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American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic Paperback – October 14, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This subtle, brilliant examination of the period between the War of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase puts Pulitzer-winner Ellis (Founding Brothers) among the finest of America's narrative historians. Six stories, each centering on a significant creative achievement or failure, combine to portray often flawed men and their efforts to lay the republic's foundation. Set against the extraordinary establishment of the most liberal nation-state in the history of Western Civilization... in the most extensive and richly endowed plot of ground on the planet are the terrible costs of victory, including the perpetuation of slavery and the cruel oppression of Native Americans. Ellis blames the founders' failures on their decision to opt for an evolutionary revolution, not a risky severance with tradition (as would happen, murderously, in France, which necessitated compromises, like retaining slavery). Despite the injustices and brutalities that resulted, Ellis argues, this deferral strategy was a profound insight rooted in a realistic appraisal of how enduring social change best happens. Ellis's lucid, illuminating and ironic prose will make this a holiday season hit. (Nov. 5)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Reviewers embraced American Creation for the same reason they enjoyed Elliss previous books: his treatment of the Founding Fathers is neither idolatrous nor iconoclastic. He portrays them as the fascinating, complex, and human characters they really were. Some historians disagreed with details of Elliss interpretation, but they tended to emphasize that, like the founders themselves, Ellis has created a useful framework in which the ideas of the Revolutionary period can be discussed. Elliss prose, on the other hand, did not inspire any comparisons with Thomas Jeffersons; in fact, several reviewers suggested another round of editing. But all critics agreed that the authors masterful handling of the material checked and balanced the occasional tyrannical sentence.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top customer reviews
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.
Whenever I go to Amherst, I carry all my Joseph Ellis books, hoping to see him or to gain an audience with the grate man/mind. His signing my collection would be grand. Maybe I'll see him enjoying the popovers at Judy's.
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.
Star characters include Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Knox, Madison, Hamilton, and others.