Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation, and: The Making of the American Republic, 1763–1815
Ray Raphael's Founders and Paul Gilje's The Making of the American Republic both cover roughly the same period of early American history. Raphael begins in 1754 with Washington's ill-fated mission to the Ohio country and essentially ends with the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. As indicated in the title, Gilje's narrative starts approximately a decade later, after the end of the French and Indian War (though he draws on earlier events), and continues through to the conclusion of the War of 1812. Despite the similarity in scope, these are two very different books, with decidedly different approaches, different emphases, and very different target audiences.
As with two of his previous books, Raphael once again approaches a familiar subject from a slightly different angle than that usually presented in historical narratives targeted at general audiences.1 Rather than focusing solely on well-known political and military figures, Founders presents Revolutionary America as viewed through the experiences of seven individuals and underscores five themes. Providing something of a representative sample, his cast of characters includes George Washington, Joseph Plumb Martin, Mercy Otis Warren, Robert Morris, Timothy Bigelow, Henry Laurens, and Thomas Young. Throughout the book (and consistent with his earlier work), Raphael focuses on the themes of popular sovereignty, inclusion and exclusion, exchanges of power, constraining authority, and expansion.
Though Raphael ostensibly begins in 1754, and the title of his book (at least to this political scientist) seems to convey an emphasis on the events surrounding the Constitutional Convention and ratification debates, he is clearly most interested in the events leading up to and during [End Page 150] the Revolutionary War. Sixteen of twenty chapters focus on the period between 1765 and 1783. Events before 1765 are covered in a single chapter, as are both the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War and the Constitutional Convention, with one chapter dedicated to each. The final chapter, "Lives and Legacies," completes the stories of the seven individuals Raphael follows throughout the book and reflects on their place in the retelling of the Revolutionary story.
Continuing in the theme of A People's History and The First American Revolution, Raphael clearly sees class struggle as a key element of the Revolution, and he likes to call attention to both the role of common people and the leveling effect of the "Revolution within the Revolution" on American society. Whether describing the formation of the American Political Society in Worcester, Massachusetts (and its subsequent "takeover" of the town government), the drafting of the "radical" Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, or the difficulties faced by pro-Revolution elites as they were forced to come to grips with the democratizing effects of the Revolution, Raphael seems most at home when exploring and emphasizing these themes.
Raphael is a fine writer and does an outstanding job of interweaving his themes with the lives of the individuals he follows (as well those immediately surrounding them) into a coherent narrative. Though his book is obviously targeted at a mass audience, Raphael has written a serious history based on extensive research and a reliance on primarysource documents. As popular history, Raphael's book certainly succeeds. His relatively unique approach is such that nonspecialists will learn a great deal about Revolutionary America. Particularly noteworthy is his bringing to light the centrality of Robert Morris to the Revolutionary cause. Even for specialists, Founders warrants attention. While few will encounter any new material on George Washington or Joseph Plumb Martin, many will learn a considerable amount about Henry Laurens, Robert Morris, and Mercy Otis Warren. And I, for one, knew nothing of Timothy Bigelow or Dr. Thomas Young prior to reading Raphael's book. Any scholar not already possessing extensive knowledge of all seven individuals profiled by Raphael would certainly gain from reading Founders.
Paul Gilje's The Making of the American Republic was written as an upper division undergraduate textbook, primarily for use in courses on the early republic. His approach is to place the historical narrative in the context of an underlying interpretive theme centered on "how the creation [End Page 151] of the United States helped to foster an aggressive individualism and the dynamic economic patterns that we associate with American capitalism" (vii).
First and foremost, Gilje's work deserves praise for being so thorough and yet so concise. Only a scholar with Gilje's mastery of early American history could produce such a complete and concise narrative of early America (not to mention one combined with a thematic argument). I was continually struck while reading The Making of the American Republic by how comprehensive Gilje's treatment was; a truly remarkable feat in such a short volume (indeed, Gordon Wood's comments on the back cover refer to this, but one must really read Gilje's book to believe it).
Though designed for a course on the early republic and with selfdescribed "focal point" on the period, The Making of the American Republic nonetheless does an excellent job of covering the Revolutionary period as well, making this a wonderfully complete treatment of early American history. Gilje begins and ends utilizing Benjamin Franklin's life to tie his theme together. Intervening chapters cover Revolutionary America, the formation of the early republic, the competing Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian visions, the election of 1800, westward expansion, early trade and diplomacy, and the War of 1812. Chapter 4, "Revolutionary Visions Unfulfilled," focuses specifically on the roles of Native Americans, African Americans, and women.
Though written and marketed as an "interpretive text" based on its underlying approach linking the formation of the republic to the development of American capitalism, those considering adopting The Making of the American Republic should know the interpretive theme is somewhat more subtle throughout the larger narrative than one might anticipate. This is not a problem in terms of using the book as an undergraduate text; indeed, I think it actually increases the versatility of the book, as instructors wishing to emphasize Gilje's theme could easily assign additional readings (by Gilje or others) reinforcing the capitalism-early republic argument. 2 Instructors preferring a more straightforward narrative could simply rely on the book as is, with additional readings chosen according to their own preferred emphasis. I point this out only as there seemed to be something of a disconnect between the description [End Page 152] of the book, which made it seem as though the interpretive theme would be much more explicit and forceful than it actually was, and the rather subdued argument in the text itself.
Both Ray Raphael and Paul Gilje have written books that fit nicely into their respective niches. Raphael's Founders will undoubtedly broaden the horizons of the general reader with an interest in the American Revolution, but it manages to offer something for historians and political scientists as well. Gilje provides instructors with an accessible, thorough, and remarkably concise narrative of early American history that also promotes critical thinking—certainly desirable features in any undergraduate text.
Ryan Petersen is assistant professor of political science at Delta College (University Center, Michigan).
1. A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence (New York, 2001) and The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord (New York, 2002).
2. For example, Wages of Independence: Capitalism in the Early Republic (Madison, WI, 1997).