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Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America

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  • Posted May 26, 2010

    Making the Founders Relevant and Interesting

    As someone with a passing knowledge of American history, I tire easily of the semi-religious references to the generation of 1776 that one hears all the time. Too often American culture simply treats them as people to be idolized, not understood. Jack Rakove's "Revolutionaries," thankfully, offers a terrific window into the lives of these remarkable men in the 1770s and 1780s.

    To begin with, the book captures these people with all their frailties and idiosyncrasies, and records how they changed amidst the turbulent 1770s and 1780s. Clearly their ideas and character were not set in stone, and clearly a number of them parted ways over time (Jefferson and Hamilton are only the best known example). None of them had a monopoly on the meaning of the American Revolution and, indeed, as Rakove illustrates, their debates on what exactly they had fought for were deep and unresolved (perhaps to the present day).

    Well-crafted, original portraits emerge throughout the book - not merely of the better known folk, but also of critical founders who are less-commemorated today. John Dickinson, who opposed the Declaration but played a pivotal role in keeping the Congress together, emerges clearly in an early chapter. The story of South Carolina's Jack Laurens is used to great effect to illustrate the painful dilemmas posed by the intersection of revolutionary ideology and slavery. Writing on more familiar ground, Rakove also offers an elegant portrait of James Madison's fight to secure the legacy of the Revolution.

    This was a fun and informative read. Clearly a lot of work went into this book, both in terms of research and writing (the prose is consistently fluent and lively) and it offers us a timely reminder that the founders were, themselves, a fairly interesting, complicated lot - worthy of much more than just cursory, disinterested veneration.

    10 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

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    Interesting Approach to the Subject

    Rakove provides another scholarly, but readable, take on many of the pricipal actors in the American Revolution. Interesting take on the evolution of thought of many of the founding fathers. Nice layout allows for the juxtaposition of the pro- and anti- Revolutionary arguments while maintaining a very engaging storyline. Unique analysis of the differences between the "older" and "younger" generations of founding fathers and the differences in their attitudes and contributions along the way. It made me appreciate even more the truly remarkable confluence of people and events that led to the founding of our "great experiment."

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 11, 2010

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    Rakoff's REVOLUTIONARIES Sheds Light on the Role of Slavery in the Founding Era

    Prof. Jack Rakoff's latest book, REVOLUTIONARIES, lays to rest a misinterpretation of the Constitutional Convention that the great compiler Prof. Max Farrand introduced in THE FRAMING OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES (Yale Univ. Press, 1913, p.110): "In 1787, slavery was not the important question, it might be said that it was not the moral question that it later became." Rakoff devotes 17 index entries directly to slavery (p. 484), showing that the southern colonies were concerned about the issue at least since 1772 when Lord Mansfield held slavery, in Somerset v. Stewart, "so odious" it could not exist in England.

    As my late wife Ruth and I wrote in SLAVE NATION: HOW SLAVERY UNITED THE COLONIES AND SPARKED THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION (2005) (hereafter "SN") Somerset's case was an important aspect of Virginia's takeover of revolutionary activities in 1773, by calling for Committees of Correspondence among the colonies. Rakoff is the first of the leading contemporary historians to recognize Somerset's role leading to the revolution.

    Confirming his point about the importance of slavery at the Convention, Rakoff cites Madison's pronouncements that slavery was the major interest that split the northern and southern states concerning representation in the two-branch legislature (p 371). Rakoff concludes that Madison's view "confirmed that the supposed conflict between large and small states was only a passing threat to the politics of the convention, not a permanent one threatening the stability of the union." (p 372).

    Rakoff did not examine how the north-south conflict over slavery was resolved. During the deadlock over slavery, five southern delegates to the Continental Congress sitting in New York, four of whom were also members of the Convention, rode from Philadelphia to New York, making a quorum in Congress and enabling the enactment of the Northwest Ordinance that prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River, an area that later encompassed Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota. Four slave states changed their position to support the ordinance. (SN, 209-210).
    When news of the passage of the Northwest Ordinance reached the Convention on July 15 or 16, northern states no longer feared that southern control of the Federal Government, by counting slaves as 3/5 of a voter, would extend slavery throughout the nation. As a result, the northern states relaxed their insistence on equal votes in both houses of the legislature, and joined in the "Connecticut Compromise." (SN 157-244). See also Lynd, Class Conflict (1966, pp. 153-213) and SN 213-216 & fn 51, p. 307). The Northwest Ordinance was "enforced" by land speculators who warned potential slave owners to avoid settling in the NW territory. Their success helped create a slave free area where a Lincoln could emerge, and in which a Virginian - Edward Coles - could free his slaves and, as Governor of Illinois, protect the Ordinance against slave owning interests. Thus the "political settlement" that Prof. Rakoff recognized as flowing from Madison's comment that the slavery issue dividing the union could be resolved by compromise was achieved, and 74 years later became a foundation of the Civil War.

    Prof. Rakoff is to be congratulated for emphasizing the discussion of the revolutionaries' views on slavery and clarifying slavery's central role in our national history.

    Al Blumrosen, Thomas A. Cowan Prof. of Law Emeritus, Rutgers Law School

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 23, 2015

    Thought Provoking Revisit of the Drivers that led to the American Revolution

    This book looks through the eyes of 3 key patriots at the thinking, emotions, and decisions made in both England and the Colonies. As near as I can tell, it is an honest and objective recounting of the timing, bungling, and divisions that underlay the rebellion. The reasons had little to do with religion and everything to do with human rights versus an out of touch royalty and corrupt parliament that represented special interests and not the people they serve. The parallels to modern schisms is remarkable.

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    Posted July 21, 2011

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    Posted August 9, 2011

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    Posted June 28, 2011

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