American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic
© Joseph Ellis
In Founding Brothers, Joseph Ellis used a series of nonfictional ‘stories’ about the founding fathers of the United States to illustrate how their personal relationships with one another shaped the struggle for independence and later the creation of the Republic. In American Creation, he uses the same approach, a series of vignettes, to explore moments which defined the course that Republic would take. Most occur after the revolution is won, and demonstrate how differently the founders dreamed from one another despite their accomplishments working with one another. The result is what I’ve come to expect of Joseph Ellis: colorful narrative history that doesn’t begrudge sympathy to any founder and leaves the reader with a fuller appreciation for the Revolution — one which sees the founders as men, not demigods, who struggled against not only the prejudices and foibles of third parties, but against one another and their own inner demons.
The titular triumphs are well known, like the Declaration of Independence and the miraculous survival of the Continental Army after Valley Forge, which was effected by both the persistent support of the people for the struggle and Washington’s adoption of a strategy that played to his strengths: avoid battle and focus instead on controlling the countryside. Even so, Ellis may pass along new information to students of the period: for instance, months before the storied Declaration of Independence was presented and signed, each American colony drew up a constitution for itself in preparation for the impending separation from England, asserting self-rule in a fashion with immediate practical effects and much less bombast. Of the tragedies, there are three: the failure to strangle slavery, the lack of any effective and just “Indian policy”, and the birth of vicious parties. All three have the same mother: the interests of Southern planters, asserting the sovereignty of their individual states and dismissing the authority of any central government influenced by merchants and bankers. Although Ellis is not a partisan historian, the verdict of his pen is more for the Federalists than the Republicans. The closest he comes to outright favoritism is in the chapter on party politics, “The Conspiracy”, in which he attempts to answer the question: why were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison so paranoid about the Federalists, acting as though men who had lead the assault against tyranny would become tyrants themselves? Adam’s authorization of the Alien and Sedition acts hadn’t yet come into being, nor had Hamilton suggested to Adams that South America could do with a proper invasion, but both make the student of history wonder if maybe Republican concerns weren’t justified to some degree. Jefferson emerges from the section seemingly like an ambitious lunatic, however — which, perhaps he was. Though regarded as a man of science, his romantic attachment to the French Revolution, which he devoted service to at the expense of the American government, reveals how profoundly irrational he could be.
None of the founders emerge from this narrative unscathed: even the divine Washington is revealed as only human, unable to will a perfect treaty with a native nation (the Creeks, here) into being: not are the Creeks cleverly led by a man who is treacherous as any Congressional politician, but American settlers have the damndest habit of not doing what the government would wish them to do. They keep flooding into Creek territory without a care in the world for foreign policy. Parliament would no doubt sympathize — and just wait until you try taxing them, George. Oh, wait — the whiskey rebellion is also covered. Men who occupy lesser roles in most Revolution narratives get to shine more here, like Roger Livingston, the Forrest Gump of the revolution, always somehow in the middle of the biggest moments of American history. American Creation is a fitting read for the Fourth, one which offers a vision hopeful yet sober of what was created, and what may yet be restored: a nation of the people, by the people, for the people.