In this little gem of a book, Joseph J. Ellis argues that one venerable interpretation of the founding of the United States, namely that it was a clash between “democracy” and “aristocracy,” is flawed. None of the Founders, even Jefferson, regarded democracy as a goal. All of the Founders were what we would call “elitists.” In fact, the term “democracy” was considered an epithet. The core question was rather how to create a viable nation-state. The clash was between those who favored a wholly sovereign national government (the Federalists like Washington and John Adams) and those who wanted to preserve state sovereignty over all domestic issues (the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson).
Ellis asserts that the founding generation was very successful in at least five respects, but woefully inadequate in at least two. First the good news: the Founders (1) waged the first successful war for colonial independence in the modern era; (2) established the first nation-sized republic; (3) created a wholly secular state, with genuine freedom of religion; (4) rejected Aristotle’s concept that sovereignty had to reside in a single place; and (5) created political parties as institutionalized channels for ongoing debate. The bad news was that they failed miserably (1) in handling Native Americans and (2) in dealing with the institution of slavery.
Rather than tackling the entire founding era (which Ellis defines as 1775-1803), Ellis describes only a few distinct and seminal “events,” almost like short stories, to illustrate themes that run through the entire period. In a chapter entitled “The Year,” we see how the revolution was more of an evolution, in which the nature of the opposition changed from a group of King George’s loyal subjects who just didn’t want to be taxed, to a group of increasingly audacious statesmen who desired complete independence. In another chapter, Ellis explores how Washington perforce changed strategy from direct military confrontation to modified guerrilla warfare, using America’s extensive space to avoid pitched battles where possible and to wear down his British adversaries.
Ellis does an impressive job of analyzing the debate about the adoption of the Constitution and the abandonment of the Articles of Confederation. The struggle lay in determining the relative power of the new federal government vis-à-vis the states. Ellis describes the resolution of the issue as “The Great Compromise,” which “essentially declared the theoretical question of state versus federal sovereignty politically unresolvable except by a split-the-difference structure that neither camp found satisfactory. The only workable solution was to leave the sovereignty question unclear.”
With victory over the British came the thorny problem of how to deal with the many Native Americans who lived between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. Despite the somewhat good intentions of George Washington and John Adams, the government was never able to adopt a satisfactory strategy or negotiate an equitable treaty with the various tribes. Instead, the inexorable pressures of a rapidly increasing white population and desire for cheap western land resulted in the driving of the tribes from their historic homes and the near extinction of them as a people.
Ellis’s treatment of the Louisiana Purchase is particularly well wrought. Napoleon Bonaparte was frustrated in his efforts to prevent Haiti from winning its independence from France. Moreover, his troops both in Haiti and on the mainland were being decimated by yellow fever and malaria. Napoleon’s disgust with the whole enterprise presented the young American government with an opportunity to double the size of its realm at a very low price. In fact, the purchase could be financed entirely with the sale of land in the new territory to eager American buyers. The problem for then President Thomas Jefferson was that the Constitution did not specifically authorize the president (or anyone else) to take such dramatic measures. Jefferson had based his entire political career on limiting the power of the federal government. In the event, Jefferson ignored his Republican scruples because he just could not pass up the opportunity to increase the size of the republic. Ellis says, “…there was no getting around the blatant fact that it was a violation of his political creed, in effect a sin.” But, as Ellis added, “…without the capacity to enlarge presidential power toward monarchial levels of authority, it is difficult to understand how republican government could effectively respond to any genuine crisis.”
While there were numerous positive results of the Louisiana Purchase, it sealed the doom of Indians east of the Mississippi by providing a place where Eastern tribes could be relocated. [Many died during the forced relocations, or shared the fate of the tribes in the West by being annihilated or placed in reservations on the land the whites didn’t want, i.e., the most economically unviable.]
Another theme that resonates through the book is the attitude of many of the Founders to the institution of slavery. Many followed Jefferson’s “Virginia Compromise,” by simply ignoring the issue, as if the mere discussion of it amounted to a form of treason. Most of the Founders thought the problem was insolvable (at least while they were alive; the idea of emancipation evoked the unsavory prospect giving up their own slaves!). Very few of them could imagine a bi-racial society. Even the majority of the most liberal thought the solution would require the relocation of blacks to another country, either in Liberia or the Caribbean. Ellis shows how the Louisiana Purchase exacerbated this problem by adding a large new territory where there was no agreement about the reach of slavery.
Evaluation: This book does not add much to what was already known about the Founding period or the Founding Fathers, but it does present it in a well-organized and very readable style. I highly recommend this intelligent and perceptive analysis of the Founding Era as an addition to your Early American History library.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2007