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Page history last edited by Jaquelyn Clark 9 years, 8 months ago

American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic

by Joseph Ellis


Notes by Ben Casnocha. Many direct quotes from Ellis below that are not in quotation marks.


Ellis organizes this book into six chapters:


  1. The Year
  2. The Winter
  3. The Argument
  4. The Treaty
  5. The Conspiracy
  6. The Purchase


Each is supposed to illustrate why the American founding is "about tragedy as well as triumph, indeed about their mutual and inextricable coexistence."


The five key achievements of the Founders:

  • First, the revolutionary generation won the first successful war for colonial independence in the modern era, against all odds defeating the most powerful army and navy in the world.
  • Second, they established the first nation-sized republic. (A large or far-flung population could be governed in a republic.)
  • Third, they created the first wholly secular state.
  • Fourth, they created multiple and overlapping sources of authority in which the blurring of jurisdiction between fed'l and state power became an asset rather than a liability.
  • Fifth, they encouraged on-going debate; their framework has made ongoing dialogue to become a hallmark of the modern liberal state.


There were two key founding moments: 1776, which declared American independence (D of I), and 1787-88, which declared American nationhood (Constitution).


But what did they fail to do? Slavery is the lasting stain. The other failure is inability to implement a just and generous settlement with the Native Americans. The principal founders acknowledged that the indigenous people of North America had a legitimate claim to the soil and moral claim on the conscience of the infant Republic.


How did this backwoods population of three to five million farmers, mechanics, and minor gentry, huddled on the distant edge of the British Empire, far removed from the epicenters of learning and culture in London and Paris, somehow produce thinkers and ideas that fundamentally transformed the landscape of modern politics? Less was more. American political conversation could afford to range more widely because it was not weighed down by encrusted traditions, embedded institutions, and socially sanctioned inhibitions. Britons described their American cousins as awkward bumpskins only one step removed from primitive savagery. Ben Franklin embraced this by wearing a coonskin hat in Paris.


The Founding remains a group portrait -- unlike the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, Americna revolution never devolved into one-man despotism - Napolean, Lenin, Mao, etc. Diverse group. Such diversity -- politically and personally -- not only enriched the intellectual ferment but replicated the checks and balances of the Constituion with a human version of the same principle.


The American founding lasted for 28 years, from 1775 to 1803. During that time the US declared and won its independence, a gradual revolution in the social landscape was begun that, truth be told, has yet to run its course, the political architecture for a viable nation-state was invented and implemented, a dialogue was institutionalized about how best to live within that architecture, and the prospects for a truly contiental empire were rendered plausible. These were all precedent-setting triumphs. On the tragic side, slavery south of the Potomac became a deeply embedded presence, now spreading relentlessly westward. And a vital Native American existence east of the Mississippi was puton the road to extinction. On the one hand, an ednuring American republic, previously regarded as either improbable or impossible, now appeared quite likely. On the other hand, the prospects for a sectional battle over the preservation of slaverly appeared inevitable. Both the seminal achievements and enduring failures of the American founding were now locked in place.


The core question at the founding was not whether the United States should become a democracy (the word was never used) but whether it should become a viable nation-state.


The Year

The 15-month period between April 1775 (shots fired at Lexington and Concord) and July 1776 (adopting of D of I) most consequential year in American history.


Prudence was a virtue of the period which made it an "evolutionary revolution." The calculated decision to make the American Revolution happen in slow motion was a creative act of statesmanship that allowed the US to avoid the bloody and chaotic fate of subsequent revolutionary movements in France, Russia, and China.


Basis for revolution is in Britain's sprawling empire and unwillingness to devote time and energy to the colonists. American interests were not represented in parliament. Americans wanted shared sovereignty, where American colonies remain loyal to the crown but retain control over local affairs. A version of this was implemented in the colonies themselves: federalism. This was a simple solution that Britain couldn't accept. Their imaginative failure to resolve this difference constitutes the greatest blunder in British statecraft.


George Washington was assigned General of Continental Congress army -- a private man, grade school education, emotionally concealed, not very experienced commander at the time. Simple, essential, unquestioned.


The Continental Congress at once pursued war and the possibility of reconciliation with Great Britain -- this illustrates the split between moderates and radicals.


John Adams wrote Thoughts on Government, which argued for multiple rather than singular sources of sovereignty and a strong bicameral legislature.


D of I: "The deep sense of significance that later generations would ascribe to the D of I did not exist for most delegates in the congress, who were preoccupied with more pressing military and strategic priorities." (p 54)


Somehow,  Jefferson accidentally wrote what were to become to seminal words of the American creed.


The Winter

One advantage the colonists had was vast territory and a decentralized operation. It was not a conventional war. America just needed to protract the conflict, keep dodging enemy, hang in there, rally world support, and fight like an insurgency because they were so massively undersized when compared to England.


A pivotal moment in the war was Valley Forge, a place enshrined in mythology of American history. The real story is both more and less dramatic than the myth. The story went far beyond questions of suffering and survival. The very character of the War for Independence chanced at this moment from a clash between armies to a competition for control of the countryside. It moved from a war the Americans could not win to a struggle they were unlikely to lose. At Valley Forge, Washington had the key insight that both space and time were on America's side, and the only way to lose the war was to try to win it.


The conditions at Valley Forge were very bad. Contagious diseases were the worst. Then the food supply and gen'l supply chain broke down, due to incompetent managers, devaluing of the Continental currency, and weather. Famine and malnutrition struck. Local farmers sold their food to the British troops b/c more reliable currency. Local residents' loyalties were trapped.


The trying conditions highlighted how long and arduous the revolution would be -- any soldiers who thought it would be quick victory were shown the reality. Morale, then, plummeted during this time.


