Revolutionaries: Inventing an American Nation

Stephen Conway is impressed with a crisp new study of the principal actors in the American Revolution

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Reviewed by: Stephen Conway
Author: Jack Rakove
Publisher: William Heinemann
Price (RRP): £20

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The American Revolution has not lacked historians. Indeed, so much has been written on the subject that one could be forgiven for thinking there was nothing new to say.

Jack Rakove, historian and political scientist, succeeds in squeezing juice out of seemingly dry fruit. He offers no startlingly innovative interpretation, but a perspective based on the role played by key individuals – the revolutionaries of the title. That a ‘great men’ approach should appear novel may be a testimony to how far professional history writing has changed in the last few decades.

Rakove acknowledges that the leading players on the American side were unlikely revolutionaries in the modern sense of the word. Many of them were remarkable not for their radicalism, but for their moderation, or even conservatism. They entered the struggle determined to defend their rights as Britons, or even as Englishmen, not with the intention of creating a new nation.

The nation-building, as Rakove demonstrates, followed on from the Declaration of Independence; it did not precede it.

His cast is large, and full of well-known stars. The older leadership –  such as Samuel Adams, George Mason, Henry Laurens and Benjamin Franklin – all receive due consideration, as do figures conspicuous in the later stages of the Revolution, such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the chief advocates of the Federal Constitution, which was adopted in 1787.

But Rakove’s central characters are drawn from a cohort of men in their early forties when the Continental Congress first assembled in 1774 – what he describes as “the generation that made the American Revolution and provided its leadership”. Particularly prominent in Rakove’s account are John Adams of Massachusetts, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, and George Washington of Virginia.

His choice, as he admits, partly reflects the availability of sources; for Adams and Washington, especially, there is a very substantial contemporary record of letters and diaries that illuminate ideas and attitudes. But his selection allows for coverage of the three main geographical areas involved in the Revolution – New England, the Middle Colonies, and the South – and for different aspects of the upheaval to be highlighted.

Adams emerges as a vigorous intellectual, whose views evolved in response to developments in the revolutionary crisis; Dickinson as a moderate who championed the colonial cause against parliamentary pretensions, yet resisted, to the very end, the idea of total separation from Britain; and Washington as the military commander whose dogged determination made the sustaining of independence possible.

The role of the Revolutionary War is far from underplayed, but is subordinated in Rakove’s narrative to the intellectual struggle; the competing views and compromises necessary to forge a new polity dominate the text. 

Given Rakove’s background, we should not be surprised by his emphasis on the political. Nor should any potential reader be deterred by it.

Rakove writes beautifully. His prose is crisp and clear; and he makes his arguments still more accessible, even to those with very limited knowledge of the Revolution, by frequent use of 20th-century comparisons. In short, anyone seeking a readable and well written guide to the American side of the process whereby the rebel colonies became the United States need look no further than Rakove’s impressive book. 

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Stephen Conway is professor of history at University College London