on November 12, 2007
Countless historians have written about the accidental or noninevitable nature of the American Revolution. The story bears repeating for Americans have enough trouble remembering what happened in their own lifetimes let alone 225 years ago. In the capable hands of Joseph Ellis the miracle of the founding is once again brought to life. As he did in Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, Ellis takes another look at the achievements and the failures of the founding of the republic.
Ellis admits that his version of the founding is not very au courant with academic history departments. Here the founders have been reduced to dead white males who were "racists, classists, and sexists, a kind of rogues gallery of greats." Nor does he subscribe to the other extreme view, that the founders were demigods who created the republic through some masterstroke of divine inspiration.
The reality was that the founders were exceptional, but not without their flaws. Rather than one continuous narrative, Ellis has written seven essays dealing with certain pivotal events between the formative years of 1775 and 1803.
In the tradition of the "great man" school of history, Ellis chronicles certain key moments in American history as they were being acted out by famous individuals. Very different from, say, Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present (P.S.), a victim's history of America. We have Washington and the Continental army at Valley Forge; John Adams during the writing of the Declaration of Independence; James Madison and Patrick Henry at the Constitutional Convention, etc. The triumphs are well-known even to a forgetful country.
The tragedies that Ellis speaks of (to which Zinn devoted his entire book) were the failure to abolish slavery and to come up with a "truly just Indian policy."
The issue of slavery was never resolved because the Southerners at the Constitutional Convention threatened not to ratify unless slave-holding rights remained intact. Looking the other way was the only way the founders could get the new charter ratified. The issue festered for many years until it was abolished by the belated and bloody Civil War.
Ellis also has an excellent chapter on the negotiations between War Secretary Henry Knox and the charismatic Indian leader Alexander McGillvray. They were unable to consumate a peace treaty because their respective constituencies rejected the terms of the agreement.
Both tragedies were the product of the newly created and imperfect democracy. Southerners did not want to end slavery and Westerners did not want to allow the Indians any land. It was the tragedy of a democracy in which not every person had the right to vote.
If 1775 to 1803 was the time of American Creation, the years 1786 to 1788 were the most consequential. The debate between James Madison and Patrick Henry during the Virginia Ratifying Convention on federal and state's rights left open the question of which would have supremacy. The question is still open and the debate is still going on. The tension between state and federal government remains one of the most distinctive virtues of American government. Madison argued that government should not have the answers, but provide a forum for the debate. Now that's revolutionary.
Joseph Ellis is a terrific historian and, by self-proclamation, shuns the politically correct editorializing of American history which is a very welcome change from many 21st century historians.
Like "Founding Brothers" which deservedly won many prizes, this book is a collection of "stories" about the founding of America starting from 1775 and the outbreak of war and the Declaration and ending in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase. In between are Valley Forge, the writing of the Constitution "starring" James Madison, Washington's Indian policy and the development of political parties. Also like "Founding Brothers" Mr. Ellis includes little known facts to embellish the histories and give a fresh perspective. Particularly "new" were his accounts of Valley Forge and Washington and Knox's attempts to rewrite America's Indian policy. the former put the myth in perspective and the latter was this country's only attempt to incorporate the Indians (eventually) into America.
As good as the content was - and it was very good - I found the pacing and writing a bit plodding. Also, although Mr. Ellis eschews "hindsight" history, I found he engaged in it fairly frequently, especially regarding slavery.
There were some recurring themes through the collection, such as republicanism vs federalism, dubious limits on executive power in the Constitution and the "Spirit of '76" vs the federal sovereignty, but the stories are best taken separately as no central theme carries throughout.
This is a very good history, just not as readable as "Founding Brothers" and some other recent Revolutionary era histories (like "Washington's Crossing" and "Revolutionary Characters").
on November 21, 2007
While touring to promote his Founding Brothers, Ellis was asked, "Why do we have to choose between John Kerry and George Bush when 200 years ago we could have chosen between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson?" Fascinating question, and his answer, American Creation, is a truly insightful and well-crafted book.
Ellis breaks the founding down into a number of different pieces like the War for Independence, Slavery, the Louisiana Purchase, the Constitution and Native Americans. He treats all of them very even-handedly, framing them in the context of what the realities were around 1800, but also giving penetrating insights into how we might look at things differently today and why.
The theme that runs throughout the book is that the people Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and Washington were fallible characters who were meaningfully different from the legends Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and Washington we see now. That said, Ellis really shows how an alignment of the right thoughts, the right time and the right opportunity conspired to pull some extraordinary things from people who might have remained unknown to history had the planets lined up differently.
