California Literary Review

American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic by Joseph J. Ellis

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June 23rd, 2008 at 9:15 am

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American Creation by Joseph J. Ellis
American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic
by Joseph J. Ellis
Knopf, 304 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

A Measure of Achievement

“The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of ignorance and suspicion, but at an epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period.” And with this quote from George Washington, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis begins to help us contemplate the times in a bit more detail. The result is American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, a pleasing, well-crafted examination of the founding era, defined by Ellis as the twenty-eight year period between the 1775 start of the War for Independence and the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.

Ellis – whose previous works include such period standards as Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson – goes on to argue that Washington was the first to suggest what would eventually emerge as the initial comprehensive explanation for the success of the revolution: one drawn from two incalculable advantages: timing and location. Over the preceding two centuries, Ellis notes, a number of English, Scottish, and French thinkers had generated a large body of political knowledge that undermined the medieval worldview about government, society, and even human nature itself. Further, that the American people were the beneficiaries of this accumulated wisdom – “it had yet to be called the Enlightenment,” Ellis reminds us – which, although it had its origins in Europe, was now destined to enjoy its fullest implementation in America, “…a blueprint for a new kind of political architecture that did not need to be discovered or invented, only applied.”

Added to this wisdom was the concept of location, envisioned by Washington as “…a vast tract of continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the world, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life….” Ellis reflects on the prophecy suggested by Washington’s words, especially since the western border at the time was the Mississippi, not the Pacific, and no one really knew what natural resources lay out there for future development and cultivation. But Ellis’ point is that the American republic began with physical and economic assets as well as a rich intellectual legacy of enlightened ideas. Accordingly, it could afford to make mistakes, as it inevitably would, because the sheer potential of the continent would rescue and redeem blunders that would have proved fatal in a more constricted European context. But Washington’s explanation aside, Ellis cautions that, “No matter how strong a hand had been dealt the revolutionary generation, it had to be played deftly. And if misplayed, all the advantages would collapse into a pile of humiliation and failure.”

Thus defined, Ellis charges us to “get our historical bearings,” and, to help us do so, he poses three factual questions: What, specifically, did the founding generation achieve? Why are they accorded such iconic status? And, what, in short, is all the fuss about? He then, in an effort to establish a foundation for the book, delineates five core achievements:
1. The revolutionary generation won the first successful war for colonial independence in the modern era, against all odds defeating the most powerful army and navy in the world;
2. they established the first nation-sized republic;
3. they created the first wholly secular state;
4. they rejected the conventional wisdom, agreed upon since Aristotle, that political sovereignty was by definition singular and indivisible, and must reside in one agreed-upon location; and
5. they created political parties as institutionalized channels for ongoing debate, which eventually permitted dissent to be regarded not as a treasonable act, but as a legitimate voice in an endless argument.

Ellis further maintains there were really two founding moments: the first in 1776, which declared American independence, and the second in 1787-1788, which declared American nationhood. Persuasively, he notes:

“The Declaration of Independence is the seminal document in the first instance, the Constitution in the second. The former is a radical document that locates sovereignty in the individual and depicts government as an alien force, making rebellion against it a natural act. The latter is a conservative document that locates sovereignty in that collective called “the people,” makes government an essential protector of liberty rather than its enemy, and values social balance over personal liberation. It is extremely rare for the same political elite to straddle both occasions. Or, to put it differently, it is uncommon for the same men who make a revolution also to secure it.”

Viewed from Ellis’ perspective, the American founding lasted for some twenty-eight years – again, from 1775 to 1803 – during which the United States enjoyed numerous precedent-setting triumphs such as declaring and winning its independence, initiating a gradual revolution in the social landscape, establishing the political architecture for a viable nation-state, and defining plausible prospects for a truly continental empire. Still, as Ellis recognizes, there were also more tragic repercussions. For example, slavery south of the Potomac became a deeply embedded presence that relentlessly spread westward. Further, a vital Native American existence east of the Mississippi was put on the road to extinction. On one hand, Ellis observes, “…an enduring American republic, previously regarded as either improbable or impossible, now appeared quite likely. On the other hand, the prospects for a sectional battle over the preservation of slavery appeared inevitable. Both the seminal achievements and enduring failures of the American founding were now locked in place.”

In the final analysis, Ellis suggests that perhaps the core question posed at the founding – and one which would soon greatly impact the slavery and Native American scenarios – was not whether the United States should become a democracy, but whether it should become a viable nation-state. Further, that the chief difference of opinion was not simply a clash between elitists and egalitarians – for both the Federalists and the Republicans were elitists – but between those favoring a wholly sovereign federal government and those anxious to preserve state sovereignty over all domestic policy. So while Jefferson’s election in 1800 did have democratic implications – chiefly by limiting the authority of the federal government over individual lives – it also “…eliminated any chance of providing a political solution to slavery, the most conspicuously undemocratic feature of the founding, which required precisely the kind of robust federal power that the Jeffersonians viewed as a betrayal of their principles. It also, not so incidentally, made a moral resolution of the Native American problem politically impossible.”

American Creation is a thoughtful, ambitiously argued text that students of the revolution, as well as professional historians, will find to be of considerable value. More to the point, while Ellis’ prose is compelling and his command of the subject is evident, the book moves a significant step beyond what might be considered a “normal” history of the times, and emerges as a reflective examination of the complexities inherent in the American progression from revolution to republic.

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