Looking for a ‘New’ Narrative of Founding Fathers

Historians in the News

It’s one of the curiosities of American history that there is no definitive single-volume chronicle of the Revolutionary War, the kind of serious but approachable book that would grasp the conflict in the way that James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” grasps the Civil War. “One good schoolmaster is of more use than a hundred priests,” the founding father Thomas Paine thundered. This war still awaits its great popular educator.

It’s not that the American Revolution hasn’t produced entire platoons of excellent surveys, including — but far from limited to — Don Higginbotham’s “War of American Independence” (1971), Robert Middlekauff’s “Glorious Cause” (1982), Gordon S. Wood’s “Radicalism of the American Revolution” (1992), Joseph J. Ellis’s “Founding Brothers” (2000) and John Ferling’s “Almost a Miracle” (2007). But no real consensus has anointed one of them. In terms of sheer narrative thwack, historians have had better luck breaking off small slices of the period, as David McCullough did in “1776” and his biography of John Adams.

Into this hot fug comes Jack Rakove’s new book, “Revolutionaries,” which bears the subtitle “A New History of the Invention of America.” Mr. Rakove is a professor of history, American studies and political science at Stanford University. He was also the winner, in 1997, of a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution.” He sounds like an interesting man, the kind who sometimes gets his boots muddy. He has been an expert witness in Indian land claims litigation....

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