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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Mortimer July 14, 2008 at 8:39 pm

Yes, but did he discuss how cowardly George Washington was? Retreat! Retreat! Retreat! was General Washington's battle cry, until Christmas day 1776, when he attacked a bunch of drunk Hessian mercenaries who were following the norms of the time and taking Christmas off to celebrate. Washington believed that was a good time to attack Col. Rail's troops.

I don't want to make him out to be a villain; he put up some noble fights. But let's not forget that GW was not the brave hero he's always made out to be either.

Michael F. Martin July 14, 2008 at 9:29 pm

I think the group of people who made their way to the New World between 1620 and 1775 were quite exceptional.

As were their parents.

Thanks for the summary. Sounds like a book I have to read.

Unit July 14, 2008 at 11:12 pm

About the Native Americans tragedy being a Greek tragedy. The massacres, the deportations, etc…and the indian raids for that matter, one could argue could have been avoided, who knows. But what people usually mourn is the loss of the culture. But then what about the Pilgrim's culture or the pioneers' culture, those have gone as well. Cultures die all the time, some due to immigration and some due to technological changes. I, for instance, speak a European dialect that is now spoken by a few hundred people. That culture is disappearing fast. It's sad but it's also human.

Ray G July 14, 2008 at 11:14 pm

Mort's kidding right?

Fabian strategy. . . war of attrition to wear down a stronger opponent. . . et cetera. . .

I recently picked up Shelby Foote's first volume of his Civil War chronicle, and have thus been on these general subjects rather intensely recently.

Normally I'm not a dooms-day type of person, but I have to admit to a rather heavy cynicism when it comes to the direction of our country and individual freedom overall.

The subject of our Founding, to me, is both uplifting and sobering at the same time.

I realize that we had some real hairy times in our past with losses of certain freedoms, or even trying to gain a few, but these things were taking place as the nation grew in to a more perfect liberty.

Speaking broadly, somewhere between Lochner v NY and FDR, the country really took a hit in the area of individual liberty. Despite even more gains in freedom – particularly racial equality of course – on a whole we have definitely degenerated on a scale of liberty.

Boston College Eagle July 14, 2008 at 11:17 pm

I actually just finished this book. It is surely the best Ellis book I have read and one of the best American Revolution books out there. I highly recommend it.

The Spokesrider July 15, 2008 at 2:39 am

I like Ellis's books. I haven't read this one yet, though.

George Washington was a great man. He freed his own slaves in the end. Reading Ellis's book on that subject gives you an idea of how hard it was to do that. When you consider how hard it is for Democrats to give up even a tiny bit of power over others by lowering taxes, you can appreciate why it was so difficult for slaveowners to give up power over their fellow humans. It just isn't something that people do very easily. But Washington finally gave up his slaves, and he also gave up the chance to be a dictator. King George 3 knew what he was talking about when he heard of it: "If true, then he is the greatest man in the world."

But even Washington was corrupted by power, even though he was more incorruptible than anyone else. He looked favorably on the makings of the Alien and Sedition acts. And while still in office he willingly let Hamilton do a vicious smackdown on the Whiskey Rebellion (a rebellion against the Neil Boortz Fair Tax of the time).

LowcountryJoe July 15, 2008 at 6:36 am

It's an interesting read but he really critiques Jefferson more so than anyone else. And at leaves a central question [at least for me] unanswered: how did the idea of the constitution go from being so unpopular to being adopted; he doesn't really have a suitable answer. Perhaps I am too used to EconTalk where motives/incentives are delved into as possible decision formulations.

I read the book primarily because I read "Founding Bothers" first, which was fantastic. If I had read "America's Creation" first, I may have taken a pass.

mjh July 15, 2008 at 1:36 pm

I think the group of people who made their way to the New World between 1620 and 1775 were quite exceptional.

This is an interesting contrast to Arnold Kling's most absurd belief. It'd be interesting to hear a discussion of the contrast.

MT July 16, 2008 at 1:08 pm

Spokesrider: "But even Washington was corrupted by power"

Are these examples really corruption?

When an executive makes a poor judgment call, is this evidence of corruption? Are any humans capable of making numerous judgment calls over a period of time, and getting them all right?

Ray G July 16, 2008 at 8:08 pm

I just started listening to this book today on my iPod.

So far excellent.

He critiques Adams' vanity, but not so much so as to lose his genuine contribution. Ellis does seem to muddy the interpretation of Adams' distaste for the popularity of the Declaration of Independence.

Ellis' proof that Adams' contradicted his own view of the Declaration by his approval of Lee's proposal to congress is flawed, but that's too much to get into.

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