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His Mission Is Sorting Out America's Messy Revolution

The Huntington Library's John Rhodehamel tackles what we think we know about our founders and their era.

April 22, 2001|TIM RUTTEN | TIMES CULTURE CORRESPONDENT

Aristocratic by temperament, but democratic by conviction; instinctually conservative, but intellectually audacious.

The attributes so frequently applied to the American republic's founders might be used with equal justice to describe the Huntington Library, the understated powerhouse among contemporary Los Angeles' significant cultural institutions.

So, it seemed almost fated that when the prestigious Library of America went in search of an editor for its new anthology of original historical documents--"The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence"--it settled on John Rhodehamel, the Huntington's Norris Foundation Curator of American History.

After all, Rhodehamel is not only the author of fluent and critically admired scholarly books on George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the Bill of Rights, but also a curator who, since joining the Huntington in 1986, has mounted exhibitions that have been seen by more than 1 million people. That is not an inconsiderable accomplishment when what is on offer are documents that must be pored over and not images that can be imbibed in the blink of an MTV-conditioned eye.

The exhibitions are the public face of Rhodehamel's work as the manuscript librarian for the Huntington's extraordinary archive of American historical documents. In that capacity, he manages acquisitions, conservation, exhibitions and publications and ensures that the American collection remains accessible to qualified scholars.

Rhodehamel also served as the editor of the Library of America's highly successful 1,200-page collection, "George Washington: Writings," and the fruits of their latest collaboration are powerful, startling and a subtle but profound challenge to much that we think we know about the founders and their era.

In just 900 pages, Rhodehamel has made room for 120 individual selections by 70 writers. There are the familiar voices of America's patriotic pantheon, but also those of British officers, diplomats, high tories, conflicted loyalists, witnesses to heroism, folly, mutiny, atrocity and the altogether messy business of making revolution.

Few who have written about the collection, for example, have been able to avoid quoting one British officer's chilling account of the Battle of Ticonderoga's aftermath: "The wolves came down in numbers from the mountains to devour the dead, and even some that were in a kind of manner buried, they tore out of the earth; the great stench thro the country being the cause of their coming down."

There is throughout "The American Revolution" a sense of just how much brutality and high principle intertwined at the republic's birth. A reader is particularly struck with the bloody-mindedness of the war's progress in the South, where the many loyalist militias made revolution essentially a civil war. One can read a disgusted tory jurist's account of the events on Bunker Hill without agreement and yet come away with the sense that his appraisal of the local revolutionary officers' opportunism and veniality has the ring of truth.

But because Rhodehamel is both a realist about the Revolution's circumstances and an idealist concerning its legacy of political principle, the sum of all these gritty, chaotic details somehow deepens a reader's sense of the founders' accomplishment.

The 'New Age' of America

It also leaves one with a sense of how the distance between contemporary Americans and founders involves more than time. One recent afternoon in San Marino, during a conversation in the Huntington's gardens, the 51-year-old Rhodehamel discussed that and other implications of the anthology. The exchange was prefaced, however, with apologies for any apparent weariness. He and his wife, Johanna, an illustrator of children's books, are the parents of 1-year-old triplets--Catherine, Jack and Sam.

But "the 18th century is another world" from the one his children inhabit "in a way the 19th century is not," Rhodehamel explained.

"All of these changes the revolution brought forth essentially created a modern world that had not existed before," he said. "To take just one example, you had this hierarchical society, where power and privilege ran up and down. That began to break up after the revolution, though the process was not complete until the 19th century. All that--what has been called 'the essential radicalism' of the American Revolution--is clear to us now but was utterly obscure to the participants at the time."

In other words, the revolution's very success in creating a fundamental break with the past now impedes 21st century readers from fully understanding the minds and sensibilities of intellects and characters formed before 1776. "To understand that aspect of the 18th century," said Rhodehamel, "requires something that is almost like a spiritual discipline."

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