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.