Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Rakove (History, American Studies and Political Science/Stanford Univ.; Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, 1996, etc.) reflects on how a group of lawyers and planters came to wage the American Revolution.
Instead of focusing on the battlefield, the author examines what might be called a revolution of the mind—that is, how the early Founding Fathers’ ideas developed and took hold. Early on, moderates who did not wish independence from England—such as John Dickinson, who wrote the influential anti-tax Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania in the late 1760s—were among the most important voices of protest. But England’s much-reviled Stamp Act, among other outrages, put livelihoods at stake and turned apolitical men into partisans and merchants and farmers into budding revolutionaries. Rakove admirably avoids hagiography, refreshingly portraying these men as ordinary human beings who simply rose to the challenge of their age. And what a challenge it was—the creation of the United States was nothing if not an arduous, argumentative process. The author dissects that process in exquisite detail, getting inside the minds of these very different men to find out what made them tick—for example, how Alexander Hamilton’s desire for fame drove his consistently ambitious ideas, or how Thomas Jefferson’s love for France may have affected his views on self-government. Rakove’s analysis of James Madison at the Constitutional Convention, in particular, reveals the future president as an extraordinarily complex and politically creative thinker—truly a case of the right man in the right place at the right time. Though the author’s prose is a bit dry, his feel for the politics of the day is unerring.
An ambitious, intelligent exploration into the intellectual underpinnings of the Revolution.