You come away from the book understanding far more about what the politics of the founding were really like. In some ways, they aren't as dissimilar from today's politics as we might think; in other ways, they are, but for very specific reasons that Ellis makes clear.
Highly recommended for any fan of history.
Joseph Ellis has already authored a number of very well received books on early American history: Founding Brothers, American Sphinx (focusing on Thomas Jefferson), and His Excellency (about George Washington). This book is yet another very nice contribution to our understanding of the period from the Declaration of Independence through the early 19th Century. The subtitle, perhaps, says a great detail about the content of this book: "Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic." Ellis notes in his Foreword that (page xi): "This is a story, then, about tragedy as well as triumph, indeed about their mutual and inextricable coexistence."
At the outset, he observes some of the great accomplishments of the Revolution and Founding: the colonies won their independence from the greatest power of the day; the Founders created the first large scale republic; they created a secular state (although I would argue that Ellis overstates matters somewhat with this statement); they divided power among states and the national government; they developed political parties as channels for ongoing debate (although, again, the Founders thought that party was evil, and their development was not understood at the time in such glowing terms). The tragedies? An unwillingness to address slavery and the status of Native Americans. In simplest terms, this represents what this book is about, the development of a new nation and innovative ways of organizing governance--coupled with inherent strains that created their own problems.
One of the special talents of Ellis is his richly drawn characters. Here, Washington, once more, is drawn nicely by Ellis, so that he is not the cardboard figure that often shows up in high school textbooks. Just so, John Adams is nicely portrayed in his complexity--vastly talented, a little uncertain of his place, someone who spent enormous energy on defending his place in American history. Vignettes about the shortest American President, James Madison, and his unusual political brilliance, are telling. One nicely drawn point here: how Madison finally convinced an originally resistant George Washington to be one of Virginia's delegates to the Constitutional Convention.
He spends time on key episodes, such as Washington's dawning realization that, to win the Revolutionary War, he must fight a defensive war, going against everything he wanted to do. Or the machinations of producing a document overthrowing the American government under its first Constitution, The Articles of Confederation (with Madison as a key player). The various historical set pieces conclude with the Louisiana Purchase, under Jefferson's presidency.
In his brief Afterword, he contends that (page 241): "The American Founding lasted for twenty-eight years, from 1775 to 1803. The point? In that historically brief point in time, there was created on this continent a new nation, operating on principles not seen in the family of nation-states at that time.
While I do have some quibbles about this book (as noted earlier), this is a very well done analysis of what happened in the critical era from 1775 to 1803. The reader will have his or her understanding of the Founding challenged and invigorated by this book. Even though I disagree with some elements in Ellis' argument, I am nonetheless impressed with his work and, by grappling with it, have a better sense of what was at stake in that short period of time that he explores.
on July 8, 2008
Joseph Ellis is a well-known writer of popular histories, winner of both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, so I began American Creation with high expectations. Of course, the major players at the Founding have filled countless books. As the author points out, it's tough to even-handedly write about men who were early cast as heroes or villains in our now almost mythological past. Like his "Founding Brothers," "American Creation" is a series of sketches. Each chapter examines the principal actors at a pivotal moment in the history of the Founding. Ellis begins with Adams, subject of his "Passionate Sage," then moves to the equally familiar Washington, the subject of "His Excellency." Next is James Madison, who was, briefly, during the Constitutional Convention, less Virginian than Nationalist. Rarely mentioned failures are also included in Ellis' story: the treaty-by-treaty betrayal of the Native Americans, and the avoidance of the slavery issue in order to win ratification for the Constitution. The evolution of political parties, and the author's fascination with the brilliant, slippery Jefferson segues into a final chapter on the Louisiana Purchase. In that one stroke, America changed from coastline bound Republic to continental Empire. What was missing-and what I expected from any book titled "American Creation" was the usual--any discussion of the innovative economic foundation upon which the modern U.S. stands. To any reader interested in this essential topic, the dollars and cents as well as the high flown ideals, I'd suggest Forrest McDonald's "Hamilton." Professor McDonald is a fierce partisan of his currently unpopular hero, but his discussion of the financial miracle Hamilton worked, saving the new born republic and laying the groundwork for the Purchase, is succinct and illuminating.
John Adams went to his grave thinking he should have gotten credit for writing the Declaration of Independence. President Washington and Henry Knox tried their best to save the Indians from extermination. Washington hosted the Indian Chief of the Creek nations for a month - with his chiefs in full Indian dress - and the chief was the biggest con artist on the continent. The farmers around Valley Forge sold food and supplies to the British while Washington's troops were starving. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison started the first political party. Whichever party occupies the White House is the one that wants extended executive privilege - even Thomas Jefferson. The other one, by default, wants more authority delegated to the states. Madison and Washington thought the end result of the Constitutional Convention was a miserable failure. The Constitution gave up too much federal authority and made the separation between branches and between federal authority and state authority vague, forcing a never-ending forum for debate in American politics. The American Revolution was almost guaranteed to succeed - as long as we virtually never engaged the enemy.
