Tuesday, May 29, 2012


A review of Joseph J. Ellis’ American Creation (2007)

 (Rating 5 of 5)

 My very first history book review was on Ellis’ His Excellency, years later I am now reviewing another one of his books. American Creation focuses on six early episodes that were significant to the establishment of the Republic. Ellis’ book discusses the significance of everything that went on in 1776, the winter at Valley Forge, the Constitutional Convention, the formation of the two-party system, and the Louisiana Purchase. This book is both easy to read and very informative.

One of the things the book focuses on is the unique character not only of the Founding Fathers, but also of the era of which they lived. Ellis points out they are in a unique time because they are both immune to the bias of the old order and the new order’s bias has yet to be developed.

“The founding generation, then, had the advantage of occupying a place in time that enjoyed the benefit of post-aristocratic access to latent talent without the liabilities of a fully egalitarian society in which an elitist sense of superiority was forbidden. Living between two worlds, without belonging completely to either, the founders maximized the advantages of both.” (p.15-6)

When discussing the events of the year 1776, there were many tracts explaining the American position to what they saw as their rights within the British Empire. However, it was Thomas Paine who took to the pen and explained what the American rights ought to be as an independent power.

“Whereas Adams had defended American claims to legal sovereignty over their own domestic affairs with conspicuous erudition in Novanglus (1774), Paine clinched the argument with the observation that an island could not rule a continent. Instead of tiptoeing around the sensitive question of royal authority, thereby endorsing the illusion that George III was some distant father figure anxious to undo the misguided travesties of his own ministers, Paine launched a frontal attack on George III and the very idea of monarchy itself.” (p.42)

Thomas Paine, Author of Common Sense and foe of monarchy
When discussing what type of government that the nation needed in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, the Founders took a bold step that stood against political tradition and wisdom. They would create a very large Republic; something that people in the past believed could not be done. The United States of America would be first to show that republican government can oversee a great power.

“Then Madison took yet another theoretical step, generally regarded by most historians and constitutional scholars as his most brilliant contribution to modern political science. The conventional assumption, most famously articulated by Montesquieu, held that republics worked best in small geographic area, where elected representatives remained close to the interests of the citizens who elected them. This prevailing assumption had in fact shaped the argument against parliamentary authority during the pre-revolutionary debates over British taxation and was the major reason why control of the purse was vested in the colonial, then state, assemblies. But Madison had just spent many pages in ‘Vices’ demonstrating that proximity to the electorate had not produced responsible political behavior by state legislators. Quite the opposite: the overwhelming evidence, as Madison read it, revealed a discernible pattern of gross irresponsibility, a cacophony of shrill voices, a veritable kaleidoscope of local interests with no collective cohesion whatsoever.” (p.105)

James Madison, believed that a large republic could work
One of the failures of the Founders, according to Ellis, was their inability to construct a just policy and settlement with the Native American tribes. Part of the reason for the failure is the average white Americans would violate any treaty their government would sign and the early American government was not yet strong enough to get them to obey the treaty laws. One of the Native leaders who the Washington Administration tried to work with was Alexander McGillivray and for a while it looked like it might work out, however in the end it would be to no avail.

“His prowess as a Creek leader derived from his intellectual rather than his physical strengths. His father sent him to Charleston to receive a classical education in Latin and Greek. McGillivray was fluent in English, Spanish, and Creek and well read in British and European history. When most Indian chiefs were confronted with the conquest explanation for their loss of standing after the Treaty of Paris, they could respond only with a mixture of confusion and disbelief. McGillivray denounced the conquest theory as a violation of international law.” (p.143)

Alexander McGillivray, Creek leader who Washington tried to work with
The early American political battles were fierce. Americans had not yet worked out, like the British, the concept of a loyal opposition. Each side literally believed the other was out to ‘undo the revolution.’ This caused a lot of extreme mistrust between the two sides. Although there is a lot of propaganda today most politicians know it is propaganda, the Founders often believed their own stories.

“By any neutral standard, the picture that Jefferson and Madison saw in their heads was a preposterous distortion. How could two men who had never fired a shot in anger during the war suggest that Washington and Hamilton, both military heroes, were in any sense of the word ‘Tories’? How could John Adams, the acknowledged ‘Atlas of independence,’ be tarred with that same brush? As for monarchial ambitions, Washington had already demonstrated his immunity to all such ambitions by rejecting the crown at the end of the war, and his efforts to define the powers of the presidency all operated within the framework of republican presumptions.” (p.171-2)

There was never an action that strengthened the power of the Federal government and the powers of the Executive branch more than the Louisiana Purchase. And Thomas Jefferson who came to the presidency trying not to do those sorts of things that would require implied powers, did it. However, in the end it was the right decision. America might have been a third rate power if he did not.

“Always an optimist about the future and the judgment of ‘the people,’ Jefferson consoled himself that ‘the good sense of our country will correct the evil of construction when it shall produce evil effects,’ meaning the constitutional precedent he was setting would not become a precedent at all, a prediction that proved wrong.” (p.226-7)

Thomas Jefferson elected President on a platform of states' rights did more to increase Federal power than any while in office

Louisiana Purchase
American Creation is a helpful little book pinpointing almost all of the most important political events in the first thirty years of our nation’s history. Joseph Ellis always does a remarkable job.

{The video is the fine work of ReasonTV.}

Sunday, May 27, 2012


A review of David O. Stewart’s The Men Who Invented the Constitution: The Summer of 1787 (2007)

 (Rating 5 of 5)

 The Summer of 1787 is master piece. David Stewart takes us to arguably the most important event in U.S. History— the writing of the U.S. Constitution— and places it and a very smooth flowing narrative. Stewart explores the ups and downs of the very hot and often chaotic convention. The great majority of the delegates’ time is focused on representation in the Congress between the ‘big’ vs. ‘small’ states and the slave holding vs. non-slave holding states. The Convention was called for during a time where the states were about to tear their union apart. The recent chaos of Shay’s Rebellion put the need for a stronger federal government front and center.

