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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 4, 2007


Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic

By Joseph J. Ellis

Knopf. 283 pp. $26.95

Joseph J. Ellis is going to score no points with many of his colleagues within the academy when he says, as he does early in American Creation, that "the currently hegemonic narrative within the groves of academe . . . customarily labels (and libels) the founders as racists, classists, and sexists, a kind of rogues' gallery rather than a gallery of greats." The conversations within the academy on these subjects "are in-house affairs, the books and articles written in language that the uninitiated find inaccessible and often incomprehensible." By default it has been left to other writers, "many not professional historians," among them David McCullough, Walter Isaacson and Ellis himself, to publish books about the Revolutionary period, "mostly biographies, that became a publishing sensation because of their unforeseen popularity." He continues:

"The source of this founders surge need not concern us here, though clearly there is an audience for serious history about our origins that the academy has largely ignored. The major point is that the founders and the founding are back, in a big way, as serious topics of public conversation. The long latent interest in our origins -- the old 'How did it happen?' question -- has become relevant again. And, most importantly . . . one of the hallmarks of the recent founders surge is the emphasis on flawed greatness, the coexistence of intellectual depth and personal shallowness, the role of contingency and sheer accident instead of divine providence. The founding has at last begun to become the topic in an adult conversation rather than a juvenile melodrama populated only by heroes or villains."

American Creation is Ellis's most recent contribution to that discussion. As readers of his previous books -- the most popular being Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2000) -- are well aware, he takes an admiring and grateful but unsentimental point of view toward the founding fathers. He understands that Charles Francis Adams, grandson of John Adams, was right when he wrote in the 1850s: "We are beginning to forget that the patriots of former days were men like ourselves . . . and we are almost irresistibly led to ascribe to them in our imaginations certain gigantic proportions and superhuman qualities, without reflecting that this at once robs their character of consistency and their virtues of all merit."

This book consists of seven essays (none of which has been previously published in its current form) and a brief afterword in which Ellis continues his exploration of the reality, as opposed to the mythology, of the founding. It can be argued, of course, that in the past there is no "reality," no final truth, only what historians and others choose to make it, but historians can explore that past free of hagiography on the one hand or, on the other, the ideological biases that color so much of what passes for scholarly history these days. Ellis, who teaches history at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, gives the founders their full due but insists that they made serious mistakes -- they failed to end slavery, "or at least to adopt a gradual emancipation scheme that put it on the road to extinction," and they failed "to implement a just and generous settlement with the Native Americans" -- and that blind luck gave them a mighty assist. George Washington, looking back on the Revolution at its end in 1783, understood as much:

"If Historiographers should be hardy enough to fill the page of History with the advantages that have been gained with unequal numbers (on the part of America) in the course of this contest, and attempt to relate the distressing circumstances under which they have been obtained, it is more than probable that Posterity will bestow on their labors the epithet and marks of fiction; for it will not be believed, that such a force as Great Britain has employed for eight years in Country could be baffled in their plan of Subjugating it by numbers infinitely less, composed of Men oftentimes half-starved; always in Rags, without pay, and experiencing, at times every species of distress which human nature is capable of undergoing."

Ellis quotes that passage in a chapter entitled "The Winter," in which he argues that in 1777-78 Washington and the leaders of his Continental Army, holed up in Valley Forge in unimaginably dire circumstances, came to understand "that both space and time were on the American side, so that the only way to lose the war was to try to win it," which is to say that the winning strategy was essentially defensive, spreading the powerful but limited British forces so far and wide that they could not win decisive victories and "assuring American control of the countryside where the bulk of the civilian population resided." This wasn't a strategy that Washington planned -- all his instincts told him to seek out "one decisive war-ending battle" -- but one that he was smart enough to recognize as practical, aided by the counsel of some of his most trusted officers, when fate presented it to him.

Whether that was fate or luck or a combination thereof will forever be a mystery, but what matters is that the outcome of the Revolution cannot be ascribed solely to the genius of Washington or other founders. The same goes for many of the other subjects discussed by Ellis: the "desperate improvisations" that finally resulted in the Declaration of Independence, with its immortal preamble that "no one . . . noticed at the time"; the formation of what was then called the Republican Party by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in opposition to the Federalists, despite Jefferson's strong opposition to the idea of parties; the heartfelt but unsuccessful effort by President Washington and his secretary of war, Henry Knox, to establish a "truly just Indian policy"; the dispute at the Constitutional Convention between Federalists and state-sovereignty supporters, and the delicate balance that resulted from it; the Louisiana Purchase, "a triumph on a par with the winning of independence and the adoption of the Constitution," but one with "tragic" as well as "triumphal" aspects. Ellis enumerates the losses as follows:

"The inability to think about any racially mixed presence on the continent as anything other than a blot; the failure to recognize the opportunity presented by the Purchase to revisit the Native American question so as to avoid removal, but rather to exploit it in order to hasten it; the unwillingness to use this extraordinary occasion to promote the possibility of prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the Louisiana Territory. To be sure, it would have required an act of incredible leadership to have raised the forbidden question of slavery, leadership on a par with that demonstrated by Jefferson and the other founders in 1776 and 1787. Though it is somewhat difficult to believe . . . the evidence that has survived suggests that Jefferson never gave the matter any thought. If true, this was his greatest failure of all, and the tragedy that would come back to haunt his triumph with a vengeance."

This is the case, but can it be that Ellis is just a trifle guilty of the "presentism" -- seeing the past through the prism of the present -- that he elsewhere deplores? It is possible to agree that slavery and the decimation of the native population are the great stains upon the moral standing of this country, yet also to understand that people of intelligence and good will saw things differently then. We can't know for certain that Jefferson didn't give the expansion of slavery "any thought," but we do know that the Purchase faced a difficult fight in Congress and that he didn't want to jeopardize it further. No one now needs to be told that Jefferson's record on slavery was less than stellar, but -- as Ellis knows as well as anybody does -- the choices he faced with regard to the Purchase were incredibly complex and difficult, and we should take care before we condemn him for not acting then as we would now.

All of which is a somewhat roundabout way of saying that on the larger issue, Ellis is right. The founders were great men, but they weren't perfect. They weren't "demigods who were permitted to glimpse the eternal truths," or as Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it, "to see God face to face," but neither were they, in Ellis's words, "a cast of villains who collectively comprise the deadest-whitest-males in American history," as too many laborers in the groves of academe would have us believe. They were simply -- okay, not so simply -- human, and it's about time that we understood as much. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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