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Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America
Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America
Jack Rakove
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
496 pp., $30.00

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Thomas S. Kidd


Revolutionaries

A revisionist account of America's founding.

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Jack Rakove, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Original Meanings (1996), takes a muted approach in his new book on the Founding Fathers. "The men who took commanding roles in the American Revolution were as unlikely a group of revolutionaries as one can imagine," he writes. "The Revolution made them as much as they made the Revolution." Patriots like John Adams and George Washington were British American provincials who did not dream of rebellion until events in Massachusetts took an extreme course. The Boston Tea Party was the turning point. When radicals dumped the tea into Boston Harbor, the British government decided to coerce the Americans back into line. This policy dragged American leaders down the path to the Revolution. Without the circumstances leading to the Revolution, Adams, Washington, and their band of brothers might have become forgotten figures from a backwater of European society.

Rakove proposes a much less exalted view of the Founders than we have encountered in the bestselling books of many non-academic writers. The popular biographies of major Founders that appear year after year feed on Americans' reverential sense that there was something special about the Patriots. John Adams in particular has risen to improbable levels of celebrity on the momentum of David McCullough's biography and its miniseries adaptation on HBO. Rakove, in contrast, makes a solid but somewhat uninspiring case for the Founders as accidental revolutionaries, with no grand conclusion proffered. (Indeed, the book ends a bit abruptly: after more than 400 pages of largely episodic chapters, there is no epilogue.) I doubt his approach will satisfy McCullough's millions.

Rakove and other academic historians have taken an important step in bridging the scholarly/popular gap by writing for trade publishing houses that specialize in lively prose and that can market books to the average reader. But Americans still seem to want (or need?) heroic Founding Fathers who made the Revolution happen by their fortitude and courage. For our national taste, Rakove's Founders may just be too human: complex people carried along by events out of their control.

Thomas S. Kidd is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (forthcoming this fall from Basic Books).


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