Review of American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding Of the Republic by Joseph J. Ellis
A critical examination of the chronology of American presidents might lead us to the conclusion that there has been a drastic retardation in the qualities of exemplary leadership as showcased by the founding fathers that set a benchmark in statesmanship and laid down the foundations for institutions that would eventually become a blueprint for democracy all around the world. The founding fathers have come to be acknowledged as somewhat demigods by history students who see individuals like; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, as visionaries responsible for the victory of democracy, capitalism, liberalism, and the rule of law in the American State. Joseph Ellis, although acknowledging that these leaders belong to a revolutionary generation, takes a route scarcely traveled by other historians and highlights the mixed legacy of the founders
Joseph Ellis, an American professor and historian born on the 18th of July, 1943, has to his credit several books like; American Sphinx, His Excellency, Passionate Sage, and Founding Brothers. The review of these books really do much in revealing Ellis’s keen interest in the lives and times of the founders of the United States of America. American Creation could be seen as a continuation of his previous book, “Founding Brothers” with the major difference being the focus of the plot. While “Founding Brothers” seemed to hover around quite a number of key players and their relationship with one another, “American Creation” focuses more on a series of key events. Ellis in his book, American Creation, does well in illuminating the issues that clouded the various events that occurred during the 28 year period (from 1775 to 1803) that it took the American state to be found. Events like; the standoff between the federalists and their opponents, Valley Forge, and the Louisiana Purchase; were analysed by Ellis with a sort of Cost and Benefit Approach.
Ellis does his best through the organization of the book into six expository chapters (which is really just six essays) depicting six significant moments, to illustrate that the American founding, despite it’s great triumph erred in more ways than one, and also shed more light on the coexistence of this opposite significant actions. How did the same leaders manage to perform so great in some instances and so dreadfully wrong in others? Ellis tries to answer the question in his modest but useful book. In a brief 304 pages, he tells not one story but six in a series of essays about turning points in early American history.
A theme that Ellis tried to push in the book is his assertion that the founders were not demigods as they were believed to be, but rather pragmatist who seemed to adapt to the situation as they went along. It was on this basis that he agreed with John Adams (the 2nd president of the US), who said that things were “patched and piebald then”. Adam was quoted to have said that, “I ought not to object to your reverence for your fathers…..but I have no reason to believe that we were better than you are”, when a young man showered him with praises for being an integral part of a truly great generation. Ellis argued that the idea that founding of the United States was a clash being supporters of democracy and that of aristocracy was far from the truth. He believed that democracy was viewed as an attribute of governance rather a system of government and that the clash was really between the federalists (like John Adams and George Washington) and the republicans (like Thomas Jefferson), and that really mattered was the creation of a sustainable state. Ellis sees the differences in the ideology and characters of these leaders as being instrumental to their success. He also attributed another causative effect of the success of the American state especially in the political aspect to the absence of encrusted tradition, embedded institution, and socially sanctioned inhibitions.
Another reoccurring theme that Ellis tried to push in the book was his belief that the triumph of the rather least favourite army of the founders over the British imperial masters who could boast of the most powerful military force in the world at that time, was in embedded in the concept of space, and timing. Ellis backing up George Washington’s assertion that space is a priceless asset is better understood when we look at the natural endowment of America — a huge land mass coupled with the presence of a vast amount of resources. This undoubtedly makes the task of the occupation of the American province by the British forces a sort of Herculean task. We also see how Ellis analysed the change of strategy from direct military confrontation to a largely defensive posture after Valley Forge that used America’s vast land mass to avoid head on stringent battles. This strategy was very instrumental in wearing down the British force and help turn the tide of the war. The concept of timing is better explained through Washington’s words when he said, “that the birth of the nation came at an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period”. We could also see Ellis intention of proving that most of the nation’s successes were due to luck and favorable circumstances. A clear example being in the fact that If France didn’t have to deal with the rebellion of the Black population in Santo Dominigo, a rebellion that cost the French more than 60,000 lives, the Americans would have been dealt with more attacks than they could have probably been able to handle; or that if the Americans had a larger force as opposed to the smaller and ill-equipped army they had to work with, Washington might have taken a more confrontational approach to the British army which would have cost him the war.
Ellis also believed that the founding leaders were more interested in an evolutionary rather than an all too common revolutionary approach which was quite popular in those times. He believed that taking control over the rate at which political and social change occurred was very important. We see how the nature of the opposition transformed from a band of King Georg’s subject who just couldn’t continue paying taxes to the Imperial British government, to a rather emboldened group of statesmen who were ready to give all it takes for the purpose of absolute independence. Ellis writes in the first chapter of the book (the year) that, “the calculated decision to make the American Revolution happen in slow motion was a creative act of statesmanship that allowed the United States to avoid the bloody and chaotic fate of subsequent revolutionary movements in France, Russia, and China” . America was able to avoid devolution into a one-man despotism like that of France with Napoleon, Russia with Vladimir Lenin, and China with Mao Zedong. The political and individual diversities of the founders could be thanked for this.
