John Adams seemed destined for a life as a relatively small-time Massachusetts attorney. However, the aftermath of the 1773 Boston Tea Party and a spate of political crises within the colonies in the 1760s transitioned Adams from private to public life. As Rakove states, “Few...lives were more enlarged than that of John Adams, the deacon’s son who would soon be received at the courts of Versailles and St. James, the plain-speaking advocate who rarely allowed discretion to get the better part of polemical valor.”

John Dickinson was a Pennsylvania lawyer from a wealthy family who was educated in England. He wrote an anonymous letter which contributed a great deal to shape the colonists arguments against Parliament’s taxes via the Stamp Act and Townshend duties. Rakove notes, “When the crisis of empire broke in 1774, Dickinson supported the radical measures that the Continental Congress was driven to adopt, while longing for reconciliation with the mother country he still loved.”

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John Adams seemed destined for a life as a relatively small-time Massachusetts attorney. However, the aftermath of the 1773 Boston Tea Party and a spate of political crises within the colonies in the 1760s transitioned Adams from private to public life. As Rakove states, “Few...lives were more enlarged than that of John Adams, the deacon’s son who would soon be received at the courts of Versailles and St. James, the plain-speaking advocate who rarely allowed discretion to get the better part of polemical valor.”

John Dickinson was a Pennsylvania lawyer from a wealthy family who was educated in England. He wrote an anonymous letter which contributed a great deal to shape the colonists arguments against Parliament’s taxes via the Stamp Act and Townshend duties. Rakove notes, “When the crisis of empire broke in 1774, Dickinson supported the radical measures that the Continental Congress was driven to adopt, while longing for reconciliation with the mother country he still loved.”

Dickinson wrote home while he was a student in London. His letters reveal a marked culture gap between native Britons and the king’s American subjects. Ravkove expounds upon his letters stating, “In perhaps his most interesting letter, Dickinson reflected on the damage that youthful exposure to slavery had inflicted on his colonial acquaintances. The passions of ‘pride, selfishness, peevishness, violence, anger, meanness, revenge and cruelty’ that young Americans learned from owning and commanding slaves unfitted them to deal with their social equals, much less their superiors, in England, where ‘the first lesson a person learns is he is nothing.’”

George Washington was an officer in the Virginia militia that aided the British in the 1750s during the global conflict against the French known as the Seven Years’ War. He spent much of his service fighting the French for control of the disputed Ohio Valley region, eventually becoming an advisor to a British general who commanded forces in the area. After attaining the rank of colonel commanding a Virginia regiment, Washington’s “...aspirations remained imperial more than provincial: to secure a commission in the Royal Army.” Requests to two British commanders for a military commission were denied.

Rakove writes, “Lacking the education of the colony’s best-known leaders, he was not in the vanguard of opposition to the new imperial policies of the mid-1760s.” When Washington met Adams and Dickinson at the First Continental Congress in 1774, the impression he left was likely more physical than political. But his politics were the same as theirs, and the military experience from his younger days gave Washington qualifications few colonists could claim.

Rakove makes an important distinction between two generations of colonists who took part in the American Revolution. He describes one as “ older cohort who led the colonies into independence” (such as the Adamses, Washington, Mason, and Dickinson) and another that came of age with it, “young men of the Revolution” (such as John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, who coincidentally, co-authored The Federalist essays of 1787–1788). Scholars often blur or collapse this distinction by speaking simply of the “founding generation” or “the founders”—terms that elide the distinct political movements that culminated in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the federal Constitution of 1787 into one larger process of forming an independent national republic. A key separation is the fact that the former group of revolutionaries “...had to decide upon independence...” and “the younger group...who were only reaching maturity as independence was being declared for them.”

Rakove really primes readers with the major theme of his book in this Prologue excerpt: “The leaders of the colonial protests against Britain were thus all provincials before they became revolutionaries, revolutionaries before they became American nationalists, and nationalists who were always mindful of their provincial roots. Understanding how these traits and experiences fit together and played upon one another is essential to explaining the puzzle that keeps drawing Americans back to the founding era—and which this book has been written to explore.”

The author pinpoints the crux of this primary theme with this entry: “The men who took commanding roles in the American Revolution were as unlikely a group of revolutionaries as one can imagine. Indeed to call them revolutionaries at all is almost ironic...They became revolutionaries despite themselves. Or rather, they became revolutionaries because a crisis in a single colony spiraled out of control in 1773–1774...” The British empire’s hardline reaction to the challenge to its authority convinced colonists everywhere that the British government was set on limiting their basic rights and freedoms.

Part I: The Crisis

1. Advocates for the Cause

The seeds of the American revolution were sown in Massachusetts. This colony was at the center of the controversy which highlighted the fundamental political divide between the British government and its colonial subjects. It was here, in Boston Harbor, that the Tea Party protest took place on the night of December 16, 1773. This event marks a turning point because it crossed the line of protest “between extra-legal and illegal” (Rakove, Revolutionaries).

