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Jack Rakove on Writing History, and the 1619 Project

Jack Rakove, William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies and professor of political science, emeritus, at Stanford University, is a leading scholar of the American Revolution and the framing of the Constitution, whose books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, and Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America. He recently spoke to the World Socialist Web Site about his work, the controversy surrounding the 1619 Project and trends in American history writing.

Tom Mackaman: Could you tell us something about your background, intellectual development, and your work?

Jack Rakove: I was born in Chicago. I’m one day older than the Marshall Plan, which means everybody knows my birthday is June 4, 1947. My father was Milton Rakove, [1] who was a well-known professor of political science, who taught mostly at what eventually became the University of Illinois Chicago. He went to college at Roosevelt University thanks to the GI Bill. He went on to the University of Chicago but had to drop out for a few years to make a living. He went back in 1954 when we moved from the west side of Chicago down to Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago. He was a student of Hans Morgenthau, [2] and was very close to Morgenthau, who lived about a block and a half away. From kindergarten to eighth grade, I went to five different public schools. When I finished the last year of Chicago public schools, my dad wanted me to go to Evanston High School, which was then one of the elite public high schools in the country.

I went on to Haverford College, and spent my junior year abroad at the University of Edinburgh, which was actually quite an interesting year, intellectually. There were a bunch of faculty at Edinburgh with ties to the journal History and Theory; they taught a course on the Theory and History of History so they got me thinking about philosophy of history questions, and not historiography in the narrow sense, but history as an analytical discipline. Are there covering laws in history for example? I think this is actually significant these days because I think few historians think deeply about issues of causation. As my mentor Bernard Bailyn argued, many of these philosophical and epistemological questions are not particularly interesting for what he called “working historians” when they set out to solve particular problems, what Bailyn called “anomalies.” But when one is thinking about a big problem like the origins of revolutions, including our own, causal explanations do become important. In general, the social scientists work much harder on this than historians do, but there are times when trying to think as they do is helpful.

Anyhow, from my undergraduate years at Haverford and Edinburgh I went on to grad school at Harvard in 1969, delayed by four months of active duty at Fort Knox and another half year working for the ACLU in Chicago. My undergraduate mentor, Wallace MacCaffrey, [3] was actually very close friends with Bernard Bailyn, but I was not an early Americanist when I started out. I had a general interest in the relationships between politics and political ideas. I came from a political household. I mentioned my father’s friendship with Hans Morgenthau, but in the early ’60s he got politically active. He became a speechwriter for Chuck Percy, [4] who was a liberal Illinois Republican who chaired the party’s platform committee in 1960, ran for governor in 1964, and became a senator. But my father was kind of a classic New Deal Democrat. We were just conventional liberal Democrats, and with the Goldwater boom, he wound up working instead for Otto Kerner, [5] who became governor, and then a federal judge.

So at the start I was interested in 20th century politics. But I was advised to take Bud Bailyn’s seminar, and that was transformative, just because Bailyn was far and away the most interesting person to work with.

TM: Tell us about Bailyn’s seminar.

JR: It wasn’t about American history per se. For example, he had us read a book by E. H. Carr [6] —you probably know the book, called The Romantic Exiles, which is about Alexander Herzen and his friends who were Russian émigrés.

TM: It’s interesting that Bailyn would assign that.

JR: Well, that’s because the Early American History seminar had nothing to do with early American history. We read all sorts of things. We read Lord Denning’s report on the Profumo scandal, which in Bailyn’s seminar had to do with the use of adjectives. We read David Cecil’s Melbourne, because of his use of transitional sentences. It all came down to the question of how it is you frame a narrative where you have lots of people doing lots of different things.

I became interested in Sam Adams, [7] whom I like to call America’s Trotsky. At lunch one day, Bailyn said to me that if one could figure out what Samuel Adams is up to, you could explain 30 percent of the revolution. So, I started thinking about his career. Of course, Sam Adams spent a lot of time in the Continental Congress, and I started thinking of the Massachusetts delegation to the Continental Congress, and that it might be interesting to look at that group to try to think about how politics changed over time after the revolution. There really wasn’t a good history on this subject. The historian who edited the original version of what’s called Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, eight volumes published between 1921-36, Edmund Cody Burnett, had written the narrative history but it had no analytical or interpretive aspect.

Read entire article at World Socialist Website