Anyone who picks up historian Jack Rakove’s “Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America” already knows how it’s going to come out in the end — kids, after all, don’t pledge allegiance to the United Colonies of America every morning. But as he depicts the conflicts within and between several of the Founding Fathers during the struggle for independence, Rakove strives to remove the inevitability of history.
“I think historians have to understand that people in the past lived just as we do,” Rakove says. “We don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring, as much thought as we give to it. So a big part of doing history well is to restore improbability and uncertainty and contingency, to try to work your way through it and explain why people did one thing and not another.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Stanford University professor argues that most of the Founders never set out to be revolutionaries, but were forced into the role by circumstances.
“Essentially they’re a group who had the opportunity to make an extraordinary set of political decisions,” he says. “Nobody anticipated being a revolutionary, with the possible exception of Samuel Adams, perhaps the one proto-Trotskyite in the group. The others thought the British had made some bad mistakes but would learn from those mistakes and imperial relations would go back to what they’d been previously. Instead, you get this one crisis that spins out of control, mostly because the British handle it so badly, and then they’re all caught up in the aftermath.”
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