The Boston Tea Party was carried out by members of a protest group called the Body of the People. At sundown on December 16, 1773, the group waited for word from the owner of one of three ships carrying East India Company tea on whether or not the Massachusetts governor (an East India Company stockholder) would allow the cargo to be unloaded without payment of the Tea Tax. The tea tax was one of several levies on imported goods that Parliament had imposed on colonial commerce. When word came back that the governor had in fact denied the merchant’s request.

Rakove writes “...within minutes Samuel Adams, the driving force on the town’s committee of Correspondence, arose to declare that ‘they had now done all they could for the salvation of their Country.” The crowd attending the meeting numbered as many as 6,000 and headed to the harbor. Some dressed as Mohawk warriors and boarded the three ships loaded with tea. They proceeded to dump the pricey cargo overboard in defiance of what they saw as an unjust tariff and by 9 o’clock that night, “...340 massive chests of East India Company tea...valued at a hefty nine thousand pounds sterling was weakly brewing the low-tide waters.”

Following the lead of Lord North, the king’s top adviser, Parliament responded to this challenge with a punitive program of legislation that turned Boston into a militarily occupied city and Massachusetts a hotbed of revolt. The author speculates that if the Boston protests had “...taken a milder form, or had [Governor] Hutchinson let the ships go, the crisis might have been averted and the Revolution itself delayed, or perhaps even avoided...[T]he Boston Tea Party is one of those events that leaves us to wonder whether history...might easily have turned out differently.”

Thanks to colonial unity fostered by opposition to Britain’s punitive reaction against Massachusetts, Americans created a new centralized political authority in the Continental Congress, which first convened in Philadelphia in September 1774. Samuel and John Adams, a pair of distant cousins, were two of the four Continental Congress delegates from Massachusetts. The British military response raised the specter of war as a very actual outcome to the colonies’ political stand against the empire. This posed a significant challenge for congressional delegates. “Was the purpose of the ‘common cause’ to support Massachusetts in its time of peril, or to transcend the explosive situation in that single province in the name of forging a new, larger, and avowedly American community?”

Benjamin Franklin, who was regarded as the most respected American of his day in the years leading up to the Revolution, served as deputy postmaster general for North America at the royal court in London. At first, Franklin was not a fervent opponent of Parliament’s colonial tax regime. But, he found himself at odds with the Massachusetts Governor Hutchinson’s hardline royalist policies. This eventually led to Franklin’s dismissal from his deputy postmaster position. As Rakove writes, “For years [Hutchinson] had urged correspondents in London to promote a firm and consistent policy toward America.”

Samuel Adams’ Calvinist upbringing, Harvard education, and early involvement in politics exposed him to attitudes that put him at the center of opposition politics that thrived in Britain’s American colonies. “Adherents of this tradition, which was nurtured in the religious and revolutionary turmoil of seventeenth-century England, were ever alert to the danger of tyranny that lurked whenever the concentrated power of monarchy went unchecked” (Rakove, Revolutionaries). John Adams, unlike his cousin, avoided politics prior to the dramatic events leading up to the Tea Party, but he remained adamant about maintaining Massachusetts’ traditional freedoms. He wrote after the Tea Party: “...‘The malicious pleasure with which Hutchinson’ and those around him ‘have stood and looked upon the distresses of the People, and their Struggles to get the Tea back to London, and at last the destruction of it, is amazing’...John even wondered whether Hutchinson and his crowd wanted to see as many ‘dead Carcasses’ as there had been chests of tea ‘floating in the Harbour’”

Akin to modern-day revolutionaries—but without a conscious understanding that he was one—Samuel Adams wholly lived his ideology. His personal identity fused so closely with his political persona that he likely did not know where one yielded and the other began. “For his younger distant cousin John, by contrast, anxieties about ambition and identity seemed to fester daily”

The First Continental Congress met from September to October 1774 and consisted of delegates from 12 colonies. Georgia sent no participants. The Congress “adopted a declaration of personal rights, including life, liberty, property, assembly, and trial by jury. The declaration also denounced taxation without representation and the maintenance of the British army in the colonies without their consent. Parliamentary regulation of American commerce, however, was willingly accepted.” The Congress asked King George III to compensate the colonies for grievances that had amassed since the 1760s. It called for boycotting British goods and withholding American exports to Britain or the British West Indies.  

After deploying troops to Boston, acting Governor Thomas Gage instituted a military policy of confiscating colonial arms. “On the fateful night of April 18, 1775, a force of seven hundred soldiers set out for Concord. At Lexington, they met a hastily gathered force of American militia loosely deployed on the town green. Shots were fired, and eight Americans died as the others scattered. The British proceeded to Concord. Here the Americans proved better organized, and their fire more accurate. Now it was the British who broke, beginning a long, harried retreat to Boston.” This skirmish undoubtedly marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

2. The Revolt of the Moderates

Conciliation or confrontation? This was the great debate that raged as hostilities between the colonies and Britain escalated, most notably after Lexington and Concord. Thought the dominant sentiments favored an armed struggle, there were moderates on both sides of the Atlantic who called for a less hawkish approach to settling the empire’s differences with its American colonies at the negotiating table. “From the resistance and protest of 1774 to develop into the revolutionary movement of 1775–1776, moderates such Dickinson, [James] Duane, and Jay had to agree that...the mounting costs of a protracted war were worth bearing” (Rakove, Revolutionaries).

