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American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (2007)

by Joseph J. Ellis

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In this little gem of a book, Joseph J. Ellis argues that one venerable interpretation of the founding of the United States, namely that it was a clash between “democracy” and “aristocracy,” is flawed. None of the Founders, even Jefferson, regarded democracy as a goal. All of the Founders were what we would call “elitists.” In fact, the term “democracy” was considered an epithet. The core question was rather how to create a viable nation-state. The clash was between those who favored a wholly sovereign national government (the Federalists like Washington and John Adams) and those who wanted to preserve state sovereignty over all domestic issues (the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson).

Ellis asserts that the founding generation was very successful in at least five respects, but woefully inadequate in at least two. First the good news: the Founders (1) waged the first successful war for colonial independence in the modern era; (2) established the first nation-sized republic; (3) created a wholly secular state, with genuine freedom of religion; (4) rejected Aristotle’s concept that sovereignty had to reside in a single place; and (5) created political parties as institutionalized channels for ongoing debate. The bad news was that they failed miserably (1) in handling Native Americans and (2) in dealing with the institution of slavery.

Rather than tackling the entire founding era (which Ellis defines as 1775-1803), Ellis describes only a few distinct and seminal “events,” almost like short stories, to illustrate themes that run through the entire period. In a chapter entitled “The Year,” we see how the revolution was more of an evolution, in which the nature of the opposition changed from a group of King George’s loyal subjects who just didn’t want to be taxed, to a group of increasingly audacious statesmen who desired complete independence. In another chapter, Ellis explores how Washington perforce changed strategy from direct military confrontation to modified guerrilla warfare, using America’s extensive space to avoid pitched battles where possible and to wear down his British adversaries.

Ellis does an impressive job of analyzing the debate about the adoption of the Constitution and the abandonment of the Articles of Confederation. The struggle lay in determining the relative power of the new federal government vis-à-vis the states. Ellis describes the resolution of the issue as “The Great Compromise,” which “essentially declared the theoretical question of state versus federal sovereignty politically unresolvable except by a split-the-difference structure that neither camp found satisfactory. The only workable solution was to leave the sovereignty question unclear.”

With victory over the British came the thorny problem of how to deal with the many Native Americans who lived between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. Despite the somewhat good intentions of George Washington and John Adams, the government was never able to adopt a satisfactory strategy or negotiate an equitable treaty with the various tribes. Instead, the inexorable pressures of a rapidly increasing white population and desire for cheap western land resulted in the driving of the tribes from their historic homes and the near extinction of them as a people.

Ellis’s treatment of the Louisiana Purchase is particularly well wrought. Napoleon Bonaparte was frustrated in his efforts to prevent Haiti from winning its independence from France. Moreover, his troops both in Haiti and on the mainland were being decimated by yellow fever and malaria. Napoleon's disgust with the whole enterprise presented the young American government with an opportunity to double the size of its realm at a very low price. In fact, the purchase could be financed entirely with the sale of land in the new territory to eager American buyers. The problem for then President Thomas Jefferson was that the Constitution did not specifically authorize the president (or anyone else) to take such dramatic measures. Jefferson had based his entire political career on limiting the power of the federal government. In the event, Jefferson ignored his Republican scruples because he just could not pass up the opportunity to increase the size of the republic. Ellis says, “…there was no getting around the blatant fact that it was a violation of his political creed, in effect a sin.” But, as Ellis added, “…without the capacity to enlarge presidential power toward monarchial levels of authority, it is difficult to understand how republican government could effectively respond to any genuine crisis.”

While there were numerous positive results of the Louisiana Purchase, it sealed the doom of Indians east of the Mississippi by providing a place where Eastern tribes could be relocated. [Many died during the forced relocations, or shared the fate of the tribes in the West by being annihilated or placed in reservations on the land the whites didn’t want, i.e., the most economically unviable.]

Another theme that resonates through the book is the attitude of many of the Founders to the institution of slavery. Many followed Jefferson’s “Virginia Compromise,” by simply ignoring the issue, as if the mere discussion of it amounted to a form of treason. Most of the Founders thought the problem was insolvable (at least while they were alive; the idea of emancipation evoked the unsavory prospect giving up their own slaves!). Very few of them could imagine a bi-racial society. Even most of the most liberal thought the solution would require the relocation of blacks to another country, either in Liberia or the Caribbean. Ellis shows how the Louisiana Purchase exacerbated this problem by adding a large new territory where there was no agreement about the reach of slavery.

