During the 28-year period between the start of the War for Independence in 1775 and the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, decisions were made, or avoided, that established the foundation for much that was to follow, for good or ill, in American history. Virtually every one of the major decisions came after vigorous, and often bitter, discussions. In his glorious American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, Joseph Ellis argues that the success of the founders was partially attributable to their ideological and even temperamental diversity. Unlike revolutions in other parts of the world, in America there was never a one-man despot. The American founding was, and still is, a group portrait, Ellis writes.
American Creation focuses on six significant moments with several recurrent themes. First, that John Adams was basically right that the founders were pragmatists, for the most part making it up as they went along. Second, that Washington was correct when he claimed that space was a priceless asset; Ellis believes the most original political contributions made by the founders were offered in response to that unique condition. Third, that controlling the pace of political and social change was critically important. The founders opted for evolutionary rather than a revolutionary approach, Ellis writes. [T]he calculated decision to make the American Revolution happen in slow motion was a creative act of statesmanship that allowed the United States to avoid the bloody and chaotic fate of subsequent revolutionary movements in France, Russia, and China, he argues. However, he adds, thinking that the issue of slavery would die a natural death, proved a massive miscalculation. Ellis believes that the period between 1786 to 1788 is possibly the most creative moment in all of American political history. The climax occurred at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in the summer of 1788 where James Madison and Patrick Henry engaged in what Ellis says is most likely the most consequential debate in American history. In a nutshell, Madison maintained the notion that government was not about providing answers, but rather about providing a framework in which the salient questions could continue to be debated. The Constitution, in which federal and state authority contend for supremacy, becomes like history itself, an argument without end. Ellis notes that George Washington felt that a truly just Indian policy was one of his highest priorities, that failure on this score would damage his reputation and stain the nation.' But even Washington, with the strong assistance of Henry Knox, his secretary of war, who was fully prepared to play the role of conscience of the American Revolution, could not prevail. One of the major reasons was Creek Nation leader Alexander McGillivray, who defied all the stereotypes and of whom Ellis says it is difficult to imagine a more capable and shrewd leader. Despite failure, Ellis points to the exceptional quality of leadership on both sides. Ellis' books on early American history are national treasures. In his latest, his meticulous scholarship and superb narrative skills educate and entertain in the best sense. He is always keenly aware of both the events as they occurred as well as their place in the broader course of history. Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.