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.}

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