Evaluation: This book does not add much to what was already known about the Founding period or the Founding Fathers, but it does present it in a well-organized and very readable style. I highly recommend this intelligent and perceptive analysis of the Founding Era as an addition to your Early American History library.

(JAB) ( )
  nbmars | Jul 2, 2014 |
Thoughtful, engaging work that humanizes historical figures in a well-constructed narrative. ( )
  justplainoldcj | Dec 9, 2013 |
This book about various aspects of the founding of our country is more detailed and technical than many people would enjoy. It did offer some insights and information that were new to me. ( )
  proflinton | Jul 4, 2013 |
An interesting examination of six episodes in the early days of the U.S.: the break with Britain, the winter of Valley Forge, the writing of the Constitution, the creation of the Republican Party, the failure of Washington's attempt to treat native Americans fairly, and the Louisiana Purchase. Ellis refers often to the issue of slavery but only discusses it at any length in the chapter on the Louisiana Purchase, a shame since he sheds light on these other founding events we have all learned about in school. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
Ellis explores in depth six topics around the founding of US, such as the handling of Indians, the Purchase, the creation of two parties, and slavery. Interesting perspective on topics long since stereotyped in school and our culture. The true stories are much more interesting. Well written, though a bit repetitive in some areas. ( )
  addunn3 | Mar 14, 2013 |
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Chapter One: The Year
If permitted the historical license to stretch the definition of a year, then the fifteenth months between the shots fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 and the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776 can justifiably claim to be both the most consequential and strangest year in American history.
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“American republic began with physical and economic asset as well as a rich intellectual legacy of enlightened ideas.”
The recent surge is the emphasis on flawed greatness, the coexistence of intellectual depth and personal shallowness, the role of contingency and sheer accident rather than divine providence. The founding has at least become the topic in an adult conversation rather than a juvenile melodrama populated only by heroes or villains.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 030726369X, Hardcover)

From the prizewinning author of the best-selling Founding Brothers and American Sphinx, a masterly and highly ironic examination of the founding years of our country. The last quarter of the eighteenth century remains the most politically creative era in American history, when a dedicated and determined group of men undertook a bold experiment in political ideals. It was a time of triumphs; yet, as Joseph J. Ellis makes clear, it was also a time of tragedies—all of which contributed to the shaping of our burgeoning nation.

From the first shots fired at Lexington to the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the negotiations for the Louisiana Purchase, Ellis guides us through the decisive issues of the nation’s founding, and illuminates the emerging philosophies, shifting alliances, and personal and political foibles of our now iconic leaders—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Adams. He casts an incisive eye on the founders’ achievements, arguing that the American Revolution was, paradoxically, an evolution—and that part of what made it so extraordinary was the gradual pace at which it occurred. He shows us why the fact that it was brought about by a group, rather than by a single individual, distinguished it from the bloodier revolutions of other countries, and ultimately played a key role in determining its success. He explains how the idea of a strong federal government, championed by Washington, was eventually embraced by the American people, the majority of whom had to be won over, as they feared an absolute power reminiscent of the British Empire. And he details the emergence of the two-party system—then a political novelty—which today stands as the founders’ most enduring legacy.

But Ellis is equally incisive about their failures, and he makes clear how their inability to abolish slavery and to reach a just settlement with the Native Americans has played an equally important role in shaping our national character. He demonstrates how these misjudgments, now so abundantly evident, were not necessarily inevitable. We learn of the negotiations between Henry Knox and Alexander McGillivray, the most talented Indian statesman of his time, which began in good faith and ended in disaster. And we come to understand how a political solution to slavery required the kind of robust federal power that the Jeffersonians viewed as a betrayal of their most deeply held principles.

With eloquence and insight, Ellis strips the mythic veneer of the revolutionary generation to reveal men both human and inspired, possessed of both brilliance and blindness. American Creation is a book that delineates an era of flawed greatness, at a time when understanding our origins is more important than ever.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:47:32 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

An ironic examination of the founding years of our country. Historian Ellis guides us through the decisive issues of the nation's founding, and illuminates the emerging philosophies, shifting alliances, and personal and political foibles of our now iconic leaders. He explains how the idea of a strong federal government, championed by Washington, was eventually embraced by the American people, the majority of whom had to be won over. And he details the emergence of the two-party system--then a political novelty--which today stands as the founders' most enduring legacy. But Ellis is equally incisive about their failures, making clear how their inability to abolish slavery and to reach a just settlement with the Native Americans has played an equally important role in shaping our national character. Ellis strips the mythic veneer of the revolutionary generation to reveal men possessed of both brilliance and blindness.--From publisher description.… (more)

» see all 4 descriptions

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