Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic • By Joseph J. Ellis • New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007
Reviewed by Jeff Broadwater, associate professor of history at Barton College. He is the author of George Mason, Forgotten Founder (2006).
Joseph Ellis is one of those rare historians whose books invariably command a wide audience. American Creation should be no exception. It begins, appropriately enough, with a prologue in which Ellis takes to task contemporary scholars committed to writing history from the bottom up and often making it inaccessible to non-specialists. "For whatever the reasons, historians dedicated to a recovery of the experience of ordinary Americans in the past have chosen to abandon ordinary readers in the present, preferring to communicate only with each other" (p. 12). Their preoccupation with marginalized groups and obscure events, especially during the era of the American Revolution, Ellis describes as "somewhat akin to showing up at Fenway Park with a lacrosse stick" (p. 13).
Ellis also ruminates on the accomplishments of the founders: winning the first successful anti-colonial war in modern history, creating the first large republic and the first truly secular state, establishing a functioning two-party system, and as what he calls a corollary to all the rest, reconciling the egalitarianism of the Declaration of Independence with the pragmatism of the Constitution. Ellis purports to seek a balance between the older hagiography and today's more fashionable cynicism, but except for Thomas Jefferson, who seems to be such an enigma that he could not even be honest—or dishonest—with himself, the founders fare quite well in Ellis's hands.
Indeed, if there is an overarching theme, it is his attempt to explain how the founders were, on balance, able to do so much so well. Ellis argues that they benefited from their time, drawing inspiration from the liberalism and rationality of the Enlightenment, and from geography, exploiting in countless ways the resources of a vast, and relatively isolated, continent. In what some might see as a jab at historians of race, class, and gender, he also argues that his upper class, white male subjects benefited from their own diversity—a mix of values, talents, and personalities. They improvised, most astutely opting for a gradual, sustainable revolution, stumbling only on what seemed to be the intractable problems of race, failing to end slavery or to preserve the cultures of the eastern Indian tribes.
American Creation is essentially a collection of essays, but if the author leaves gaps in the story, he moves seamlessly from topic to topic. His first chapter, starring George Washington and John Adams, with Tom Paine in a supporting role, carries readers from the opening of the Revolutionary War through the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Successive chapters focus on Valley Forge and the debate over the ratification of the Constitution. The best essay may be on the attempt by Washington's secretary of war, Henry Knox, to promote a more humane Indian policy; the relentless expansion of white settlers, coupled with the weakness of the new government, doomed his efforts. Ellis's account of the creation in the 1790s of a new party system is fairly conventional, but his final chapter on the Louisiana Purchase is more provocative. Ironically, Thomas Jefferson's greatest accomplishment as president opened new territory to slavery and made possible the removal to the West of the eastern tribes.
American Creation is history from the top down with a vengeance. Ellis rarely descends from the first tier of the founders, but it may be no accident that his most intriguing chapter features the lesser-known Knox and Creek leader Alexander McGillivray. There is little new here, but Ellis has given readers an engaging introduction to the politics of the period, written with his customary panache, a command of his sources, and an unerring eye for the historical baseball at his metaphorical Fenway Park.