Historians often portray colonial conservatives as men “...who could easily have become loyalists, who were dragged into revolution less from fervor than fear, to protect their elite interests against populist aspirations that the turmoil of revolution was unleashing” (Rakove, Revolutionaries). The author surmises that moderate colonists were the key segment of the upper class population who would check “the demagogic folly of radicals like the Adamses and Richard Henry Lee,” thus quelling the rebellion from within.

The Revolution did depend, however, on the moderates’ support. The build-up to the Declaration of Independence was surrounded by military defeats suffered by the fledgling Continental Army commanded by George Washington that caused great concern to many moderates over the very materially costly consequences of defeat to the crown. These setbacks actually reinforced the moderates’ commitment to the cause.

“Men of moderate views could be found throughout America. But in terms of the politics of resistance, the heartland of moderation lay in the middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.” Standouts from the Pennsylvania moderate camp include Dickinson, merchants Robert Morris and Thomas Willing, and James Wilson a Scottish immigrant and attorney. From New York there was Jay, Duane, Robert Livingston, and Gouverneur Morris. Other notable moderates included William Livingston of New Jersey and Thomas Johnson and Charles Carroll from Maryland. Moderates’ concept of their financial security had the following political dimension: “No less than Samuel Adams, who had somehow pulled off the neat trick of ruining the family brewery, they genuinely feared that the rights they treasured most would be rendered insecure in an empire that subjected their property to the legislative control of others.”

The moderates found themselves in a precarious position amid the rising tide of hawkish revolutionary sentiments among their fellow colonists. As military preparations increased after Lexington and Concord, it became more likely that Britain would feel threatened in the worst way by American acts defiance. “Against their private inclinations, they found themselves caught up in the business of revolution, lamenting its demands while their own involvement in the cause only deepened, yet still believing their hearts were in the right place in favoring accommodation.”

In the face of a strong belief in Britain, starting with King George himself, that the colonies were all along bent on independence, moderates increasingly found their diplomacy-centric stance at odds with the political reality. By 1776, the moderates’ resistance to more revolutionary actions supported by John Adams and other more anti-British delegates at the Second Continental Congress was in the throws of collapse. “Yet Dickinson did everything in his power to defer a vote on independence. Long after other delegates had given up on petitioning, he wanted to make one more diplomatic gesture, and then another...In the final congressional debate of July 1, he was the main speaker against independence, arguing that Americans should not sever their last link with Britain until they better knew the intentions of France.”

3. The Character of a General

This chapter takes readers through the opening stages of the Continental Army’s campaign against the British. Commanded by George Washington, the army established by the Continental Congress faced a very difficult time from 1776 through 1778. Washington’s congressional appointment to lead the army naturally begins the military facet of the Revolution’s story, and the third chapter of Revolutionaries details Washington’s military as well as political maneuvering as he interacted with the Congress and state militia forces.

The winter of 1776-77 yielded key victories over British forces in New Jersey. “Their military impact was immediate...The political consequences were just as profound. The fear of impending “ruin” that peppered the letters, conversations, and meditations of the autumn suddenly evaporated. The year of independence closed with the cause battered but intact. A new campaign, offering new opportunities was open.” However, battles at the end of 1776 in southern New York hardly confirmed that Washington had the makings of a successfully victorious military leader. “Even after the military situation stabilized in 1777, doubts about Washington’s capacity for strategic command festered within Congress and among some of his rivals.”

In a request for expanded authority as Congress’ decision-making ability became less militarily viable, Washington wrote in a letter to the delegates’ “...that I have no lust after power but wish with as much fervency as any man upon this wide extended Continent for an Opportunity of turning the Sword into a ploughshare” (Rakove, Revolutionaries). This was a response to concerns in Congress about granting Washington broad decision-making power, akin to that of a military dictator.

“The commander whom moderates such as Bob Morris so admired was no moderate himself.” Though we was no fervent anti-British crusader, Washington is on record having taken a legislative stand against Parliament’s punitive legislation against the colonies in the late-1760s. “...[I]n 1774, Washington again adopted a militant voice” by supporting the protesters behind the Boston Tea Party as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. “‘Not that we approve their cond[uct] in destroy[in]g the Tea,’ he informed George William Fairfax, the patron of his youth. But ‘the despotick Measures’ against Boston were ‘the cause of America,’ and ‘we shall not suffer ourselves to be sacrificed by piecemeal.’”

