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American Creation by Joseph J. Ellis January 8, 2008

Posted by a Wristfister in Books, History, Nonfiction, Political.
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Published by Alfred A. Knopf [2007], hardcover, 243 pages. Reviewed by Bowie.

Synopsis: Joseph Ellis, author of His Excellency: George Washington and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, again presents an insightful look at the founding of America. This time he does it with six essays that cover the period from 1776 to 1803. He shines a great big light on answers to questions such as, “How did we go from being just another group of British colonies to adopting the Declaration of Independence in just fifteen months?” and “How did a just Indian policy fail despite the best efforts of America’s most prominent political leaders of the time?”. Ellis not only shows the triumphs of the American republic but also the failures of that revolutionary time.

Review: Those of you familiar with Ellis’ other works will not be surprised by the enormous gift that Ellis has in making seemingly dull American history sing with vibrant resonance. His very poignant vignettes into the lives of the founding fathers is balanced, which is to say he reveres them but presents them as flawed great men making very difficult decisions that have not had the best outcomes. This is probably why his works of non-fiction come off as great storytelling. They are refreshing and have germinated in me a new interest in history. I would almost dare anyone to read this book and not be tempted to learn more about that pivotal period of America’s founding. Ellis is the kind of writer that I wish more history teachers would emulate. If I had to list one negative aspect of this book, it would have to be the overly repetitive use of the word “propitious”. I can’t tell you exactly how many times it pops up, but enough that I began mentally replacing it with the word “lucky” just for variety’s sake. In the end, American Creation is witty and moving, and very highly recommended.

The following are excerpts from the Prologue:

The stories do not claim to offer either an exhaustive or a wholly comprehensive account of the founding ere…The repertory company of players has been according to the Casablanca Principle, which is to say that I have rounded up the usual suspects, who have starring roles in some stories and make only cameo appearances in others. If four of the founders must be listed at the top of the bill, they would be, in alphabetical order, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. Although each of the stories has been designed to stand on its own as a narrative of one significant moment of creative achievement or failure, taken together they feature several recurrent themes…

First, Adams was essentially correct in insisting that the major political decisions that shaped the founding were usually improvisational occasions. While there were a few cerebral epiphanies based on intense thinking, most creative choices were pragmatic responses to rapidly moving events beyond human control…Second, Washington was also correct in claiming that space was a priceless American asset. While that asset was an unsolicited geographic gift for which the founders could take no credit, recognizing its advantages provided the occasion for several of the most creative moments in the founding era. The scale of the American theater was unprecedented, especially when compared to tidier European spaces…Third, in terms of creativity, the control of pace was almost as impressive as the control of space. The founders opted for an evolutionary rather than revolutionary version of political and social change, preferring to delay delivery on the full promise of the American Revolution rather than risk implosion in the mode of the French Revolution…But the exception to this rule, removing slavery from the political agenda on the grounds that it would die a natural death, proved a massive miscalculation…

Rather than float above the ground, we need to dive into the messy moments and do our best to listen as a finite number of long-dead men struggle to understand the historical currents of their rather propitious time. It is the spring of 1775, the War for Independence has just begun, but no one is quite sure what to do…”

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Comments»

1. confused in santeria. - September 2, 2009

this book is so freaking confusing.


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