Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Reading Journal: American Creation

American Creation is the latest book by Joseph J. Ellis, best known as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers. The subtitle of his new book is Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, and he attempts to show how the signal failures of the Founders—namely, the failure to resolve the issue of slavery or to reach an accommodation with the Native Americans—were bound up with their successes in achieving Independence and establishing a stable government under the Constitution. In six chapters, he covers the year leading up to the Declaration of Independence, the winter at Valley Forge, the fight to ratify the Constitution, the failed treaty with the Creek nation, the origins of the two-party system in Jeffersonian opposition to the Federalist establishment, and the Louisiana Purchase. The focus is on Great Men—Washington, Madison, Jefferson—and the ways in which they responded to and shaped events, the ways in which their personalities and prejudices (especially in the case of Jefferson) influenced the course of American history. It's old-fashioned history as the story of Great Men, and most of the stories have been told many times before, but Ellis (a professor at Mt. Holyoke) is an engaging storyteller, and does a good job of emphasizing the overarching themes and long-term consequences of the stories he tells. He doesn't gloss over the Founders' flaws, and figures like Jefferson are all the more compelling for being revealed to have blind spots nearly a continent wide. (Ellis has dealt with Jefferson before, in his National Book Award-winning American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.) For me, the most interesting chapter was the one on Washington's failed attempt to craft a fair and humane Indian policy that would reflect the principles of the Revolution and be a credit to his legacy. The story was less familiar to me, as were some of its main characters: Washington's secretary of war Henry Knox and Creek tribal leader Alexander McGillivray. Washington and Knox attempted to craft a top-down federal policy that would protect Native Americans, but Jefferson understood that there was no stopping the westward advance of white settlement—what became known as "manifest destiny." Although Ellis is writing Great Men history, he doesn't lose sight of the fact that ordinary people in search of land and homes were, for good or ill, powerful forces in shaping American history.

In the past decade, the Founders have been hot, and all of the best-known Founders—Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton—have been the subjects of bestselling biographies. After the massive success of David McCullough's John Adams, other writers have begun to cash in on some of the lesser-known Founders, like John Jay (Walter Stahr, John Jay: Founding Father, 2006), Benjamin Rush (Alyn Brodsky, Benjamin Rush: Patriot and Physician, 2004), Gouverneur Morris (James J. Krischke, Gouverneur Morris: Author, Statesman, and Man of the World, 2005), Aaron Burr (Nancy Isenberg, Aaron Burr: Fallen Founder, 2007), and now Henry Knox (Mark Puls, Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution, 2008). For those of you who want to get in the the action, there are still holes to be filled. Where, for example, is the new biography of James Wilson or Fisher Ames or Elbridge Gerry or my ancestor, Revolutionary financier Robert Morris?

Ellis writes that "the American founding lasted for twenty-eight years, from 1775 to 1803." 1775 was also the year of Jane Austen's birth, and it's interesting that both Austen and the Founders have been in vogue at precisely the same time. This Sunday, while PBS is taking a fund raising break from "The Complete Jane Austen," HBO launches its seven-part series John Adams (based on McCullough's biography), starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. Why does that historical period (Jane Austen lived from 1775 to 1817) appeal so much to the early twenty-first century Anglo-American imagination? Are the stories and personalities especially compelling? Is it the powdered wigs and hose and Regency gowns? Is it the formality and restraint, which we find so lacking in our own culture? Your thoughts in the comments, please!

1 comment:

Christopher Tassava said...

That's an interesting parallel betwee the mania for Austen and the mania for the Founders! Never occurred to me. (My favorite Founder's Era juxtaposition is asking, "What was the most important work written in 1776?" Answer: Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations.)

Speculatively, I think the fascination with both has to do with a false sense that "times were simpler" then - i.e. right was right (independence, liberty, republicanism), wrong was wrong (empire, royalism); men and women knew their places, etc. Not that the Founders weren't complex, but I think there's a thirst to read about men who cut through the hubbub and decided the Big Issues, especially since that work laid the foundation for the Republic - which in turn didn't even hold together to its centenary.

Two New Online Publications

Two of my very brief essays were published online this summer. The first was the essay " Telephone ," which appeared in June in t...