In 1778, a young and battle-hungry soldier named John Laurens embarked on a truly revolutionary experiment: turning slaves into soldiers.
Laurens, whose father Henry was a leading slave trader and certified member of the South Carolina elite, undertook what he called his "black project" for two reasons. To aid George Washington's flagging war effort against the British and to give colonial slaves a chance to demonstrate their skills and earn their freedom.
"It will be my duty, and my pride, to transform the timid Slave into a firm defender of Liberty and render him worthy to enjoy it himself," Jack wrote to his father, whose enthusiasm for slavery was quickly ebbing.
The Laurens' brief but tempestuous life is one of many highlights of "Revolutionaries," the latest offering from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jack Rakove. (Rakove is the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies and professor of political science at Stanford University.)
The slave project ultimately buckled under heavy political opposition, but John Laurens earned renown for his passionate opposition to slavery, his statesmanship and his valiant and often vainglorious performances on the battlefield, which ultimately led to his early death.
He also illustrated, in the most extreme terms, the passionate debates over slavery, taxation and independence that raged across the continent just before America's official birth.
Rakove's account of the American Revolution includes all the usual characters whom we normally lump under the Founding Fathers umbrella: the stoic George Washington, the "American Cincinnatus," suffering with his ragtag soldiers at Valley Forge and ultimately routing the British at Yorktown; Thomas Jefferson, the refined Virginia aristocrat, soaking in European customs and wrestling with his own slavery dilemmas; and John Adams, the grumpy and brilliant New England lawyer who left his family behind and traveled to Philadelphia to take center stage in the world's grandest legislative experiment.
Hearing about Washington's noble bearing, Jefferson's sophistication and Adams' chronic insecurity never gets old, which helps explain why an entire canon of historical literature is devoted to exploring the first three presidents. Rakove's portraits of these principal founders are largely sympathetic, though hardly fawning. Young Washington is a "model backbencher" in Virginia's House of Burgess for whom "public service was more a mark of social status than a vocation." When Jefferson isn't drafting treatises from his intellectual fortress in Monticello, he is in Paris, going on a shopping spree that would make Sarah Palin blush (after listing some of the items that made up his 86 crates of merchandise, Rakove observes that "these were the purchases of an absentee planter who faced an uphill struggle to master a substantial personal debt, but who never allowed obligations to creditors — especially when they were British merchants — to mar his vision of domestic happiness.").
Then there's Adams taking a journey to Philadelphia to take part in the Continental Congress. His ambitions to legislate on a national scale, Rakove writes, "sped faster too than the leisure but politic pace of the delegates' journey to Philadelphia."
But it's the more obscure characters, the ones whose faces aren't printed on dollar bills or etched into mountains, the nation's Founding Uncles, Nephews and Cousins, who fill the most illuminating and surprising chapters of "Revolutionaries." There's George Mason, a wealthy Virginian scholar who crafted the state's influential constitution and planted the seeds for what ultimately became the federal "Bill of Rights"; John Jay, a prominent New York lawyer and master diplomat who helped the fledgling nation reach a peace treaty with England; Robert Morris, a savvy Pennsylvanian merchant who helped finance America's war effort; and John Dickinson, a prominent legislator who led the "moderates" faction that resisted the radical rush for independence.
"Revolutionaries" purports to demonstrate that America's earliest leaders were as much creations of the Revolution as its creators. In his introductory chapter, Rakove calls them "as unlikely a group of revolutionaries as one can imagine."
"Indeed to call them revolutionaries at all is almost ironic," he writes. "With the possible (and doubtful) exception of Samuel Adams, none of those who took leading roles in the struggle actively set out to foment rebellion or found a republic."
This thesis is sound, though hardly earth-shattering. It's hard to think of a historical context in which revolutionaries weren't shaped by the circumstances around them. Still, the book is a useful reminder that the characters who formed this nation were conflicted men, equally concerned with reaching compromise and protecting their way of life than with overturning the existing society and building a utopia.
No one illustrates this point better than James Madison, who as a young man had little appetite for violence and destruction. As tensions between England and Massachusetts boiled, Madison was a student at Princeton more concerned with the writings of David Hume and Niccolo Machiavelli than with the growing unrest in New England. As Rakove points out, Madison's letters from college offer little indication that the future father of the American Constitution had any interest in politics before world events spurred him to action.
When he received news of the Boston Tea Party, Madison responded that he hoped "Boston may conduct matters with as much discretion as they seem to do with boldness" and shifted the focus in his letter from politics to philosophy ("So much for political passion," Rakove writes.)
But the young Virginian, much like every other character in "Revolutionaries," is soon swept up by the events around him. Before long, he is drafting legislation, writing the Federalist papers and fighting for the ratification of the nation's Constitution. His evolution and ultimate triumph, demonstrates the main lesson of Rakove's book — a lesson that may in itself not be revolutionary, but one that is nevertheless insightful and important.