American creation : triumphs and tragedies at the founding of the republic

by Joseph J. Ellis

Hardcover, 2007




New York : A. A. Knopf, 2007.


An ironic examination of the founding years of our country. Historian Ellis guides us through the decisive issues of the nation's founding, and illuminates the emerging philosophies, shifting alliances, and personal and political foibles of our now iconic leaders. He explains how the idea of a strong federal government, championed by Washington, was eventually embraced by the American people, the majority of whom had to be won over. And he details the emergence of the two-party system--then a political novelty--which today stands as the founders' most enduring legacy. But Ellis is equally incisive about their failures, making clear how their inability to abolish slavery and to reach a just settlement with the Native Americans has played an equally important role in shaping our national character. Ellis strips the mythic veneer of the revolutionary generation to reveal men possessed of both brilliance and blindness.--From publisher description.… (more)

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LibraryThing member stretch
Joesph Ellis asks an interesting question to begin [the American Creation], how did a group of otherwise unremarkable men of a largely unremarkable colonial outpost forge a republican nation-state that has thrived and fulfilled many of its Founders unrealized ideals?

From the start the Founders faced long odds to create a government from a handful of untried concepts. First there was the matter of winning a war with the most powerful empire on the planet. Then there was the formation of a government that is to represent the people and their special interests. Our advantages were few. The passion of the men and women and space were what we had and a willingness to give their lives for something they big then themselves. Most historians emphasize the importance of the Enlightenment and the burgeoning idea of the individual as way of explaining this very unique period of political creativity. Ellis certainly acknowledges that the Enlightenment, but argues that an equally important factor was the immediate circumstances that surrounded the crucial decisions of the early nation. To answer his own question, Ellis makes the case that the Founders abilities to compromise and improvise to achieve their common goals and incidentally build a legacy that still inspires the masses today. According to Ellis the 1st 20 years of America's history was not the great debate that older history books would have us believe. Instead those early days were full of frantic improvisation, constant reconfiguration of plans, and groups of Founders conspiring with and against each other to create an imperfect republic that is as much a process for governing a nation as it is a structure. A combination of events pushing our early nation to a brink of disaster and a willingness of a group of remarkably ordinary men to see past what divides them, to what unites them; to create an ongoing, never ending conversation. A conversation about the realm of the federal and state governments, the role of the judiciary branch, and finally how best to represent that every shifting temperament that is known as the “people”. A conversation that makes Founders of every generation. A conversation that both divides and unities us as a people. This was the greatest gift the Founders left for future generations to mold a government to best fit their circumstances.

What was created was a triumph of human imagination; it was also a monumental failure. The founders failed to dissolve slavery. They failed to come to a fair and equable deal with the Native Americans. They failed to grant the rights they so cherished to their wives and daughters. It was left to future generations of men and women to solve the inadequacies and inequalities of the Founders. We would fight a bloody civil war to wash our nation of the terrible stain of human bondage. Only to cause the suffering a segment of our own people nearly a century of Jim Crow before they achieved legal equality. Native American tribes would be devastated and their lives turned upside down, we still haven't accounted for those ills. Women would have to fight for their rights and liberties. Labor unrest and a bias towards immigrants are nothing new to us. Our past is full of the kind of ugliness that most would like to overlook and its clear our work to achieve that elusive goal of a more prefect union still isn't done. In the face of all our problems for the republic to continue to last for as long as it has, is a testament to the genius of conversation started in the late 1790s. I can't recommend Joesph Ellis' [the American Creation] enough.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5673. American Creation Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, by Joseph J. Ellis (read 1 Feb 2020) This book, published in 2007, is the fourth book by its author I have read. It, like the others by its author I have read is incisive and makes persuasive arguments for its accounts of selected events from 1776 to 1803. The triumphs include the Declaration of Independence, the overcoming of the bitter time at Valley Forge, and the Louisiana Purchase. The tragedies are the failure to deal with slavery in the creation of the republic and the treatment of the Indian tribes. Ellis has a sure hand in discussing the extremely interesting and significant situations he deals with. He recognizes the abilities and failings of Washington, Jefferson and other figures involved with the founding of the Republic. I read the book because the other books by Ellis I read (Founding Brothers [read 25 Apr 2001], American Sphinx [read 27 Dec 2002], and Passionate Sage [read 19 June 2010] were so well-written and consistently interesting and I found this book of similar high quality..… (more)
LibraryThing member libri_amor
Ellis fashions an imminently readable and refreshing perspective on the American founding from 1775 to 1803. Despite having read several recent books including 1776 and biographies of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, I found much new information in this book.

