Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Book Review: 'Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America'

The Founding Fathers were invoked frequently during the mid-term elections. They were used as a sort of tool box of wrenches adjusted many different ways by candidates to fit their views that voters could be forgiven if these hoary gentlemen ended up seeming like identical if amorphous wig wearers with a fondness for snuff.

The beauty of Jack Rakove's timely Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America is his view that although the Founders were an eclectic lot, in most cases it was the revolution that made them the notable men they became. While Thomas Jefferson seemed in any event destined for greatness, it was the rejection of British sovereignty than enabled and ennobled he and most of his peers, a transformation that turned these colonists into radicals and creators of a nation the greatness of which the world had never seen.

That greatness is of course diminished today, the U.S.'s edge in global competition eroded, its lofty perch in the world community undercut by its own intransigent actions and violent and vacuous political rhetoric, its lead in innovation and education squandered, and its middle class under siege from a ravenous government-enabled corporatocracy. But the fault lies not with the Founders' vision as with our contemporary leaders' wont to willfully ignore -- or worse yet distort -- that vision.

The nation building of the Founders, it can be argued, has been supplanted by nation tearing down.

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While the term "the greatest generation" could be applied as equally to the Founders as to the men who fought the good fight against fascism and militarism in the mid-20th century, Rakove notes that the Founders were actually from two generations. There were the older men who led the colonies into independence such as John Adams, George Washington, George Mason and John Dickinson, and the generation that came of age with independence such as John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

There also were geographic distinctions: The New Englanders who were descended from the Puritans, the more pluralistic middle colonists and their growing artisan class with its vision of economic development, and Southerners whose primary concern was holding onto their vast plantations and, of course, their slaves.

But whether we call them Founding Fathers, Founding Brothers or Revolutionary Characters, writes Rakove:

"[W]e find ourselves asking one recurring question: how do we explain the appearance of the remarkable group of leaders who carried the American colonies from resistance to revolution, held their own against the premier imperial power of the day, and then capped their visionary experiment by framing a Constitution whose origins and interpretation still preoccupy us over two centuries later?"

That is a question not easily answered, but it is Rakove's contention that it is actually quite simple:
"The Revolution made the [Founders] as much as they made the Revolution."

Indeed, with the possible exception of John Adams' second cousin, Samuel Adams, none of the founders set out to foment rebellion and its necessity only slowly dawned on them.

What they wanted was the restoration of their traditional political rights. It was only after a rebellion was quashed in Massachusetts in 1774 that the founders realized that King George III and Lord North had no intention of making nice. And so it became obvious that the way that the crown intended to maintain the loyalty of its colonial subjects was to isolate the colonies and try to win them over individually, and failing that, to make war on them.

Rakove argues that the revolution could have been easily avoided. But at no time did Crown or Parliament acknowledge the legitimacy of the First and Second Continental Congresses, and few Brits beyond Edmund Burke were able to grasp the enormous errors in policy making that made a war inevitable would have an unlikely result -- American independence from the most powerful nation on Earth.

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And so the Founders were less god-like visionaries than deep and sometimes passionate thinkers who were revolutionaries in spite of themselves.

It was only in the matter of slavery, of course, that the Founders . . . well, foundered.

A proposal by the obscure John Laurens of South Carolina, with the backing of his father Henry, to allow slaves to earn their freedom through enlistment in the Continental Army attracted little support even though many of his peers understood the hypocrisy of the rhetoric of liberty when it came to African Americans.

John Laurens died needlessly in a military action in which he should not have been involved, and it is intriguing to speculate whether he may have led a different kind of Southern political class into the 19th century that would support emancipation and the events that were to soon divide a nation midwifed by the Founders would have turned out differently.

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