This book is about several stories in American history - The Continental Congress, starring John Adams; Valley Forge, starring Washington; The Constitutional Convention, starring Madison; the Louisiana Purchase, starring Jefferson with a host of co-stars; and the forming of the first political party, starring Jefferson and Madison. Beautifully written, Ellis picks out enough to tell his stories with overall insight, adding strategic little known facts that make it interesting. Of course, in a book of this size, volumes of detail are missing, but he successfully captures the big picture.
Overall, Jefferson looks worse than usually pictured - he had a chance to address the Indian question and the slavery question with the Louisiana Purchase (which fell completely into his lap), but he blew it. He also looks as much or more partisan than anyone in present day politics. Adams comes off better than I've seen him portrayed before, and Washington is his usual impeccable self. These three and all the other founders range from very interested to obsessed about their legacy in history - to the point of editing old letters and self-censoring new outgoing correspondence.
Highly recommended for the general audience, this book has political insights valid to present-day politics. I may not think much of the current man in the oval office, but Ellis shows that Bush isn't the first President to have over-extended his presidential authority.
on December 21, 2007
If I have to recommend one book about 18th century America, it would be Joseph Ellis's brilliant, Pulitzer Prize winning Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. In "Brothers", Ellis used a series of events and themes in order to reflect on the character of 8 main American Founders, and on various themes of the American Revolution. Not only is Ellis's book beautifully written, it weaves together a large scale analysis of the main ideological and political aspects of the American Revolution with a careful study of the personalities involved. In short, it is a tour de force, and one that had a special effect on me since I read it while touring Philadelphia, and seeing first hand the various sites where Washington, Jefferson and the rest of founders quarreled and worked to shape their vision of America.
In "American Creation", Ellis, a historian and a Founder-biographer (he has written well received biographies of John Adams, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) returns to the style of "Founding Brothers" for six more episodes focusing on the "Triumphs and Tragedies" of the American Revolution. Ellis is still a graceful writer and an insightful historian, but as they say, you can't catch a lightning in a bottle twice; "American Creation" is a very good but imperfect history, which treads on grounds familiar from Ellis's and other historian's other writings. When Ellis approaches what is mostly new ground for him (That is, stuff that he hasn't written about in Founding Brothers or in his biographies of Washington and Jefferson, he might have written about it elsewhere), his account is interesting but fails to offer the kind of comprehensive view that made "Founding Brothers" so compelling.
Of the six episodes, four return to a dominant theme of "Founding Brothers": the clash between `The Spirit of `76', that is, the libertarian and radical ideology of Tom Paine and the declaration of Independence, and the `Spirit of `87' - the pragmatic, centralist belief in a strong Federal government that would protect the American experiment. In his discussion, Ellis doesn't merely recapitulate themes raised in "Founding Brothers" but rather demonstrates how these themes played out in different contexts.
The first chapter, "The Year", focuses on the 15 months between the commencement of hostilities between Continental and Imperial British troops and the declaration of Independence. Ellis's main theme is that at the time, even the radical American leaders were actually conservatives: they may have used extremist "rights of man" language, but their purpose was a conservative revolution, a struggle for political power and independence and not a utopian restructuring of the world. Ironically, it has been their triumph that promoted the values which they later tried to reign in.
The third chapter "The Argument" focuses on the creation of the Constitution of the United States of America. After releasing the radical ideology from the bottle in the Revolution, the Federalists such as Madison, Hamilton and Washington had been appalled of the results. Fearing the spread of anarchy and the eventual collapse of the American Experiment, they have pushed forward a qualified counter revolution - moving power from the states to the central government, and bringing forward a more consolidated government, with a more powerful executive to form, hopefully, a more perfect union. Here the irony is in the shifting views of James Madison. Madison entered the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as the nationalist's nationalist, and bitterly resented having to water down his centralized conception of America. But while pressing for the ratification of the American Constitution, Madison discovered that the compromises he had been forced to make in the convention saved him during ratification, in which he defended the American Constitution as not all that centralized, after all.
Madison's change of heart plays a central place in the fifth chapter "The Conspiracy", in which he breaks away from his one time Federalist collaborators, and becomes a leader of the first American opposition party along with Thomas Jefferson. This chapter is the closest to "Founding Brothers", and readers of the latter would find very little that is new. Novices to Ellis may be surprised by his vehement anti-Jeffersonian attitude, which remains more or less unchanged.