But in all honesty, the book only seemed to receive a burst of live when Ellis took out time to address the issue of slavery and Native American relations, and how America’s founders were able to deal with it. Ellis was of the view that many of these white men in white wigs were well aware of their mistakes and some even could see that the impact of their failure would cause bleakness to the future of the American state. But this realisation is simply not enough. After emerging victorious over the British and creating a system of government that revolutionized governance in the world, you’d think that the issues of Native American and Slavery would meet a quick resolution. Well, think again. At every point when the right decision should have been taking regarding this issues, the founders somehow misplaced their ability of problem solving. The issue of slavery, as Ellis puts it, “violated all the principles that the American Revolution claimed to stand for.” Ellis also painstakingly points out that although individuals like George Washington and John Adams had a bundle of good intentions, and they tried to work out an agreement that would benefit both the American government and the Native Americans, but they failed in negotiating an equitable and rather encompassing treaty with the various tribes. The American government, instead, opted for a rather inhumane approach of driving the Native American tribes from the homes and lands that they’ve had for generations. This action almost led to the extinction of the Native American people.
The final theme that will be addressed here is that of Ellis’s believe that the most creative moment in American political history was the period between 1786 and 17788. The events that occurred these two years really did set the stage for the debate between James Madison and Patrick Henry. Madison was of the view that the role of the government was not the provision of answers, but rather that of the provision of a framework that allowed the pressing questions to continue to be debated.
From my perspective, which may be prone to a certain level of bias, I feel like the major question that Ellis tried to answer in the book, American creation, was how the founding leaders manage to do so great a job in various aspects like; waging the first successful war for independence from colonialism in the modern era, establishing the very first republic which possessed many attributes of a nation state, creating a liberal state with the principles of freedom, especially as regards to religion deeply rooted in its foundation, creating a federal state with sovereignty residing in more than one place, and the creation of the two party system as an institutionalized platform for continuous discussions and debates, and still managed to ruin the successes achieved in; the treatment of the Native Americans, and also the handling of the institution slavery.
If you asked me, I’d say Ellis did quite a fantastic job in answering this question. His approach of using a few events to illustrate the central themes that laid roots during his entire period was I’d say, rather delightful. His treatment of the Louisiana Purchase in particular was laudable. He described the events that led to the Louisiana Purchase, a transaction that saw the entire Louisiana territory being sold to France for $15 million, a sale which put a stop to the reacquisition of territory by the French empire but which also brought about the two most obvious and detrimental failures of the founding generation — failure to put an end to slavery and also the forceful removal of the eastern Native American tribes. I feel Ellis wanted to pass the subtle message of the founding leaders being hypocrites to a certain extent and exhibiting cowardice when bravery mattered most. We see that the Founders deliberately ignored the issue of slavery hoping it will go away, while some were not interested in solving the problem as they didn’t find the idea of a biracial American society desirable; some even sought the relocation of the blacks to Liberia or the Caribbean a better option — quite racist if I might say.
Playing the blame game with the issue would be a blatant error because actions taken were influenced by the period; we can however conclude that the concept of the founding leaders as heroes deserving of statues and monuments, and the recent concept of them as dangerous white males, are both wrong and in contrast to the actual mixed legacy left behind by the founders. Even Ellis describes the book as “an epic historical narrative that defies all moralistic categories, a story line rooted in the coexistence of grace and sin, grandeur and failure, brilliance and blindness.”
Ellis’s personality seemed to come through not just in the six chapters of the book, but also in the acknowledgments where he admits to getting rid of his research assistants because he didn’t get along with them — and then proceeded to write the whole book himself! In longhand! This action does well to reveal that the Ellis could care less about the destruction of icons; fools throughout history should expect a swift dismemberment from the Pulitzer Prize winner through strokes of his pen. Therefore, we see Ellis not bothered about describing life in the 18th century, but rather shinning the torch on the decision made by policy makers, and the debates and conversations had by them, and caring less about the repercussions of these decisions.
A major flaw in the writing of this book would be in the Ellis’s choice to focus on political debates which were highly discursive, and also segments of the book seemed unfocused at times. These flaws were almost corrected by the crisp style of writing employed by Ellis which showed his appeal for irony, and also his ability to show how the decisions that shaped the birth of the nation was shaped the characteristic traits and friendship and rivalries among the founding leaders. Another flaw in the contents of this body of work is the fact that it does not really add to our existing knowledge about the Founding Fathers, and in a much larger sphere — the Founding Fathers. This flaw can be ignored because the six chapter presentation of the various events was well organized and very readable.
The American creation was definitely a good read that did a lot in illuminating a lot of bleak areas on American history for me individually. The ability of the author to take into account “flawed greatness, the coexistence of intellectual depth and personal shallowness, the role of contingency and sheer accident instead of divine providence” is enough proof that history studied from this perspective provides an absolutely clearer and unbiased understanding of past events.