When he first arrived in Boston to take command of the collection of militia companies who had descended upon New England to oppose the British forces that had encircled the city, Washington was less than impressed with the New England regiments he encountered as well as the less-than-scrupulous mercantile Northeastern culture to which the the Virginian plantation owner was unaccustomed. “His first impression of New England soldiers was harsh: ‘an exceeding dirty and nasty people,’ marked by ‘an unaccountable kind of stuidity in the lower classes’ and a ‘levelling spirit’ that offended his Virginia sensibilities.”

Rakove breaks down Washington’s major challenges in managing the fledgling Continental Army into three key points. “The first, most urgent, and most persistent revolved around the recruitment, training, retention, and supply of the army. The second, perhaps most principled, governed his relations with Congress and other civil authorities. His third set of concerns lay with his own character and reputation, and their place in the cause of national independence.” His failure to keep New York out of British military control proved to be one of the greatest tests of character Washington would endure throughout the war.

General William Howe, commander of British forces opposing the Continental Army, was criticized for a lack of killer instinct and the strategic sense of when to force a decisively crushing defeat to the enemy. British officers questioned Howe’s strategic prowess and despite a series of colonial defeats, “...the survival of the American army was primarily due to General Howe’s failure to exploit his victories” (Rakove, Revolutionaries). Howe was relieved of his command in May 1778 and replaced by General Henry Clinton after his policy of occupying Philadelphia, the American capital, was rebuked by Lord North’s government in London.

In spite of his limitations as a battlefield tactician, Washington well-understood the strategic aspects of the war. He never lost sight of the need to turn the army into a an institution with a clear identity. “That army was one of the two genuinely national institutions created in the early years of the Revolution. The other was Congress, the political council to which Washington formally looked for guidance and to which he routinely deferred, though he and his nucleus of loyal officers judged it increasingly wanting in the performance of its duties” (Rakove, Revolutionaries). Despite the grumbling, Washington made sure his military personnel maintained at least a semblance, if not a bevy, of respect for its civilian supervisors.

Part II: Challenges

4. The First Constitution Makers

State constitutions evolved throughout the 1770s as the colonies moved politically toward a break from the previous British-influenced tradition of colonial governmental structure. The political writings of John Locke and Thomas Paine heavily influenced the flourishing republicanism that was sweeping the land that was fast-moving toward independence from the British Empire. The revolutionary sentiment in the air was also deeply influenced by the Glorious Revolution in England in the late-17th century, which established the mother country’s parliamentary system that wrested autocratic control of the government from the monarchy.

George Mason IV “...emerged as the leading framer of the new constitution and the accompanying declaration of rights that the fifth Virginia provincial convention adopted in the spring of 1776. He thereby helped shape the Revolution’s most lasting legacy and its most striking departure from British constitutional tradition.” Mason and other state constitution framers set the stage for the new nation’s 1787 Constitutional Convention that set a new trend in structuring democratic republics. Custom and tradition gave way to an innovative spirit of constitution making. “Americans had instead become a people who defined themselves by the constitutions they framed and who saw their opportunity to ‘alter and abolish’ constitutions as the great achievement their own struggle for independence should bequeath the wider world.”

Virginia set the pace for state constitutions in May 1776 that all the former colonies joined in on shortly thereafter. Each former colony now called itself a “state” or “commonwealth,” and all were characteristically republics. George Mason’s moralistic philosophy transcended to his intellectual contributions to Virginia’s new constitution, which he drafted.

Mason was very concerned with social mobility as well as the moral questions that slavery inevitably raised. Like his fellow slave-owning, plantation-owning peers such as Thomas Jefferson, Mason “...meditated on the evils of slavery...But for Mason as well as Jefferson, this moral insight did not outweigh the need to maintain a slave force, to be conveyed, with other property, to one’s heirs.”

John Adams wrote a pamphlet called Thoughts on Government which focused debate for the new subject of how to write constitutions. He sought to avoid a government structure that too closely resembled that of Britain’s and worried that Southerners would be inclined to adopt such a system that most notably included the system of legislative representation “...that we call ‘ one person, one vote.’”

The Virginia conventions’ approval of Mason’s draft constitution was a relatively smooth process compared with other colonies such as Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts. “Like Virginia, each of these states had its own set of political actors and interests. But far more than Virginia, they also contained upstart leaders and groups who saw the Revolution as a moment to assert bolder claims for political recognition.” Pennsylvania proved to be the most prone to controversy in the form a political struggle tinged with social class differences and upstart political activists who sought imbued with a populist spirit. “Had John Dickinson not gutted his own influence by resisting independence, he might have played the same role in Pennsylvania that Mason took in Virginia. But his withdrawal from public life left the field free for the insurgents in the convention that met in Philadelphia in mid-July [1776].”

Pennsylvania’s constitution, approved September 28, 1776, was distinct in three major ways. “First, Pennsylvania became the only state to vest legislative authority in a unicameral assembly.” Though this kept with the former colonial government’s structure, the radical-minded framers “...were pursuing the logic of republicanism itself by supposing that a true republic founded in equality needed only one house because there was only one people.” Another innovative aspect of Pennsylvania’s constitution called for a popular vote on all legislation before it could be permanently enacted. A third noteworthy dimension in the new Pennsylvania government was the elimination of the office of governor in favor of a 12-member council.

