Triumphs and Tragedies at
The Founding of the Republic
Joseph J. Ellis
John H. Mayer
(Random House Audio)
John Adams worried constantly about how history would view him. George Washington was as good and as true as our grammar school teachers would have us believe. Thomas Jefferson was as duplicitous as they come --- mostly on the issue of slavery. He wanted to send all blacks back to Africa, or at least to "some location in the West Indies." He also ignored his oft-stated stance on the role of the chief executive as he pushed to make sure that the Louisiana Purchase would go through. His excuse, "To lose our country to scrupulous adherence to written law would be to lose the law itself."
Ellis sees James Madison as the consummate politician, an operator; sly but, at the same time, shy, retiring. Thomas Paine, a former ne'er-do-well, happened to be at the right place at the right time with his pamphlet Common Sense. John Adams, accused of writing it, said, "I am as innocent as a Babe. I could not reach the Strength and Brevity of his style."
The Declaration of Independence was, as we've been taught, an inspired document; the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was a miracle of fudging and vagueness ... but still a miracle. Blacks and Indians were screwed from the very beginning, and the Louisiana Purchase --- one of the great real estate deals of American history (four cents an acre) --- sowed the seeds of the Civil War. "Slavery south of the Potomac became an embedded presence, now spreading relentlessly westward," Ellis tells us. The purchase itself was not without its critics: Sen. Fisher Ames said that
the great space to the west was really a great waste, a wilderness unpeopled with any beings except wolves and wandering Indians.
Ellis believes that it is very probable that if the republic had not been created at the Constitutional Convention, three confederate states would have emerged mirroring Europe: the New England states (Norway, Sweden, Denmark), the central states (Germany, France, Austria) and the southern tier (the Mediterranean countries). Would these three have survived in a rapacious world? The author is unwilling to guess.
Some of the liveliest writing treats of our rag-tag army at Valley Forge. Washington was driven to distraction by the troops who would come and go as they pleased. He gave orders for them to stop relieving themselves wherever, and to stop frolicking buck-naked in the Schuylkill River, distressing the neighboring ladies of quality. February of 1778 was so bleak that at one time Washington forces numbered no more than "3,000 to 4,000 of the troops fit for duty,"
half-starved; always in rags, without pay, and experiencing, at times every species of distress which human nature is capable of undergoing.
"It is no accident," Ellis writes, "that the leadership of the Federalist Party which included Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall, shared the sufferings of the Valley Forge winter and achieved the sense that a fully empowered central government was necessary to win the war and oversee the peace."
I listened to American Creation (nine disks) over nine days. It was as good as any novel-on-disk that I've listened to over the last few years. It's a professional reading except when Mayer veers into a strange neo-southern accent (when, for example, he is reciting the writings of Jefferson). Part of the drama flows from the fact that the six episodes Ellis has chosen to highlight are cliffhangers. We know that Washington lost most of his battles but won the war; we know that he would go on to head the Virginia delegation at the Constitutional Convention; we know that Jefferson would defy his own definition of the limits on the presidential power to see that the Louisiana Purchase would come about. But this historian is a consummate story-teller. We find ourselves deeply involved in the mystery --- and it is a mystery --- as to why the United States survived, and survived so brilliantly, continues to survive despite the maladroit ministrations of the Lincolns, the Wilsons, the Bushes.
Ellis avoids the laggardly style that bedevils most contemporary historians. This, on Washington at Valley Forge,
a place enshrined in mythology ever since as a kind of American Gethsemane, where Washington, the American Christ, kneels in prayer amidst bloodstained snow beseeching the Lord for deliverance.
"The real story of Valley Forge is both more and less dramatic than the mythological stereotype."--- Pamela Wylie