Officer corps at Valley Forge fought over petty matters like rank -- while their troops suffered in the cold. Very much an aristocracy.


The supply chain failures, currency devaluation, etc. demonstrated the need for a fully authorized and empowered central government to do stuff. It's no surprise that the leadership of the Federalist Party - Washington, Hamilton, John Marshall - shared the sufferings of the Valley Forge winter.


If British had attacked colonists that winter, war would have been over. But the quaint custom of not warring during wintertime held true.


The Argument

After the war ended, the federalist/anti-federalist argument ensued. The term "United States" began as a plural rather than singular noun.


Washington believed America needed a fully empowered central government, much stronger than the flimsy Confederation Congress. But such a national government contradicted the most cherished political values the American Revolution claimed to stand for -- they had just rebelled against a distant and despotic political power.


The gap between these two political camps represented a fundamental difference of opinion over the true meaning of the American Revolution. Both sides had plausible claims to the meaning of the revolution. In the end the argument that won out was an unprecedented version of federalism, which emerged from the messy political process, not the mind of any single thinker. The solution was an argument itself, for it created a framework in which fed'l and state authority engaged in an ongoing negotiation for supremacy, thereby making the Constitution, like history itself, an argument w/o end.


James Madison helped lead movement to expose failings of weak central govt. John Adams published "Thoughts on Government" which proposed independent judiciary, bicameral legislature, elected executive.


State of the union was dire - might disassemble altogether. 1786. A variety of of developments made everyone pessimistic (Shay's Rebellion, for example). Finally, Washington - who promised the public never to return to public life after the war - returned to try to hold things together and work out a compromise. Washington reluctantly took on the role of saying that America needed a central government that possessed the clear mandate to coerce states in both foreign and domestic policy.


Madison, Adams, Washington struggled in different conventions to figure out the right mix of central and decentralized government. Madison made his most brilliant contribution to political science: he proposed that contrary to popular belief, a republic actually works better in larger geographic areas. Montesquieu had argued that in small areas the elected officials would be closer to the people, thus making it more beholden to their interests. In fact, overwhelming evidence suggested that smaller geographic republics had a pattern of gross irresponsibility, a cacophony of shrill voices, and no collective cohesion. This was the germ of the idea developed in Federalist 10.


At Philadelphia Convention, Madison and Washington went for it all rather just half a loaf, even if the risk was total failure. Madison introduced the Virginia Plan, radical at the time.


"The Great Compromise" made representation in the House relative to population, and by state in Senate. Madison and Wash viewed this as a failure. A new constitution was built around this idea and a debate raged for 10 months following over its contents. Both sides were "federalists" in that they advocated a confederated republic, but disagreed over the relative power of the states and the central govt.


The Federalist papers were by Madison et al arguing in favor of central govt.


The Treaty

How to deal with the Indian population. Next to the failure to end slavery, the inability to reach a just accommodation w/ the Native Americans was the greatest failure of the revolutionary generation. Gen'l consensus was staged removal. They started reinterpreting various treaties to justify massive expansion.


Indian Removal Act of 1830 under Andrew Jackson.


One big treaty to Creek tribe.


The Conspiracy

Argument over two-party system - should it exist? The creation of a two-party system went on to be one of their most lasting contributions to political thought, but at the time, there was lots of fighting about it. Jefferson led the charge to create political party, while claiming he was doing nothing of the sort. Madison converted to the Republican camp -- he went from the leader of the ultra-nationalists at the Constitutional Convention to the leader of the opposition that challenged the legitimacy of everything. (So Republican camp was more anti-federalist.) One reason is the creation of the national bank, Hamilton's pet project. Its power terrified Madison.


So, Jefferson and Madison of Republican party reacting to Federalist domestic party, chiefly Hamilton's financial plan.


But, bank and other things prevailed, so Republican party lost some battles. Jefferson went back to his farm and stayed out of politics for a few years. Meanwhile, Madison started laying groundwork for his presidency.


Election of 1796 solidified the roles of two political parties. Adams elected, and Jefferson pledged support to the opposing Republicans, not to friendship of Adams. Era of partisanship had begun.


The Purchase

Louisiana purchase was a triumph on par with winning independence and adoption of constitution. For little money it had doubled the size of the country. Purchasing Louisiana and dropping an atomic bomb are two big executive decisions in American history (Jefferson and Truman, respectively). Jefferson, ironically, was on record for opposing energetic projections of executive power -- and this was quite the monarchical act! The tragic part of the purchase was it moved the country into immediate debate over slavery and thus inexorably toward civil war.


France had controlled Louisiana. Jefferson bought it from Napoleon.


Slave population in the area en route to New Orleans was 500 k+, and they slaughtered French troops bound for New Orleans. Even 40 K well-trained French troops are no match for 500,000. So, troops never made it to NO, and Napoleon -- much to others' dismay -- wanted to sell it.


One of Jefferson's rationales: "By enlarging the empire of liberty, we multiply its auxiliaries, and provide new sources of renovation, should its principles at any time degenerate in those portions of our country which gave them birth."


After purchase what to do with the land and current occupants - Indians - presented a problem. And should slavery be permitted there? In the end, they chose to oust Indians and permit slavery - too bad.


Hindsight history is usually not history at all, but most often a condescending game of one-upmanship in which he living play political tricks on the dead, who are not around to defend themselves. To accuse Jefferson of failure in refusing to place the abolition of slavery in Louisiana on the political agenda would seem to commit the present fallacy in its most blatant form, imposing our own hindsight wisdom on a president trapped in his own time and no more capable of envisioning the Civil War than we are predicting the effects of global warming.


Jefferson would have supported freeing the slaves if they were to be expatriated.


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