The final chapter, "The Purchase", offers another ironic twist in the plot: The anti-Federalist Republican party, led by Thomas Jefferson, has captured the presidency. Yet in it's time of greatest triumph it betrayed its principles. In one of the most brazen act of Executive initiatives in American history, Jefferson purchased Louisiana from Napoleon, thus doubling the size of the American republic, and leading the way to the triumph of the American Empire, as well as to its major tragedies: the spread of slavery and the destruction of the native Americans.
The second chapter is the least interesting, offering an account of Washington's stay in Valley Forge. This chapter focuses on the American War of Independence and it the weakest because the war had been only a part of a larger scale conflict between the major world powers of the day, primarily Britain and France. By focusing only on America, Ellis offers a distorted view of the war, and his analysis of military strategy is not insightful enough to compensate.
The most intriguing and frustrating chapter is the fourth, chronicling the efforts of the first Washington administration to find a just solution to the problem of the native Americans. The main weakness here, I think, is that unlike the other topics of American history, this has been relatively scantly investigated; Thus the conceptual tools for addressing it are lacking. Basically, Ellis offers a convincing picture of the destruction of native Americans as more or less inevitable: white settlers would not obey any treaty limiting their spread, and the Federal government had neither the strength nor the will to oppose them. "Indian Removal" was the necessary consequence of demographics.
"American Creation" is a fascinating and extremely well written book; I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in American history: but if you haven't, read "Founding Brothers" first.
on May 17, 2008
First, I can't say it better than another three-star reviewer who said Ellis was becoming a Consumer's Digest historian.
Take the slavery issue. Yes, Jefferson was a hypocrite, and yes, he deliberately pulled away from the fire during the Missouri Compromise process, but Ellis has nothing in between this time and the Louisiana Purchase about Jefferson's stance. Or Madison's, for that matter.
Another thing. If Jefferson and Adams are two of your four "featured Founders," why no discussion of their voluminous correspondence after the end of Jefferson's presidency?
Why the stinting on Adams in general, which makes the book read like it's about 3.5 Founders, not 4?
And, given that Hamilton is shown here is more than a foil, but a bete noir, for both Jefferson and Madison, why is he not included as a "fifth Founder"?
That said, without being "PC," Ellis does do a good job of removing Founders, especially Jefferson, probably the most overrated president in our country's history, from their pedestals. And, on things like the Founders' dealings with both slavery and American Indians, he may have percolated a desire in some readers to read more in depth in these areas.
on December 22, 2014
I could not put this book down because I became captured by it's presentation of this era of our country's founding. It covers the time from the Declaration of Independence to the Louisiana Purchase, a period almost unknown to most folks today, and covers the period in a way that for me at least put so many things regarding our founding in perspective. I strongly endorse this book as one of the ones that every American shoud read to understand where we came from.
This is a thoughtful and well-done study of the major issues confronted by the founding generation of American leaders. As has been repeatedly (and uncritically) celebrated elsewhere, the Founding Fathers in some respects succeeded quite brilliantly. More interesting, however, are their failures: and the two that Ellis puts his finger on are the issues of slavery and Native Americans. Apart from some wishful thinking by Jefferson and Washington that the problem of slavery would take care of itself by withering on the vine, the Founding Fathers in essence papered over the problem and punted to the next generation. But, as Ellis points out, there really was no way of solving the problem given the strength of the South and its willingness to secede (at this early stage of the nation when there was as yet little loyalty to or overarching notion of a federal nation). Punting to the next generation was tragic, but the alternative was the dissolution of the nation and with it the probable prolongation of slavery.
The American Indian question is interesting given Washington and Knox's commitment to resolving it in favor of recognizing large settlements of Indian nation states. The problem was that government was powerless to stop the hordes of settlers who constantly pushed the Indians out.
While multiculturalism became a defining element of the American character, the nation at its birth simply could not conceive of a multiracial society. We were founded on principles of religious tolerance, but tolerance for other cultures was an acquired taste. Thus, all the hagiography of the original Founders is blind to the fundamental narrowness of their vision -- and of the vision of the early republic as a whole. The Founding Fathers of the multicultural nation that emerged in the twentieth century -- Lincoln, Douglass, Truman, Kennedy, King, Johnson -- should perhaps be celebrated a bit more.
Not that Ellis is disrespectul of the original Founders or is guilty of the cardinal sin of presentism -- he's just refreshingly open about the nation's "original sin" of slavery and of imperial conquest of the Indians.
While not as entertaining as "Founding Brothers," this is quite good.