By Jack Rakove, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., New York, N.Y. 487 pages, $30
To borrow the title of a famous, indeed infamous American film, “The Birth of a Nation” describes the subject matter of “Revolutionaries,” in which Jack Rakove, professor of history and political science at Stanford, tells how the United States of America was born. For some readers the book will provide a refresher course in, for others an introduction to, a basic chapter of our history. Both categories of readers will learn much from the work and, this reviewer predicts, deepen their understanding of our system of government.
The author divides his study into three distinct but related parts. In each part he stresses the personalities involved. He goes into their backgrounds, characters and competence, as well as the parts that they played. This approach lengthens the book, sometimes perhaps excessively, but it enhances the human interest necessarily involved in all historical events.
Part I of the book (“The Crisis”) relates how the colonists, as British subjects, originally sought no more than redress of grievances, principally taxation without representation. The ineptitude and highhandedness of the London government converted them, step by step, into rebels demanding independence. As the author puts it, “They became revolutionaries despite themselves.” Time and again George III and his prime minister, Lord North, treated colonial protests as a disciplinary matter, to be dealt with punitively rather than by conciliation and negotiation. It all culminated in the shoot-out at Lexington-Concord in April, 1775, an incident that Rakove ascribes to British provocation.
Here and elsewhere, the author reminds his readers of the mass atrocity of African-American bondage. It blemished every page of our early history. “Slavery,” he writes, “was a moral disgrace to the American cause.” Its earliest victims he describes as “desperate and despairing captives who crossed the pitching ocean chained below decks, wallowing in filth and bilge….”
The book’s second part, entitled “Challenges,” takes up the struggle for independence itself. It covers the military, diplomatic and political fronts of that struggle. Before that, however, a chapter pays tribute to the genius of George Washington, appointed commander in chief of the Continental forces on June 15, 1775. Throughout the war, he remained undaunted by obstacles and handicaps that would have struck most military leaders as insurmountable. He headed a hodgepodge of ragtag militias difficult to supply and equip, much less pay. He confronted a contingent of well trained, disciplined British regulars helped by rugged Hessian mercenaries. By 1777, owing to the brevity of enlistments, his army was “evaporating before his eyes.”
Enduring several crushing defeats, Washington nevertheless saw the conflict through to victory. “Whatever his limitations as a tactician,” Rakove maintains, “Washington grasped the strategic dimensions of the war as well as anyone.”
Cornwalls’s surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, on Oct. 18, 1781, effectively ended the military aspects of the fight for independence. Yet, true to form, the British government kept its eyes shut to reality. Not until the following February did the House of Commons, by a closely divided vote, resolve to end “the further prosecution of offensive warfare” in North America.
Even then, another nine months elapsed before a treaty was signed in Paris. The new republic was represented in the negotiation of that pact by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin (“the cleverest American of his [or perhaps any] age”) and John Jay. The author makes it clear that the diversity of their personalities and outlooks made it impossible to call this trio a team. But the principal cause of delay was London’s prolonged unwillingness to admit that it was dealing with an independent nation rather than with 13 repentant colonies.
Another impediment to peace negotiations, as it had been to conduct of the war, was the flimsy character of what passed for an American government. Rakove characterizes the Continental Congress as “little more than a rotating pool of officeholders who served more for reasons of conscience and duty than from any deep ambition to wield power or make epochal decisions.” Congressional enactments amounted to recommendations that the states, when and if they felt like it, had to implement. By the end of 1779, Continental currency had lost its entire value and was thereafter for practical purposes disregarded.
The book’s final section (“Legacies”) consists of chapters devoted to three men, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Each of them participated in the creation of a government once independence had been won. Of special relevance to the modern reader is the role played by Madison, often called the father of the Constitution. His exhaustive study and precise thinking helped materially in the decision to abandon the Articles of Confederation as unworkable and to replace them with the system that the Constitutional Convention established in 1787.
Madison, however, encountered two setbacks. He wanted both houses of Congress composed of members elected in proportion to population. He would also have given Congress the right to veto state laws that it found unconstitutional. Providing for one house, the Senate, to be elected by states rather than by population was considered a compromise. Madison took it as a painful defeat.
As for the House of Representatives, the author deplores the clause counting, for purposes of representation, “all other Persons,” a euphemism for slaves, at three fifths of their actual number. He calls it “a moral blot on the Constitution….”
Fair warning: It takes patience and sustained concentration to make it through this scholarly treatise. Yet the reader who completes the task will find himself or herself rewarded with a deeper, better understanding of what the United States of America is all about and how it came into being.
Walter Barthold has retired from the practice of law in New York City.