Joseph Ellis, historian and author of American Sphinx
, His Excellency
, and Founding Brothers
, takes yet another stab at the roots of this country in American Creation
. This 243-page book covers the 28-year period between 1775 and 1803, bookended by the shots fired at Lexington and Concord on one end, and the Louisiana Purchase on the other. Four familiar characters star in the plot: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Incidentally, they would go on to serve, in order, as our first four presidents.
Ellis tackled this subject while encountering questions in public about the Founders’ intent in creating the Electoral College in the aftermath of the disputed 2000 presidential election, along with the perceived mediocrity of the candidates, Bush and Gore. Why, many asked, can’t we instead choose between men and women of the caliber of Adams and Jefferson?
The author seeks a middle ground in response to these inquiries, for this generation tends to be either deified or dismantled, and each conclusion, Ellis suggests, is in error. The Founders too advantage of the enormous opportunities that history presented to them, effectively engaging in trial by error, and succeeding more often than not. As becomes clear across the pages, however, is that these men were not without blemishes, and that some of their actions had devastating consequences for their contemporaries and posterity.
Adams role in American independence has been historically understated, but David McCullough’s 2001 book, and HBO’s recent film series, restored the Massachusetts leader to his colonial luster. He was pivotal in the initial move toward independence and helped shaped the state constitutions that emerged from the revolutionary abyss. Later on, he would serve as Jefferson’s foil when the Virginian jockeyed for ideological control of the national agenda, beginning when each served Washington, Adams as Vice President, and Jefferson as Secretary of State.
Washington’s claim to fame lies in his improbable leadership of the colonists’ successful military campaign against the all-powerful British Army. His instinct to stay on defense, elongate the war, and maintain coherence to a continental force lacking in provisions, unity, and often commitment, are the ingredients of his legend. Moreover, Washington’s ability to see the potential in and willingness to delegate to inexperienced generals by the names of Greene, Knox, Gates, and Steuben, helped push his vagabond over the top in an 8-year campaign.
Washington’s retirement from the military and return to civilian ranks forever set the standard of separation between pen and sword, but his political mechanizations after the fact are notably less celebrated. He was instrumental in the push to alter and eventually scrap the Articles of Confederation, with the Constitution taking its place, and of course seeing the document through its first iterations.
Madison’s principle authorship of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in well known, but Ellis manages to shed new light on the deliberations, namely his behind-the-scenes work toward the establishment of proportional representation and more fundamentally, a stronger central government. He was also instrumental in setting the stage for ratification, not only through the Federalist Papers, which were marginally important at the time, but lend clarity toward contemporary interpretations of the Constitution. His manipulation of ratification attendance rolls, and ability to count votes, saw the document through in his native Virginia, undoubtedly a bellwether state.
Shortly thereafter, Madison did an about-face, teaming with Jefferson to lead the charge against a strong, centralized national government. They manipulated the levers of the Washington Administration in pursuit of their causes against a National Bank and official neutrality between the warring British and French. The two connivers lost on both fronts, but planted the seeds of the first political party, known then as the Republicans, which confusingly would morph into the modern-day Democratic Party.
Adams’ narrow defeat of Jefferson in the Electoral College in 1796 set the stage for the first partisan succession four years later when the Virginian would turn the tables. Jefferson’s opportunistic land grab in the form of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleonic France for a mere $16 million set the stage for imperialistic expansion, even if it contradicted the central tenets of his Republican beliefs, namely executive deference to Congress.
In the process, Jefferson failed to address the issue of slavery, a sin that can be spread across the revolutionary generation. This was not an oversight, but instead a calculation that emancipated slaves could not live side-by-side with whites. By refusing to ban slavery in the newly acquired territories, Jefferson created the self-described “firebell in the night” which would doom his successors, namely Lincoln, to civil strife.
The Founders’ other major blemish lies in its violent, selfish relationship with the Native American peoples who populated the continent that American citizens would soon conquer. To George Washington’s credit, he actually negotiated to protect the territorial sovereignty of Native American lands, but he simply could not stem to flow of settlers toward to these desirable locales, leading to disappointment, dishonestly, and for the Native American people, wanton destruction and extermination. Jefferson also failed on this front in the context of the Louisiana Purchase, envisioning fertile lands for displaced Native Americans in the way, but refusing to give them statutory force.
In total, the accomplishments of the Founding Generation cannot be cast aside, gross violations to basic human dignity considered. Ellis’ balanced approach to these influential men is welcome in an era when they are either worshiped or condemned. We can learn from their mistakes, revel in the fact that they often made the most of a blank canvass, and rose to the occasion when it mattered most. When we pull Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Adams down from the heavens and up from eternal damnation, we see them and their contemporaries for what they were: human revolutionaries who set this nation on a course for greatness coupled with tragedy, but ultimately an entity that would stand the test of time and serve as a model for the world.