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Colonial 'Revolutionaries' Were Reluctant Rebels

Back in the 1760s, the men we now enshrine as the Founding Fathers -- the ones who created the American Revolution -- weren't exactly revolutionary.

There was a farmer turned lawyer (John Adams), a military vet with a checkered record (George Washington) and a member of the colonial gentry who loved the bustle of London more than his family's Delaware farmland (John Dickinson), among many others.

They're all characters in historian Jack Rakove's new book Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America.

"With the possible (and doubtful) exception of Samuel Adams," Rakove writes, "none of these who took leading roles in the struggle actively set out to foment rebellion or found a republic. They became revolutionaries despite themselves."

Rakove won the Pulitzer Prize for history for his 1996 book Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution.

In his newest book, he argues that the American Revolution may never have happened without the miscalculations of the British governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. Those miscalculations sparked the Boston Tea Party, which in turn galvanized a disparate collection of colonial leaders.

"Once Americans start talking about what they want to do, they do reach a high degree of consensus," Rakove tells NPR's Guy Raz. "Everyone understands that unanimity in this crisis is more important than any one position."

Nearby Cousins, But Far Apart To Start

Two men who came at this from very different perspectives were Samuel and John Adams. They were distant cousins, both from Massachusetts. But the similarities ended there.

"Samuel Adams was, I think, the most consistent radical patriot of all the Americans," Rakove says. "He just seemed more devoted to the cause.

"John Adams is the one who goes back and forth. ... He's somewhat torn between his desire to pursue a political life -- or at least to gain public recognition -- on the one hand, and his desire to be a successful attorney."

But when the revolutionary crisis broke, John Adams poured himself into the cause, and soon eclipsed his cousin as a colonial leader and went on to become the second president of the young republic.

Madison, The Quiet Hero

Rakove says that while John Adams, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were getting the headlines, it was James Madison who became the quiet hero of the crowd.

"What made Madison different is that he had a remarkable capacity to reason both empirically and abstractly. ... Madison had the remarkable facility of balancing his keen observation of particular points and then taking a couple of big steps back and asking, 'What do these things really mean about the underlying structure of government?' "

And Madison, like his contemporaries, grew in the role.

"These were guys who were given an opportunity which they seized," Rakove says. "And in seizing it, they really discovered a set of talents, a set of abilities, that they never would have known otherwise."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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