When Jack finally put his proposal before the state government in 1779, the state’s revolutionary leaders soundly rejected it. “I learn your black Air Castle is blown up with contemptuous huzzas,” wrote Henry to his disappointed son. More than the saga of Jefferson and slavery, this little-known story shows poignantly and terribly how the weight of collective interest in a slave society could block even limited efforts by its more enlightened members to move towards emancipation.

The final section of Revolutionaries covers the period from the end of the war, in 1783, to roughly the end of George Washington’s first term as president, in 1793. More than the earlier sections, this one is truly a triptych of individual portraits of Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. And since these three men’s lives, no matter how important they were, cannot possibly provide a total framework for the history of the period, these chapters lack the comprehensive coverage of the earlier periods. Scholars will look in vain for in-depth discussions of certain crucial problems in the period, such as individual indebtedness and the expansion of settlement. They will find others, such as the Constitution and its ratification, treated very fully. Most of all, in the last chapter, they will find an almost loving description of how Hamilton went about building an effective federal government.

Historians may be most surprised in these final chapters not by the narrative but by Rakove’s very interesting choice about when to end it. He gives no explanation for making the close of Washington’s first term in office the end of the book. But it seems to me that his decision amounts to a powerful argument, unusual in a popular history, for putting the formation of a functioning national government at the center of the Revolution’s story. Rakove’s Revolution culminates not in the triumphant framing of a national government in 1787, nor in the equally triumphant peaceful transfer of power from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson in 1800-1801, but with the slow, methodical, often colorless process of state-building in the late 1780s and early 1790s. Its hero may be less the brave soldier or the silver-tongued diplomat or orator than the diligent administrator, toiling in his cabinet day after day to make a new government work.

In the end, though, who the Founders were is an unresolved problem at the heart of Revolutionaries. Should one portray them as ordinary politicians, immersed in the minutiae of daily life and governance, or is it better to return to the more familiar image of them as colossi bestriding the political world? Rakove splits the difference, portraying each one as a very human, very fallible person and then, as he becomes active in revolutionary politics, giving him increasingly reverential treatment. The result is sometimes jarring. James Madison, for instance, goes from being a “slightly priggish youth lacking any clear sense of purpose” in the mid-1770s to being “The Greatest Lawgiver of Modernity” by 1787, a man whose “distinctive faculties of mind left him uniquely qualified to frame an unprecedented debate” over the Constitution. Even allowing for the inevitability of personal growth and change, this would be a startling transformation.

The two halves of the Founders’ image can be better balanced by setting their achievements in an Atlantic perspective. Alongside their European contemporaries, the Founders are still impressive but seem less impossibly imposing. Even the best American diplomat, Benjamin Franklin, did not have the skill of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who served as one of France’s chief negotiators for over two decades starting in the 1790s. Washington’s undoubted logistical and tactical talents pale by comparison with those of two of his French contemporaries: Lazare Carnot, called the “Organizer of Victory” for his role in assembling and supplying the revolutionary army, and Napoleon Bonaparte. The much-vaunted Madison had considerably less intellectual influence than European Enlightenment thinkers, not to mention Marx and Engels, until well into the twentieth century. In other words, in their own time, on the world stage, the Founders were no giants. What made the Founders into the titans we know today was not their talents alone but what future generations have made of them—proof yet again, as Jefferson once wrote to Madison in another context, that “the earth belongs to the living.”

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we are running some previous reviews about American history. This piece originally ran on August 11, 2010.

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal is a PhD candidate in American and European history at Columbia University.