American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic Paperback – Oct 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.
*Starred Review* In a structure similar to his Founding Brothers (2000), which examined leading American revolutionaries at critical episodes, Ellis selects "certain propitious moments" from the American Revolution and early republic, dramatizes them, and analyzes their crucial ramifications for America's future. Those Ellis discusses, such as a sense of nationalism or the Founders' failure to constrain slavery, emerge as contingent developments. What Ellis emphasizes in this set of incisive narratives is the possibility that history could have taken some very different directions and that what occurred is unjustifiably endowed with inevitability. Subjects include the debate preceding the Declaration of Independence; the ordeal of Valley Forge; the beginning of the party system in the 1790s; and the Louisiana Purchase. Collectively they illuminate, argues Ellis, the Founders' anxieties about the constitutional nature, territorial extent, and permanence of the republic they were constructing. All the Founders had reservations about the nation-state that resulted. Their maneuvers to alter it, such as an effort by Washington's secretary of war to change Indian policy from dispossession to accommodation, crystallize in Ellis' outstanding acuity about the successes and failures of the Founders. A history bound for phenomenal popularity. Taylor, Gilbert --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.See all Product Description
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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.
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").
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.
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.