Book review: American Creation

Just finished Joseph J. Ellis’ follow-on to Founding Brothers.  Fantastic read – sample the first 16 pages the next time you’re browsing in a book store (if you are among those who still visit book stores).  They ought to be the foundation of every American history course from 9th grade on.

American Creation covers much of the same ground and characters as Brothers, but focuses less on biography and more on process, especially the intricacies of the (sometimes ugly) political to-and-fro.  This is a good remedy to those who labor under the illusion that there ever existed an era in which “all the smart people came together and agreed on what had to be done.”  Politics is politics.  Like RWR said, they say it’s the second oldest profession but it bears a striking resemblance to the first.

Ellis breaks the story into 5 “triumphal” and 2 “tragic” elements and details the how and why they became either:  e.g.,  staunch anti-Federalist Jefferson violated his principles to purchase Louisiana; Washington’s failed efforts with the Creeks to establish the model for co-existence with the native tribes; the nastiness of the Founders during the birth of the two-party system; and more.  And more.  Here are the 5 and the 2:

  1. The first successful war for colonial independence in the modern era.
  2. The first to overcome  the inherent weaknesses of republican government on a large (nation-size) scale:  indecisiveness and management of a far-flung population.
  3. The first state built on something other than shared religious convictions as the primary basis for unifying ideology.
  4. Created multiple and overlapping sources of authority, and turned that blurring of jurisdictions into an asset.
  5. Created political parties as institutional channels for ongoing debate, permitting dissent to be not treasonable but the natural and legitimate part of an endless argument.
  1. Left slavery intact, enabling it to spread like a cancer to new territories, thus rendering any peaceful solution impossible.
  2. The seeds of Indian extinction east of the Mississippi were indisputably sown in the late 18th century.

Ellis provides the textbook for how this era should be taught, neither as a collection of demigods nor as dead white men:

“Taken together, these triumphal and tragic elements should constitute the ingredients for an epic historical narrative that defies all moralistic categories, a story line rooted in coexistence of grace and sin, grandeur and failure, brilliance and blindness.  No aspiring historian, or novelist could wish for more.”

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