Maryland adopted a constitution that called for a bicameral legislature with senators serving five-year terms and one-year terms for assembly members. “Maryland’s planter and merchant elite discovered there was a literal price to pay for their success in attaining a balanced constitution. That price was the adoption of a financial program that adversely affected their interests, in two ways.” Instead of basing the state’s revenue on a poll tax, it imposed taxes on land and slave ownership. The assembly also passed a law that made continental as well as state-issued paper currency legal tender for the payment of debts. This currency that would inevitably depreciate would make creditors and landlords lose the value of debts owed to them.

New York and Massachusetts took longer than other states to approve a constitution. New York’s did not gain approval until April 1777, and Massachusetts’ until June 1780. This was largely due to the British army’s occupation of both. “Whatever its cause, this lag allowed the convention to grasp a key truth that the republican enthusiasm of 1776 had too easily overlooked. War was no time to experiment with a radical purging of executive power...The New York constitution marked the point where the flood of anti-monarchical feeling that swept the country after the publication of Common Sense began to recede.”

John Adams was the lead drafter of the Massachusetts constitution. “As Adams predicted, his absolute veto did not withstand the convention’s scrutiny. But a limited veto survived, as did the idea of popular election of the governor and with them the movement toward reinvigorating executive power that began in New York.” The convention also eliminated the requirement that legislators be Christian and revised the modest property requirements seekers of elected office that Adams proposed. The final draft, though, remained largely as he had written it in both content and format. “...Adams brought to his composition a lawyer’s eye for structure and coherence missing from the other state constitutions...Adams set his constitution in neatly captioned chapters, with subordinate sections and articles. The greater dignity of his text suggested that a constitution was more than a device for restoring legal government. It was law itself—indeed, supreme law.”

5. Vain Liberators

Henry Laurens and his eldest son and heir John expressed regret of their family’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade a decades after leaving the business of importing Africans to serve as the labor force for the American South’s plantation economy. “Few colonial merchants who participated in this wretched trade profited more than Henry Laurens of Charleston. From 1748 to 1762, his firm, Austin and Laurens, handled the sales of over ten thousand slaves, the labor of which South Carolina’s profitable rice and indigo plantations depended.”

When the Revolution began, John, or “Jack” Laurens was a courageous and fervent patriot bent on attaining military glory. He was well-educated in London and soon caught the eye of Alexander Hamilton, General Washington’s top aide and the marquis de Lafayette, America’s key French ally. Jack’s opposition to slavery began during the years he spent in London studying law at his father’s behest. “Just as Jack longed to exchange the tedium of legal study for the glory of war, so he came to think that military service could transform African Americans from bondsmen to citizens.”

Both Henry and Jack Laurens were active in the revolutionary movement. Henry served in South Carolina’s first provincial congress in 1775 and became the second congress’ president in June of that year. He also oversaw the committee charged with overseeing war preparations. Through the early-1770s, Jack expressed a desire to abandon his legal studies, which he was not at all enthusiastic about save for the fact of pleasing his father who was adamant about him pursuing this career. “Even had Jack taken to the study of the law, he could not have resisted the call of patriotism.” After a lengthy back-and-forth with his reluctant father via trans-Atlantic letter writing, the elder Laurens expressed a change of heart in August 1776. “Jack welcomed his father’s permission to answer the call to duty as a release from domestic obligations he had no wish to assume.” The “domestic obligations” refer to an unexpected marriage to and pregnancy of the daughter of West Indian merchant who Jack seduced in England and agreed to marry when she became pregnant.

In the same letter that mentioned to Jack’s desire to return home from England, Henry also denounced slavery. Henry cited Britain as the originator of the slave trade and still its leading beneficiary because British merchants, with the aid of their government, still controlled the trade. “‘Kings & Parliaments’ once had a joint share with colonists in establishing the law of slavery. Now they ‘employ their Men of War to steal those Negroes from the Americans to whom they had sold them,’ with the likely intent of reselling ‘them into ten fold worse Slavery in the West Indies.’ ‘I am not the man who enslaved them,’ Laurens continued. ‘They are indebted to English men for that favour.’”

Rakove challenges Laurens’ distinction in modern moral terms as coming off as hypocritical. However, the author does acknowledge that Laurens did not simply relegate his antislavery sentiments to new arrivals from Africa on slave ships. He also attacked the entire institution of slavery that included slaves born on plantations in America, such as many of whom he owned at that point in time. Laurens “...had come to believe that he should now act as ‘a promoter not only of strange but dangerous doctrines’ and in some unspecified way help his countrymen ‘to comply with the Golden Rule’ by freeing their slaves.”

