Review of histories of American revolution by T.H. Breen and Jack Rakove

By Jan Ellen Lewis
Sunday, August 8, 2010


The Revolution of the People

By T.H. Breen

Hill and Wang. 337 pp. $27


A New History of the Invention of America

By Jack Rakove

Houghton Mifflin. 487 pp. $30

So tied up is American identity in the American Revolution that popular histories of it are inescapably children's books, bedtime stories that tell us how we came to be: "Mommy, Daddy, tell me about when I was born." The newest additions to this literature are by two distinguished historians, T.H. Breen of Northwestern and Jack Rakove of Stanford. Each will appeal to a different segment of the history-reading public.

Although this is surely not Breen's intent, modern-day Tea Partiers who look in his book may see their own flattering reflections: an essentially all-white group of angry men and women, guided more by the Bible than political philosophy, convinced that a distant government is out to enslave them, eager to suppress dissent, ready to pick up arms at the first rumor -- and described as a brave insurgency that had "spoken truth to power." Breen wants to evoke comparisons to other world-wide anti-imperialist insurgencies, but his focus on the "raw anger" of a people who "surged forward in the name of rights and liberty" can't help calling to mind today's Tea Party movement as well.

Focusing on the two years after the Boston Tea Party of 1773, Breen argues that the driving force behind the revolution was an American populace enraged by the punishment meted out by Parliament, which shut the port of Boston and took the right of self-government away from Massachusetts. "Without bothering to consult with a single Founding Father," he writes, "the people took up arms en masse against the empire." He goes on to describe the popular mobilization that drew thousands of colonists, especially in New England, into the patriot ranks by collecting donations of money and supplies for Boston but also by censoring the press, burning offensive publications, staging "show trials" and creating "extralegal bodies fully prepared to intimidate, even terrorize those who dared to criticize the American cause." Although contemporary Americans might be chilled by this piece of their history, Breen makes excuses for it. "Considering the atrocities that have occurred in other revolutions over the last two centuries," he says, "we might wonder at such restraint."

Breen writes with the zeal of a partisan, and it is hard to distinguish his thoughts and feelings from those of his subjects. He quotes uncritically the many colonists who were convinced that they faced a choice between "LIFE & DEATH, or what is more, FREEDOM & SLAVERY," as if so emotional a response to the Coercive Acts were perfectly understandable. Yet the pervasiveness of such paranoid rhetoric, from the outset of the imperial crisis more than a decade earlier, has led some historians to look for explanations of the Revolution not so much in the series of events that led up to it as in the theories used by the colonists to make sense of those events: the "ideological origins" of the American Revolution. Breen's insurgents are motivated, however, not by "political theory" but by "spontaneous rage against the imperial state."

Like the insurgents who took up arms and rushed off to Boston on the rumor that the British had fired on the city, Breen is sometimes a little quick on the draw. He warns against exaggerating John Locke's influence on Revolutionary thought: "Many Americans had never read Locke's work; quite a few would not have even recognized his name." Three pages later, however, he explains the source of the motto on a popular flag: "Ordinary Americans had encountered the phrase in the pages of John Locke's Second Treatise." In one chapter, Breen excuses the insurgents' censorship of the press, but in another the Parliament that considers censorship has "mistaken a tough response for political wisdom."

Confining himself to the two years of popular mobilization after 1773, Breen effectively dismisses the decade of organizing by radicals that led to the Tea Party and the subsequent decades of unbelievably hard work, often by moderates, that transformed rebellion against the British into the foundation for an independent nation. This hard work is Rakove's chief interest. He structures his narrative of the revolutionary era as a series of portraits of the Founding Fathers, some better known than others, but each making his mark. Each chapter has its heroes who push their sometimes-reluctant colleagues forward: John Dickinson denouncing British taxes in 1767; Sam and John Adams pushing the Continental Congress toward independence; George Mason writing Virginia's Declaration of Rights; George Washington holding an underfed, underfunded and outnumbered army together; James Madison pulling off the feat of getting the Constitution written and ratified; and Alexander Hamilton putting the nation's economy on a sound footing.

But one chapter's hero is the next chapter's pain in the posterior. Dickinson refused to sign the Declaration of Independence, and Mason, the Constitution. In Paris, the three men sent to negotiate the treaty to end the war seemed to spend more time complaining about each other than actually working on a treaty. John Adams griped about Benjamin Franklin's "Sordid Envy" and warned John Jay about those, like Franklin, "who will use all the Arts of the Devil to breed Misunderstandings between us," while Franklin said that Adams "sometimes, and in some things, is absolutely out of his senses." Madison worked closely with Hamilton to get the Constitution ratified -- and then even more closely with Jefferson to undermine Hamilton in Washington's cabinet.

Rakove's attentiveness to the Founders' foibles humanizes them at the same time that it underscores their collective achievement. No one revolutionary got everything right, but together "they 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."

Although scholars will find little new in Rakove's book, he tells his story well, with a Madisonian appreciation for human frailty. And if Breen's book may please the Tea Party crowd, Rakove's offers a consolation to modern liberals: that no matter how serious the crises, we will somehow find what we need to make it through. His is a bedtime story for grown-ups.

Jan Ellen Lewis is a professor of history at Rutgers University, Newark.

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