For example, the discussion of the pivotal role that Madison played in the behind-the scenes maneuvering for the constitution (pro-Federalist) and then his complete reversal to become a co-leader with Jefferson of the anti-Federalist group.

Ellis's treatment of the first diplomatic treaty negotiations with Alexander McGillivray leader of the Creek Indian nation provides a very interesting account of a little known episode in our early history

In summary, Ellis's premise that the failings of this creation period to adequately address slavery and the future of American Indians (east of the Mississippi) set the stage for the future failures of government is very compellingly presented.
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LibraryThing member theageofsilt
Ellis seeks to move away from the notion that the Founding Fathers were all-wise and all-knowing to focus on the issues that shaped our nationhood. The tension between state and federal government, between government and citizen shaped the framework of our government and the very lack of resolution of these tensions has permitted our country to evolve. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the Louisana Purchase which shows Jefferson willing to put aside his insistence on the primacy of the states to use federal power to vastly enlarge the nation. Napoleon's plot to invade Santo Domingo and use it as a staging area to claim Louisana was new information for me. Oh, those duplicitious French!… (more)
LibraryThing member EvaCatHerder
This is an incredibly well-written and thought-provoking book. I spent a couple of semesters in graduate school reading and thinking about the formation of the US Constitution and both historical and contemporary interpretations of the founding fathers' intentions. This book was easily the most readable of many of the books I have read, but also extremely informative and illuminating.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the origins of our governmental system and the evolution of the argument over states rights.
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LibraryThing member santhony
Having read biographies of Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton and Vidal’s quasi-fictional work on Burr, in addition to other works by McCollough on the revolutionary era, I was far from impressed by the beginnings of this work by Joseph Ellis. You can only rehash the same history from every conceivable angle before the story grows stale.

Fortunately, however, only the first third of this audiobook dealt with the period of 1775-1782. Thereafter, the story turns to the often neglected period after 1782, in which the fledgling republic, struggling under the inadequate Articles of Confederation is dragged, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the Constitutional era. Ellis chooses to make James Madison the hero of this story (perhaps electing not to challenge some of the outstanding biographers of other luminaries). Certainly, Madison is a worthy subject, though arguably no more influential than Hamilton or Jefferson.

After dealing quite well and extensively with the creation and adoption of the Constitution, Ellis moves on to the very worthwhile history of the fledgling Republic’s troublesome dealings with the various Indian tribes located between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic colonies. Another period of history not frequently dealt with, but well worth the effort and well covered by Ellis.

Finally, Ellis turns to the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, focusing on the Louisiana Purchase, what he considers the final definitive act in the founding of the American republic. There is some excellent analysis concerning the hypocrisy displayed by Jefferson, not just over the issue of slavery, but the stunning acts of federal power wielded by the face of Republicanism.

As stated above, the first third of the story is a familiar rehash of the Revolutionary War period; nothing much new to offer. Thereafter, however, Ellis takes on the succeeding twenty years, a time in which the fledgling republic was very fragile, held together almost exclusively by the reputation and will of one man, George Washington. With Washington’s exit, the rise of party politics led to repeated clashes between advocates of state’s and personal rights (republicanism) and advocates of power concentrated at the federal level (federalism). This fascinating interplay and the analysis provided by Ellis make this a worthy investment of your time.
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LibraryThing member spounds
Not as good as "Founding Brothers," but still, I learned some things. I especially liked the chapters on McGillivray and the Creeks. I had never heard that story and being from Oklahoma, I probably should have. I also like the chapter on the Louisiana Purchase...a new view.
LibraryThing member addunn3
Ellis explores in depth six topics around the founding of US, such as the handling of Indians, the Purchase, the creation of two parties, and slavery. Interesting perspective on topics long since stereotyped in school and our culture. The true stories are much more interesting. Well written, though a bit repetitive in some areas.… (more)
LibraryThing member EvaCatHerder
This is an incredibly well-written and thought-provoking book. I spent a couple of semesters in graduate school reading and thinking about the formation of the US Constitution and both historical and contemporary interpretations of the founding fathers' intentions. This book was easily the most readable of many of the books I have read, but also extremely informative and illuminating.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the origins of our governmental system and the evolution of the argument over states rights.
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LibraryThing member denmoir
A selection of themes from the Revolution and establishment of the Republic. Well done
LibraryThing member Jarratt
This book seeks to somewhat succinctly answer the question: How did America's founding happen? Author Joseph Ellis then tries to answer the question with six chapters: The Year (April 1775 - July 1776), covering the decision of our founders to free themselves from British rule; The Winter, which focuses on the decision by Washington to not take the fight to the red coats, but to let land size and time effectively wear them down; The Argument, which covers the national discussion about The Constitution and the power (or lack thereof) of the federal government over states; The Treaty, which focuses on the United States' first official dealings with a foreign power, namely the Native Americans who were considered sovereign states; The Conspiracy, which shows how a two party system came to be, even though it was the last thing the founders wanted; and finally, The Purchase, which covers Jefferson's manipulation of Spain and France in the purchase of Louisiana, effectively guaranteeing the whole of what is now the continental US.

While I found the book interesting, I didn't find it very compelling—I didn't yearn to keep reading it. Maybe it's because I'm burned out a bit on the subject matter. The writing is very good and rich with irony, but at times I thought it meandered just a bit.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
In this little gem of a book, Joseph J. Ellis argues that one venerable interpretation of the founding of the United States, namely that it was a clash between “democracy” and “aristocracy,” is flawed. None of the Founders, even Jefferson, regarded democracy as a goal. All of the Founders were what we would call “elitists.” In fact, the term “democracy” was considered an epithet. The core question was rather how to create a viable nation-state. The clash was between those who favored a wholly sovereign national government (the Federalists like Washington and John Adams) and those who wanted to preserve state sovereignty over all domestic issues (the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson).

Ellis asserts that the founding generation was very successful in at least five respects, but woefully inadequate in at least two. First the good news: the Founders (1) waged the first successful war for colonial independence in the modern era; (2) established the first nation-sized republic; (3) created a wholly secular state, with genuine freedom of religion; (4) rejected Aristotle’s concept that sovereignty had to reside in a single place; and (5) created political parties as institutionalized channels for ongoing debate. The bad news was that they failed miserably (1) in handling Native Americans and (2) in dealing with the institution of slavery.

Rather than tackling the entire founding era (which Ellis defines as 1775-1803), Ellis describes only a few distinct and seminal “events,” almost like short stories, to illustrate themes that run through the entire period. In a chapter entitled “The Year,” we see how the revolution was more of an evolution, in which the nature of the opposition changed from a group of King George’s loyal subjects who just didn’t want to be taxed, to a group of increasingly audacious statesmen who desired complete independence. In another chapter, Ellis explores how Washington perforce changed strategy from direct military confrontation to modified guerrilla warfare, using America’s extensive space to avoid pitched battles where possible and to wear down his British adversaries.

Ellis does an impressive job of analyzing the debate about the adoption of the Constitution and the abandonment of the Articles of Confederation. The struggle lay in determining the relative power of the new federal government vis-à-vis the states. Ellis describes the resolution of the issue as “The Great Compromise,” which “essentially declared the theoretical question of state versus federal sovereignty politically unresolvable except by a split-the-difference structure that neither camp found satisfactory. The only workable solution was to leave the sovereignty question unclear.”

With victory over the British came the thorny problem of how to deal with the many Native Americans who lived between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. Despite the somewhat good intentions of George Washington and John Adams, the government was never able to adopt a satisfactory strategy or negotiate an equitable treaty with the various tribes. Instead, the inexorable pressures of a rapidly increasing white population and desire for cheap western land resulted in the driving of the tribes from their historic homes and the near extinction of them as a people.

Ellis’s treatment of the Louisiana Purchase is particularly well wrought. Napoleon Bonaparte was frustrated in his efforts to prevent Haiti from winning its independence from France. Moreover, his troops both in Haiti and on the mainland were being decimated by yellow fever and malaria. Napoleon's disgust with the whole enterprise presented the young American government with an opportunity to double the size of its realm at a very low price. In fact, the purchase could be financed entirely with the sale of land in the new territory to eager American buyers. The problem for then President Thomas Jefferson was that the Constitution did not specifically authorize the president (or anyone else) to take such dramatic measures. Jefferson had based his entire political career on limiting the power of the federal government. In the event, Jefferson ignored his Republican scruples because he just could not pass up the opportunity to increase the size of the republic. Ellis says, “…there was no getting around the blatant fact that it was a violation of his political creed, in effect a sin.” But, as Ellis added, “…without the capacity to enlarge presidential power toward monarchial levels of authority, it is difficult to understand how republican government could effectively respond to any genuine crisis.”

While there were numerous positive results of the Louisiana Purchase, it sealed the doom of Indians east of the Mississippi by providing a place where Eastern tribes could be relocated. [Many died during the forced relocations, or shared the fate of the tribes in the West by being annihilated or placed in reservations on the land the whites didn’t want, i.e., the most economically unviable.]

Another theme that resonates through the book is the attitude of many of the Founders to the institution of slavery. Many followed Jefferson’s “Virginia Compromise,” by simply ignoring the issue, as if the mere discussion of it amounted to a form of treason. Most of the Founders thought the problem was insolvable (at least while they were alive; the idea of emancipation evoked the unsavory prospect giving up their own slaves!). Very few of them could imagine a bi-racial society. Even most of the most liberal thought the solution would require the relocation of blacks to another country, either in Liberia or the Caribbean. Ellis shows how the Louisiana Purchase exacerbated this problem by adding a large new territory where there was no agreement about the reach of slavery.

Evaluation: This book does not add much to what was already known about the Founding period or the Founding Fathers, but it does present it in a well-organized and very readable style. I highly recommend this intelligent and perceptive analysis of the Founding Era as an addition to your Early American History library.

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LibraryThing member justplainoldcj
Thoughtful, engaging work that humanizes historical figures in a well-constructed narrative.
LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
This book serves as a good introduction to the American Revolution and the early years of the American republic. Ellis does not attempt to cover everything, but he does pick out seminal events (the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the winter at Valley Forge, the emergence of political parties, the Louisiana Purchase) to explore in detail and illustrate how the United States came to be. With its read-able style, this book is excellent for anyone seeking a history of this era.… (more)
LibraryThing member Waltersgn
Excellent accounting of the period 1776 to 1803 which Ellis considers as the formative period of the American nation.
LibraryThing member nmele
An interesting examination of six episodes in the early days of the U.S.: the break with Britain, the winter of Valley Forge, the writing of the Constitution, the creation of the Republican Party, the failure of Washington's attempt to treat native Americans fairly, and the Louisiana Purchase. Ellis refers often to the issue of slavery but only discusses it at any length in the chapter on the Louisiana Purchase, a shame since he sheds light on these other founding events we have all learned about in school.… (more)
LibraryThing member Doondeck
Elis has always done a masterful job of bringing the founders to life. His insight into their personalities is only matched by his clever commentary on the events of the day.


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