I’m not sure where my fascination with the founding of the United States comes from. I think it has something to do with being very familiar with the musical ‘1776’ from the time I was a very small kid, but honestly, I couldn’t tell you. I’ve just always been interested in it, and by Thomas Jefferson especially, but that interest has expanded way past Jefferson. I’m a pretty voracious consumer of knowledge on the founding of my country these days.
Joseph J. Ellis has written a large number of books on the creation of the United States. I haven’t read all of them or read them in any order, but the first one I read was His Excellency, George Washington back in 2006. It gave me a new appreciation of Washington. This was during college. I also followed that up in college with Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.
For some reason I really took to Ellis. I don’t know what it was about his writing that I enjoyed. I still can’t quite explain it. One of my college roommates found his writing very dull, but I liked it as I felt it was a balanced look at the founding. Nobody was deified but credit was given where it was due, too. And then I took a break from Ellis and his writing.
But as with all things I love, I returned to it. I listened to three books by Ellis this earlier this year. They were:
01. American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic
02. Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence
03. The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783 – 1789
American Creation dealt with issues from the revolutionary period through Jefferson’s presidency, and examines these six things, some of which are both great successes and incredible failures.
The first chapter examined the Declaration of Independence, which had revolutionary implications that the founders didn’t even realize; they saw the document as a letter to Britain and the world about why they were about to commit treason, and hopefully convince the rest of the world that it wasn’t really treason and get some aid, both financial and military. But when we talk about the Declaration of Independence today, which parts do we talk about? Not the charges listed against King George III about why the colonists revolted. We talk about what Ellis refers to as “the American promise.” Without ever meaning to, Thomas Jefferson wrote into our founding document the basis of all American political and social reform:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
This was my favorite chapter.
The second chapter examined Washington’s near superhuman achievement in keeping the Continental Army together in the winter at Valley Forge, PA. Supplies were short, and the ongoing strain changed Washington’s strategy. Over that winter, the strategy became to control the American countryside, rather than an all out decisive battle with the British. This was a hard decision for him, because rules of honor and conduct at the time demanded a decisive battle.
The third chapter dealt with James Madison’s efforts to create a strong federal government at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. While he wasn’t able to create a federal government that could veto state laws, the Constitution allowed for argument, which was essentially the solution. Neither the federal nor the state government was ever always right.
Chapter four was about Washington failing to create a successful, lasting treaty with the Native Americans, particularly in the southeastern United States – South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida (although, IIRC, Florida wasn’t actually part of the country at that time). Washington did desperately want to honor the treaties he signed and, unlike many of his contemporaries, admired and even liked, many Native Americans. But he was unable to honor his treaties, mostly due to the sheer size of the country and the small, almost non-existent federal military at the time. Washington considered it one of his biggest failures.
Chapter five looked at Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s creation of party politics. Knowing what we know now, this was possibly a disservice to the country. But anyway. Alexander Hamilton was basically Washington’s protege and favorite son, and Hamilton had pretty grand ideas about national economics, which Jefferson and Madison saw as a threat to liberty…particularly the liberty of their fellow plantation owning Virginian aristocratic friends. So Jefferson claimed to disparage party politics but worked to actively undermine the Washington administration from within. This really wasn’t a flattering look at Jefferson. I knew he disagreed with Hamilton but didn’t realize the efforts he made to make him and Washington look bad.
The final chapter looked at the Louisiana Purchase, and Jefferson again. In addition to the mental gymnastics Jefferson had to do to justify the federal power he exercised as chief executive while claiming to hate the power of the chief executive, the book looks at his achievement of making the purchase but also his failure to prevent slavery in the new territory. Ellis even argues that Jefferson’s failure here set the country on the path to Civil War, and so really, the tragedy outweighed the triumph.
I had intended to write this in one post, but as it’s nearly a thousand words, I’m going to cut this off here and continue in a second post on this subject.