THE BEGINNINGS OF NATIONAL POLITICS: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress by Jack N. Rakove

THE BEGINNINGS OF NATIONAL POLITICS: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress

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Largely under the influence of Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn, a sizable ""revisionist"" literature on early American history has been built up challenging earlier views of what the Founding Fathers were up to. Rakove (History, Colgate), another Harvard Ph.D., here enters his contribution, but the addition is purely quantitative. Every revisionist needs an interpretation to revise, and Rakove opposes the view, established by Merrill Jensen in the 1940s, that the decade between the First Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention was marked by factional struggles between radicals and conservatives, with the radicals prevailing in the Articles of Confederation, and the conservatives triumphant in the Constitution. Rakove maintains, first, that no such clearly defined factions existed, and second, that the federalist content of the Constitution was implicit in the Confederation, despite the explicit acknowledgment of the sovereignty of the states. In order to prove his first contention, Rakove relies heavily on the personal papers of the delegates to Congress in order to show that alliances were formed on shifting pragmatic grounds in response to external events, and that the delegates had no clear ideas, for the most part, of what they were doing. To prove the second, he merely points out that the Congress acted like a sovereign body, particularly during the War. Rakove's anti-factionalist argument founders on his own lack of interpretation of the delegates' writings and debates. Unlike Gordon S. Wood in his magnificent The Creation of the American Republic, 17761787 (1969), Rakove does not establish the intellectual climate within which the founders moved and the theoretical tools they had at hand--and so misses seeing that while ""factions"" may not have solidified, the theoretical positions did, along republican and Whig-aristocratic lines. As for the argument on sovereignty, Jensen himself and then Wood showed that the problem of sovereignty was not solved in the Articles; but their argument--that the idea of states' sovereignty was accepted without a theoretical framework to express it--is more convincing than Rakove's pragmatic nationalist view. Though he provides much detail on the activities of the Congress, Rakove's study falls short of a coherent ""interpretation.

Pub Date: Sept. 26th, 1979
Publisher: Knopf