Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Jack Rakove's "Revolutionaries"

Jack Rakove, the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies and a professor of political science at Stanford University, is one the most distinguished historians of the early American republic. He is the author of, among other books, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America, and reported the following:
I think this famous literary test works reasonably well for my book, but not perfectly. Revolutionaries is a broad history of the American Revolution. It begins with the Boston Tea Party and ends in the final year of George Washington’s first presidential administration, when Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton explained why they could not patch up the political differences between them. In between, I explore the crisis that produced American independence in the mid-1770s, consider new issues that the Revolution created, and finally conclude with three chapters on the legacies of Jefferson, James Madison, and Hamilton. The book examines a broad array of issues, and while it is not a totally comprehensive history of the Revolution, it describes the diverse ways in which American leaders were caught in politics and the quite new questions they faced once they indeed became revolutionaries.

Page 99 of Revolutionaries happily captures a critical moment in this story. It begins in the spring of 1776, when Americans learned that George III had just rejected an address from London urging him to negotiate with the Americans. Robert Morris, the politically moderate merchant prince of Philadelphia, reacts to this news by concluding that his lingering “hopes for reconciliation” have come to naught. The page closes with Samuel Adams, the militant Boston patriot, contentedly noting that events have followed the course he expected they would, even if the Americans had not yet done everything they might have to prepare for independence. “We cannot make events,” Adams observes. “Our business is wisely to improve them.” In between these two passages, the page reflects on the work Congress still had to do to be fully ready for independence.

What I like about this page (for the Page 99 Test) is that it captures one of the recurring themes of the book. In every chapter, as new characters are brought on stage, I try to convey the sense of what it was like to be caught up in a revolutionary struggle whose dimensions far exceeded what anyone might have anticipated. Samuel Adams, of course, was an extreme case, and Robert Morris somewhat more representative. But together I think these passages illustrate the personal dimension of what the experience was like, which is why I called the book, with a modicum of irony, Revolutionaries.
Read an excerpt from Revolutionaires, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue