Ellis on the American Creation

by Russ Roberts on July 14, 2008

in History

I recently saw Joseph Ellis speak on the founding. I assume his talk drew on his book, American Creation which I plan to read.

He said the founding had two tragedies and five triumphs. The tragedies were slavery and the plight of the native Americans. The first he called a Shakespearean tragedy, meaning it could have been avoided by human agency. The second he called a Greek tragedy, meaning it couldn’t.

His best insights into slavery were that none of the founders tried to justify slavery as being consistent with the ideals of the founding and that everyone expected the slavery phenomenon to die a natural death to be followed by the expulsion of the Negro. No one foresaw a multiracial coexistence. Ellis argued that the the unforeseen invention of the cotton gin ignited the Southern economy and increased the demand for slaves.

The triumphs were winning the revolutionary war (a miracle really, given the quality of quantity of America troops), the concept of a Republic that transcended a large geographical space (rather than say, just a city-state), the formalisation of dissent (rather than killing the losers), the idea of multiple sovereignties (no one is really in charge of say, domestic policy–there is separation of powers and state vs. federal overlap) and the creation of a state without a state religion.

He closed his talk with a paean to George Washington’s refusal to accept a monarchical role. It gave me goose bumps. He told it very well. I’d like to know how widespread popular support there was for such a move. He was beloved undoubtedly.

Ellis opened his talk with the observation that the population of Virginia in colonial times was roughly that of Wilkes-Barre , Pennsylvania today. Virginia gave us Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Henry, and Mason, among others. Remarkable. He implied if I remember correctly that surely the population of Wilkes-Barre hides some remarkable lights under its bushel if the times were right. I don’t think so. I think the group of people who made their way to the New World between 1620 and 1775 were quite exceptional.


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