37 pages 1 hour read

Joseph J. Ellis

American Creation

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2007

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American Creation is a 2007 nonfiction book by Joseph Ellis that covers the successes and failures of the founders of the United States from 1775 to 1803.

Ellis starts with the year and three months that set in motion the colonies’ declaration of independence and subsequent revolution. In this eventful year, the British played the worst possible hand they could, removing the possibility of reconciliation. The colonists included fiery and impetuous rebels such as Patrick Henry, and those like John Adams, who preferred to bide their time until the separation from England garnered more public support. Adams claimed to be the true father of independence, since he created the resolution instructing states to draft new constitutions, but Thomas Jefferson eclipsed Adams’s role by writing the unique, forward-looking Preamble of the Declaration of Independence.

Ellis next describes the winter of 1777-1778, when Washington and his troops camped in Valley Forge. He details the difficulties they encountered in a different light than the common hagiography of Washington. The experience taught Washington that capturing the hearts and minds of the people in the countryside was more even important than fighting the British. He realized that this countryside presented the Americans with an advantage: it was impossible for the British to occupy and control this vast territory for any length of time. This defensive strategy would play a role in the Americans’ victory. Finally, the difficulties Washington and his officer corps had that winter would lead them to become staunch supporters of a strong central government.

The third important event in this period was the creation of the US Constitution, after a brief period as a confederation proved to be an ineffective form of government for the new nation. James Madison led the effort here, in an uphill but ultimately successful endeavor to overcome the lingering loyalties to states and bind the nation together in a union with a stronger decision-making process. He failed on a number of issues—most notably his desire to make both legislative bodies proportionate to each state’s population. However, this turned out to be an advantage in the ratifying process, as it allowed him to counter the charge that the new constitution would represent a dangerous consolidation of national power. Instead, the central government and the states shared sovereignty.

The formation of political parties in the 1790s is the fourth subject Ellis discusses. Jefferson and Madison accused some members of Washington’s administration of secretly colluding with northern financiers to control the government. In response, they formed what would become an opposition party, eventually named the Republicans. At this time, political parties were considered a divisive relic of the British Parliamentary system, so Jefferson rebutted the notion that he was forming or leading one. Nonetheless, there was no denying that this is what he was doing in actuality. Ellis argues that in the long run this was a necessary and healthy development, as it created the framework for debating opposing ideas.

Finally, Ellis considers the purchase of the Louisiana Territory during Jefferson’s presidency. With Napoleon failed to make France a force once again in North America, he impulsively decided to sell this territory to the United States. Overnight, America doubled in size and became an empire, which presented challenges as well as advantages. The ability to steadily move westward and reap the land’s rich natural resources was a benefit. However, with this expansion came slavery and the curtailing of Native American rights—two great failures.