Just two weeks after arriving in Philadelphia in July 1777, John Laurens became a member of Washington’s staff of military aides. Meanwhile, Henry was heavily involved in congressional matters. The elder Laurens became the main conduit for correspondence between the legislature and Washington. Jack gained a reputation as taking dangerous risks to his own safety on the battlefield, which obviously worried his father who cautioned Jack against letting his patriotic passions and desire for military glory unwisely endanger his life. Though Henry also “...proudly idealized Jack’s selfless devotion to duty.”

While at Valley Forge, Jack proposed recruiting slaves to fight in the Continental Army. He propositioned his father to advance his inheritance of the family’s slaves suitable for military service on the grounds that it would effectively bolster the beleaguered army and on the moral principle that military service would afford slaves social dignity and a path toward free status. Henry initially resisted the idea, though he did present it to Congress which significantly considered the notion. The idea was bandied about by Washington and a host of other decision-makers at the South Carolina and Georgia state level, where it eventually ran out of steam due to slaveholders’ reservations about arming slaves and the potential negative effect on productivity due to discontented slaves that were not selected to enlist and had to remain as plantation workers, as well as the obvious risk of financial loss owners would experience if a slave died during military service. “Henry supported his son morally and was prepared to do so financially. But having steered the proposal through Congress, he did not try to advance it politically in Carolina.”

Jack, too, had been appointed to the South Carolina legislature and despite his frequent pushing of the issue, eventually it was severely watered down from black infantry battalions to a committee’s recommendation for “...the use of a thousand slaves for artillery crews and garrison duty” (Rakove, Revolutionaries). In 1780 Jack made a motion “...that slaves who performed well, even in the limited capacity proposed, would be ‘enfranchised at the expiration of their term of service’...The motion was rejected, and the assembly adjourned without acting on the committee report...Were it not for the commanding place that slavery occupies in the modern understanding of American history, Jack’s ‘black project’ would merit only passing mention in the narrative of the Revolution.”

6. The Diplomats 

Between October 1779 and August 1780 Congress commissioned three diplomatic missions to Europe. The first involved John Jay, who was dispatched to Spain. The second involved John Adams heading to the French royal court. Five months earlier, Adams and his son John Quincy (the future sixth president of the United States) sailed home from France when Congress recalled Adams having chosen to make Benjamin Franklin America’s only representative at the court in Versailles. The third excursion featured Henry Laurens’ trip to “...Holland, where he was instructed to seek diplomatic recognition from the Dutch confederation and, just as important, to secure whatever loans he could negotiate in the great credit market at Amsterdam.”

Laurens’ ship was intercepted by the British Navy. He was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London, which caused Congress to divert Adams from his original destination of Paris to instead go to Holland in place of the incarcerated South Carolinian.

These diplomatic missions were at a very crucial point in the Revolution and signaled a transition in the way Americans conducted diplomacy. Gone were the former teams of at times bickering political adversaries such as the first group sent to Paris in 1778. Based independently in three key European civic centers, Jay, Adams, Franklin, and (to an obviously much more limited capacity) Laurens very much worked in concert to further American interests in seeking aid and political support for the Revolution. There, was, though tension between Franklin and Adams, who felt threatened and at times jilted by Franklin’s larger-than-life persona and widespread acclaim. “‘He means well to his country,’ Franklin wrote to Secretary Livingston, ‘is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, is absolutely out of his senses.’”

On the diplomats’ personal perspective, Rakove wrote: “Amid their travels and travails, whether retching in their cabins, tossing and turning in a Spanish parador while flees gorged on their ankles, or gazing at passersby from a street-level room in the Tower of London, diplomats had ample time to reflect on how far the Revolution had carried them. They could measure that distance in nautical leagues and land miles traveled, in months and years separated from children, and above all in the gap between the private pursuits they had laid aside in 1774 and the public duties they took on thereafter.”

Benjamin Franklin was America’s most prominent agent in the international arena. He was the only American with any diplomatic experience prior to the Revolution and gained international attention because of his prolific writing on many subjects such as politics and science. “One other dimension of Franklin’s diplomacy bears mention: his realization that his own reputation was the best asset Americans enjoyed in France...Franklin was open to the possibility that diplomacy could involve a measure of moral trust, even among nation-states.”

Jay had little success in Spain, which despite its allegiance with France that hampered British efforts to reinforce its navy in American waters, Spain was not keen on recognizing American independence due to the extensiveness of its own New World colonies. “Jay’s two years in Madrid were an exercise in futility.”

When the news of the American and French victory at the battle of Yorktown reached Europe, the diplomats’ mission turned to peace negotiations. The British conceded a decisive military defeat on October 18,1781, thus ending combat operations in the War for Independence and marking a shift in America’s diplomatic objectives. In order for a viable peace happen in the coming yea, significant political developments would have to take place in London, Paris, and Philadelphia. First, a major change in the hardline attitudes among British politicians was essential. “Second, the American peace delegation would then have to convene in Paris and decide what its negotiating strategy and objectives should be—in particular, whether it should adhere to its congressional instructions to coordinate closely with Vergennes or open direct channels to the British emissaries.” Lastly, direct talks with British representatives presented Congress “...with a delicate choice: whether to ratify a treaty that secured all its essential goals even as it alienated French sensibilities and impaired its own importance by endorsing the independent-minded conduct of its emissaries.”

