I am behind in posting thanks to a couple of busy weeks. Expect two posts from me this week.
American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic by Joseph J. Ellis provides a look at six pivotal moments in America’s founding between the War of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase. These moments present both successes and failures or missed opportunities, including the necessity of a strong central, national government, the development of the two-party system, retaining slavery and the Native American issue. Many of these moments could be seen as both successes and failures depending on your perspective.
I highly recommend this book. Ellis is a great historian and a good writer who manages to explain the issues clearly. If you know very little or even nothing about American history, you could pick up this book and understand some of the key moments during the roughly 30-year period the book covers. Some chapters were easier to read and more interesting than others, but it’s clear that a lot of care and research have been devoted to each part.
What I enjoyed most was getting glimpses of the founders’ personalities. One point that Ellis (and John Adams) make early in the book is that the founders are, well, human. Yes, these were obviously well-educated men (in most cases) who managed to make something wonderful out of a moment in time, but they are not deities. They have flaws, petty grievances and weaknesses just like everyone else. There seems to be a tendency to deify the founders, something with which the founders themselves would have disgreed vehemently.
It was a bit disconcerting for me to discover the founders’ ordinariness as I read since I am a product of a public school system that glorifies the founders as almost preternaturally wise men. As a matter of fact, I am having some serious cognitive dissonance over Thomas Jefferson. I, well, I’m not sure if I like him very much anymore! What a strange man! However, it is good to have these glimpses of their personalities. I think it would be easier to discuss constitutional issues and intent if we had a more realistic perception of the men who created the Constitution.
Also recommended: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (also by Ellis).