Pulitzer-winner Ellis (History/Mt. Holyoke Coll.; His Excellency: George Washington, 2004, etc.) tells six stories, each revealing the genius and the shortcomings of the Founders.
Though he covers roughly the same historical period as Jay Winik’s recent, magisterial The Great Upheaval (2007), Ellis focuses almost exclusively on Americans, highlighting select issues and events that shaped the young republic and continue to inform its character today. Rejecting caricatures of the Founders as either demigods or demons, he presents them as talented but flawed, enmeshed in and attempting desperately to control difficulties where their blindspots sometimes proved greater than their brilliance. They knew, for example, that the policy of removing Indians from their lands and the institution of African slavery were incompatible with the revolution’s republican values, but they were unable to summon the will and the courage required to put a stop to either. Ellis examines both failures in chapters devoted to the doomed 1789 treaty with the Creek Nation and an especially thought-provoking discussion of the Louisiana Purchase, where, he maintains, the United States missed the last, best opportunity to resolve the slavery issue peacefully. Other passages deal with the Founders’ high achievement: how ardent separationists shrewdly prepared the country for a slow-motion revolution, how they diplomatically and militarily prosecuted the first successful colonial war for independence in modern times, how they ingeniously constructed a government that located sovereignty in multiple, overlapping sources, how they—even against the noble conventions of the 18th century—absorbed the emergence of political parties to channel the ongoing debate about the country’s future. Through these stories, each tied to a roughly specific moment in time (e.g., the Valley Forge winter, the 1788 Virginia Ratifying Convention), Ellis examines a well-known—but rarely better understood—cast of characters (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Paine, Franklin and others), shuffling them to the back or foreground, demonstrating how their varied talents came into play for good or ill depending on the issue at hand.
Sharply conceived and smoothly executed—a worthy addition to Ellis’s already well-advanced project of lucidly explaining the nation’s early history to his countrymen.