Tuesday, November 18, 2008

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

In American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (2007) historian Joseph Ellis studies the thirty years following the American Revolution. He does so by focusing on discrete episodes, each of which had significant consequences for the new republic. These consequences included the development of a strong central government, the institution of slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, the creation of a two-party system, and the Louisiana Purchase. We meet again in each of these episodes the esteemed personages we know so well—Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and others. Ellis takes pains to portray the revolutionary period and the decades following as a crucial period during which the course and future of the nation were set. Good decisions were made, often by accident, or without foresight of their consequences. Bad decisions were made as well, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes through weakness of character.

Among the fortuitous results of this period were the development of the two-party system, which provided a way for disputes and disagreement to be aired and negotiated without violence. The institution of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans were considerably less desirable consequences. Although the Founders initially planned to treat the Indians in a decent manner, their plans soon foundered. Land set aside for the Indians was invaded by white settlers, and no one had any intention of pushing the white settlers off the land.

The penultimate episode of this period was the Louisiana Purchase, which converted the struggling colonies on the eastern side of the continent into an incipient national empire. The Louisiana Purchase had the effect of rendering null and void any imperial intentions of the French and the Spanish (whose fortunes were in decline anyway). And it provided territory for American expansion—nowhere else on the earth, Ellis points out, was there an expanse of land so rich and fertile.

Ellis does not treat the Founders as legendary heroes but instead as flawed men of flesh and blood who were sometimes inspired by their nobler selves and sometimes the victim of baser natures. Ellis has a real fondness for Washington, whose story he told elsewhere in a long and brilliant biography His Excellency George Washington (2004). He is fond as well of the ambitious and self-important John Adams, in many ways the engineer of the new nation. He admired the political expertise of James Madison. It's clear that he has problems with Thomas Jefferson, who despite his ideals was capable of self-deception, duplicity, and driving ambition.

When the revolution ended, the future of the nation was by no means certain. The loose confederation of states that formed after the revolution struggled on for a few years and then appeared on the verge of dissolution. No one expected it to survive. Washington's intervention led to the Constitutional Convention of 1788. A majority of the delegates there did not favor the kind of government the few proposed, a government whose authority would supersede that of the individual states. But by happenstance and deft maneuvering, the Constitution was approved.

In the nation's early years political candidates never ran for office or campaigned or admitted they desired to serve. To campaign, to express ambition, was to betray a character flaw that would disqualify one from eligibility to serve—ambition was not regarded as a noble trait. Therefore, Washington never left Mount Vernon when he was nominated to be president. When Madison plotted to get Jefferson elected in the 1800 election, he contrived not to tell Jefferson that he was a candidate—Jefferson may have known, of course, but the easiest way to circumvent the issue of the candidate who claims that he isn't interested in being a candidate was simply not to tell him. Jefferson lost to Adams in the 1800 election and became vice president. The stage was set for Jefferson to defeat Adams in the election of 1804.

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