Part III: Legacies

7. The Optimist Abroad

Thomas Jefferson didn’t make it to Europe until 1784 to practice American diplomacy negotiating commerce treaties with European governments. Jefferson had prior chances to travel abroad. “He declined the first in 1776, out of solicitude for his wife, Martha. A second came in 1781, when Congress named him to the expanded peace commission through which France hoped to swaddle John Adams” (Rakove, Revolutionaries). Jefferson refused this second opportunity because he felt the need to stay home and defend himself against accusations that he didn’t adequately prepare Virginia for the British invasion when he was governor. “That appointment was renewed in November 1782 after Martha’s death plunged him into a mourning as deep as that of George Mason a decade earlier...This time Jefferson promptly accepted.” But trip delays and the signing of the definitive peace treaty with Britain negated his mission.

Of all the Americans who journeyed to Europe on diplomatic missions, Jefferson most enthusiastically made it a point to study and absorb European culture and history. The future third president of the United States developed a deep affection for Europe. “Under proper restraints, he could expose himself to its temptations and even fall in love again, as he plainly did in 1786 with the Anglo-Italian Maria Cosway, married...and seventeen years younger than Jefferson. Though their romance surely went unconsummated, the surge of desire revealed that Martha’s death had not withered his passions.” Jefferson also reveled in European architecture and cuisine during his travels through France, Italy, Holland, and England.

Though this European tour had significant personal implications for Jefferson who was reeling from the death of his wife, baby daughter, and another close female relative, his career as a diplomat and his experience of European culture had an even more profound impact on him. “They restored Jefferson to the public sphere he nearly abandoned in 1782 and revived political purposes he might otherwise have surrendered.” Rakove explores Jefferson’s life and later accomplishments through the lens of an American paradox of sorts. “How did a man of his class and stature, reared in the far reaches of slave society, become and enlightened cosmopolitan thinker, with egalitarian commitments that seem all the more remarkable, given his origins? How did this dreamy idealist, who might have lapsed into a reclusive retirement...instead give his name to a political movement and the age it dominated?”

While in Paris, Jefferson wrote Notes on the State of Virginia. The book questioned the efficacy and legitimacy of the state’s constitution. It was intended for a limited academic audience as opposed to general public consumption, so Jefferson initially had a limited number of copies printed that he circulated to a few trusted associates such as fellow Virginian James Madison. Jefferson raised two primary objections to Madison’s draft. “One was that by concentrating all effective power in the legislature, it met ‘precisely the definition of despotic government’ laid down by Montesquieu. ‘173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one,’ he noted...His second leading objection challenged the authority of the constitution itself. Because the convention that adopted it had done other legislative business, it was not the ‘perpetual’ charter ‘unalterable by other legislatures’ that it ought to be...Merely calling this ordinance a constitution would not make it one.”

Jefferson remained in Paris as the American foreign minister to France upon Benjamin Franklin’s retirement. This afforded him a more thorough look at French society as the nation’s own revolution against its totalitarian monarchy was brewing. He naturally drew many poignant comparisons between American and French societies from his philosophical and moralistic way of looking at the world. One major affect his exposure to the social ills and “wretched” poor of Paris and other European cities led him to believe that America should remain an agricultural society in order to steer clear of the corruption and oppression he observed in France’s lower classes. “‘Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to’...for ‘their good sense’ was the best ‘security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.’”

When Jefferson returned to Virginia on a leave of absence from his diplomatic post in Paris, George Washington, the first president of the newly formed federal government of the United States of America, offered him the Cabinet position of secretary of state. “For reasons of his own, Madison concurred with Washington’s plan,” according to Rakove. “With some misgivings, Jefferson acceded to their requests. He never visited Europe again.”

8. The Greatest Lawgiver of Modernity

James Madison is the key figure in Chapter 8. He emerged as a rising star on the American political scene throughout the Revolution, but it was the 1787 Constitutional Convention where Madison stood out as a leading framer of what would become America’s unified federal government. He represents the younger generational cohort who stood for American independence and restructured the provincial governments that would go on to become the original union of 13 states.

The son of a wealthy Virginia landowner, Madison was an intelligent, bookish, contemplative youth who often suffered from ill wealth. Until the Revolution he was without direction, even “aimless,” as Rakove describes him, showing little interest in the options of practicing law or taking over the management of the family’s plantations. The political fervor of the mid-1770s drew him into the political arena, where he won election to legislative office at the state level and then to the Continental Congress in 1780 at age 29. “Madison’s arrival at Congress marked the true beginning of the advanced political education that ultimately made him the premier constitutionalist of the era.”

Madison and Jefferson were friends, political allies, and very active letter correspondents. They were of very different temperaments, however. Jefferson was known to be more reactionary and his interests were more diverse. “He wrote more vividly, concisely, and directly.” Madison, on the other hand, was more prudent and analytical. “One could never say of him what he later said of Jefferson: that he had the habit ‘as in others of great genius of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment.’”