“Americans needed to think long and hard about what sort of government would preserve their independence and their precious liberties. They needed a government that could hold the states together, develop the huge western territories, and lead Americans to their rightful place in the world. Four months after marched into the mouths of cannon manned by other Americans, the Philadelphia Convention would meet to create that new government. In an act of inspired improvisation, it would produce the world’s longest-running experiment in self-rule, twenty-two decades and counting.”(p.16)

 One of the things that I thought was most interesting about the Convention had to do with the ‘Great Compromise.’ Often when Americans first take a class on Civics in school they learn of the big-state Virginia Plan and the small-state New Jersey Plan and it was ‘the Great Compromise’ that saved everything and kept the delegates together. However in real life Sherman’s proposal—that let the House be decided by population and the states represented in the Senate equally—was proposed really early and voted down. As the debates that kept raging on centered around representation, eventually leading to the proposal of the New Jersey Plan. The introduction of the New Jersey plan to challenge the Virgina plan that the delegates had been working off of as their base idea, forced the delegates to reconsider Sherman’s proposal. One can also imagine vast July heat contributing to some of the decisions in that room.

“The Convention’s secrecy rules worsened the problem, keeping the East Room’s windows and doors firmly closed against eavesdroppers. Delegates gazed longingly though those windows, imagining cool zephyrs that would not be felt to the blessed arrival of quitting time.” (p.82)

Also, I was surprised to learn of how strongly that some of the delegates wanted to make sure power was kept on the east coast. Many delegates felt that if population determined representation then those going out west would one day out vote the Atlantic states in the Congress (as they do). These delegates wanted a provision that would give the Eastern states a permanent majority in the Congress. However the majority at the Convention stood by their republican principles.

 “The principle of equal treatment for new states—embraced unanimously by Congress in New York, and more reluctantly by the Philadelphia Convention—was novel. Beginning with Rome and continuing through Venice, republics had grown by conquest and colonization, but did not extend equal status to their new lands. America would take a very different approach. New states would stand equal to their predecessors. On this issue, Mason, Wilson, and Madison held the delegates to their republican ideals. The former colonials would not become colonizers.” (p.136)

The Men Who Invented the Constitution
The book focuses on some of the lesser-known delegates, such as John Rutledge. Rutledge and his Committee of Detail in the mid-Convention hijacked the Constitution, and tried to put in as many pro-slavery provisions as they could.

 “But they did much more. They added provisions that the Convention never discussed. They changed critical agreements that the delegates had already approved. Spurred by Rutledge, they reconceived the powers of the national government, redefined the powers of the states, and adopted fresh concessions on that most explosive issue, slavery. It is not too much to say that Rutledge and his committee hijacked the Constitution. Then they remade it.” (p.165)

John Rutledge
However theirs was not the last word. When the finally votes were taken many things the Rutledge put in there were taken out. Also the Committee of Style headed by some of George Washington’s close associates such James Madison and Alexander Hamilton would put the Constitution back on a pro-Union track. One member of the Style Committee was James Wilson, the Scottish immigrant who would pen the famous preamble.

James Wilson, author of the Preamble
Alexander Hamilton and James Madison
“The committee’s chairman was a senior, conciliatory figure, Johnson of Connecticut. The other four members, however, were all in their thirties, all unfriendly to state powers, and all from larger, cosmopolitan states. Those looking for the influence of General Washington would note that three were his protégés. Also, all four were brilliant.” (p.230)

 The book closes with a follow up to what the founders were doing in their closing years. It did not end well for all of them. Some of them ended up in debt, murdered, or just plain lonely. Nevertheless their actions would impact the nation would insure their legacies.

 {Video is from the history channel documentary Founding Fathers}

Friday, May 25, 2012


A review of David McCullough’s 1776: The Illustrated Edition (2007)

 (Rating 5 of 5)

Seeing that I have already reviewed 1776 as a book, I will just make a few passing comments on some of the illustration that graces this edition. This book is full of primary source material. Inside are paintings, copies of letters and publications, and even a photograph.

The paintings are truly remarkable. There was prime talent in the late eighteenth century. Some of the paintings are from the British master Alan Ramsay; including a few of his most famous works such as The Coronation of George III. A great deal of the work of the famous revolutionary painter, John Trumbull, is in here including The Signing of the Declaration,The Crossing of the Delaware, and The Surrender of the Hessians. I, personally, like Trumbull’s work the best.

       (John Trumbull)

        (Alan Ramsay)

 In the book are copies of originals letters, Washington’s commission, maps, and copies of the original publication of George III's pronouncement of rebellion and the Declaration of Independence. People in the eighteenth century spelled differently than we do today with letters ‘s’ and ‘f’ being interchangeable. The different spelling makes the material very difficult to read.

On another note, every year on July 4 our local paper (the Portland Press Herald) decides to publish the Declaration and writes ‘united States of America’ not capitalizing the 'u' because that is what Jefferson had in his original draft. However official published version that was issued by the Continental Congress had an all capitalized ‘UNITED STATES OF AMERICA’ in the document. Jefferson, it should be pointed out, did not capitalize the first letter in his sentences. So we should not overly look into what Jefferson did and did not capitalize.

My favorite thing in this book is a photograph from 1858 of a 102-year-old veteran of the Revolutionary War. Ralph Farnham enlisted at 18 in 1775 and was still around to take a picture in 1858.

(Ralph Farnham, one of the last Revolutionary War veterans alive in 1858.)

I would recommend any U.S. history teacher to get this book for his or her class.