Inventing America

Jack Rakove, Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Pr. Rakove is the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies at Stanford University where he has taught since 1980.  Rakove came to my attention during my first year teaching for University College at Northeastern University.  As adjuncts in the UC, Rakove’s book on James Madison was the supplemental reading assigned for the US History to 1848 course.  Knowing little about him, I enjoyed the book and my students found it interesting as well as illuminating for the period.  A couple of years later, I was given Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution as a gift, and found the text’s discussion of what the creators of the constitution hoped to solve in creating a new government compelling.

About two or three years ago I listened to Rakove’s Colonial and Revolutionary America course through iTunes U (via openculture.com).  It was in listening to Rakove online that I learned more and more about this Pulitzer Prize winner.  A long-suffering Cubs fan, Rakove’s classes were full of information, humor, and, like my own, completely behind schedule.

Speaking of behind schedule, Revolutionaries, has not helped me keep mine.  It’s a lengthy tome, though it moves apace as Rakove draws rich portraits of important figures and their connection to the creation of the United States.  The text is divided into three parts focusing on “the crisis” that led to the war for independence, the “challenges” that faced constitution writers (in states and at the national level), and the “legacies” of men like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington.  This organizational tool is quite helpful as it almost divides the text into three different books.  Rakove, however, threads it all together, from his prologue forward.

I’ll be adding more thoughts about Revolutionaries later, but I thought I would close with a few comments about that prologue.  “The World Beyond Worcester” begins by introducing us to a young schoolteacher working in Worcester – John Adams.  I went to college in Worcester some 232 years after Adams wondered whether his students were “Kings, Politicians, Divines, Fops, Buffoons” etc (1).  Sometimes I shared the same questions about my classmates – well, at least the Fops and Buffoons part.

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