Religious freedom was consistently an important issue for Madison throughout his political career. As a Virginia legislator, Madison’s most notable victory pertained to the issue that he valued most—religious liberty. Madison saw a 1784 bill before the legislature as an attempt to establish a state-sanctioned religion in violation of the Virginia constitution’s declaration of rights. The proposed law sought “ levy a tax to support all ‘teachers [ministers] of the Christian religion’...” Madison and his allies on the issue lobbied aggressively for its defeat and received a very strong showing of public support via petitions that yielded 10,000 signatures. Instead, the legislature passed Thomas Jefferson’s religious freedom bill, which Madison proposed for passage. “With its passage, Madison wrote to the bill’s author, ‘I flatter myself’ that we have ‘in the Country extinguished for ever the ambitious project of making laws for the human mind’”

Madison was among a growing number of government officials who in the mid-1780s sought to expand the federal government’s power to regulate commerce in order to Bolster the bargaining position of America’s diplomats who were negotiating commercial treaties in Europe. A strengthened federal government would inevitably yield to greater opportunity for Americans, rather than British, French, or Spanish interests to gain title over the territories to the east of the 13 former colonies and the Mississippi River. Madison took the lead in rallying support for national attendance at what would become the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia.

Rakove vividly details the issues that pervaded the constitutional convention and the subsequent state ratification process from Madison’s perspective. The clash of interests of small states versus populous ones, slave states versus non-slave, the Virginia Plan versus the New Jersey Plan, states’ rights versus federal powers, the dynamics of the separation of powers concept, and finally, the bill of rights that codified the preservation of freedom for minority segments of society against the danger of a republic’s inherent danger of allowing for tyrannical majority populations—the author thoroughly discusses what the conventions assortment of factions had to say on issues and the ultimate compromise that would eventually result in the most influential format for a democratic union the world has ever known.

9. The State Builder

With an undoubted penchant for action, a “doer” if ever there were, Alexander Hamilton is Rakove’s “State Builder” featured in the final chapter of Revolutionaries. “...Hamilton is best known, and remains most controversial, for his broad view of executive power. He was the one founders most willing to restore a measure of royal prerogative to the novel office of the presidency.” As history’s primary federalist in the struggle between calls for a weak or strong central government in the nation’s early years, this British-born immigrant to New York unabashedly stood for lessening the gridlock-inducing dominance of state legislatures over America’s foreseeable key role in international affairs in a still very robust age of European colonialism.

Rakove spells out the distinction between Madison and Hamilton, who would go on to become political adversaries as the new constitutional union took shape. “Madison believed that the Constitution embodied a set of principles to which Americans must adhere for its promise of a more perfect Union to be realized.” Hamilton favored permitting each branch to push the limits of its power, especially if that would increase the federal government’s authority and lessen states’ power.

Jefferson and Hamilton also found themselves at odds politically. Rakove uses their rivalry to illustrate the gap between the two generations of American revolutionaries. Jefferson’s point of view had fomented before independence and came primarily from his education and reading. To Jefferson, the object of the Revolution “...was not to reclaim endangered rights but to institute new and idealized forms of government and the social arrangements...that would make them work.” Hamilton’s ideas also hinged on education and reading of authors such as Hume who Jefferson despised. But if history can liken Hamilton “...Niccolo Machiavelli, as on recent biographer has suggested, Jefferson might be called [America’s] Thomas Moore—a utopian without the religious faith that sent Moore to the stake.”

As one of his top military aides during the war, Hamilton was unsurprisingly a vocal advocate for George Washington to become the nation’s first president. When this eventually came to pass, Hamilton was named Treasury Secretary. Toward seeing a successfully ratified then effectively implemented Constitution, Hamilton cited Washington’s attainment of the highest executive office as the number-one priority. “Should the Constitution pass, Washington would probably become the first president, ensuring ‘a wise choice of men to administer the government and a good administration.’ That in turn would ‘conciliate the confidence and affection of the people and perhaps enable the government to acquire more consistency than the proposed Constitution seems to promise for so great a Country.’”

Among all the ambitious projects and policies Hamilton put forth in the 1790s, the most important were his several reports on securing America’s public credit, which “...was the capacity of a government to devise an efficient and productive system of taxation, in part to defray its immediate revenue needs, but also, more important, to enable it to enter domestic and foreign credit markets and obtain vital loans from its own citizens or investors elsewhere.”

Hamilton had been calling for a revamp of the Articles of Confederation since his service under Washington as an officer in the Continental Army. In attendance at the Constitutional Convention as a New York delegate, he stayed for only a month, choosing to return to New York where he took on the task of writing numerous published essays advocating for the federalist cause. “Scholarly commentary gives Madison’s contributions pride of place because they lay out general theories of federalism and separation of powers. But Hamilton’s more numerous essays...are filled with striking insights and rendered in a voice that gave no quarter to the Constitution’s detractors.”

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