Tag Archives: declaration of independence

American Creation by Joseph J. Ellis

The founding of the United States of America is of near mythic proportions in our history, and rightly so. The men that revolted against Great Britain, developed the Constitution, and guided our country through the rocky first steps have become men of legend. Because of this, it is often hard for us to remember that these men, as great as they were, were also just human, like the rest of us, with their virtues and vices, passions and foibles.

In American Creation, Joseph J. Ellis puts the founding of America in the context of the people who were responsible. Ellis is a master story teller, a first class historian with an ear for telling history. Rather than a chronology of the founding, he gives us a series of episodes that highlight not only the grand achievements of the era, but also the failures, often the result of the very failings of these men that do, in the end, make them human.

Ellis chooses 6 episodes that not only illustrate the role the founders had in the formation of the US, but also the role that happenstance played. He describes the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the winter at Valley Forge as a decisive turning point in how Washington fought the Revolutionary War, the arguments by Madison for a strong federal government in the Constitution, the efforts by Washington and his cabinet to find a solution to the country’s relationship with the Native Americans, the formation of the Democratic party by Madison and Jefferson, and Jefferson’s exercise of the same near-monarchial power he so vehemently despised when he executed the Louisiana Purchase.

These stories describe how the passions of these men often led them to live political lives full of hypocrisy, arguing on one side of an issue that they had been the most vocal opponents of. However, these men knew their place in history and worked to massage how future generations might judge their place in history.

The story of Washington trying to reach peace with the Indians was particularly interesting as I had not been aware of this history. In the end, Washington did make a treaty with the Creek Nation of the south, but simple demographics rendered it meaningless as white settlers kept pushing west. For the same reason the British could never win the Revolutionary War (once Washington stopped directly engaging them), so the US government could never stop the displacement of the Native Americans from the American frontier.

However, probably the most fascinating part, to me, was about the writing and subsequent adoption of the Constitution. Madison was the most vocal and ardent advocate of a strong central government, a government he proposed should have veto power over the states. He lost that battle. Because of the inability of the different sides to come to agreement on the questions of executive authority and the relationship between federal and state power, these were left rather vague. Ellis argues that what the founders thus created was not a document that had the answers to all of their, and subsequent Americans’, questions, but a framework for arguing and deciding these questions. The vagueness let the government expand and contract as needed, as history dictated. They created a living document — a living government — that could adapt with time. To me, incidentally, this is the exact opposite that those that read the Constitution literally and try to understand the intentions of the founders, try to do. There was no single intention of the founders; rather, they created a system that was inherently unclear on many important and central questions precisely because they didn’t have a clear answer.

In addition to the early country’s relationship with the Native Americans, Ellis describes the complex relationship the founders, and the country as a whole, had with slavery. These two issues he points out as the two biggest failings of the founders — their inability to address them. Ellis argues that maybe there was no solution, that the two problems were inherently insoluble. In any case, both are two stains that the founders knew posterity would judge them for, and rightly so.

In the end, this was one of the most interesting books I’ve read on the founding of the US. Ellis provides insight into what these men really achieved, what was remarkable about those achievements, even the creation of political parties that we so often, today, rail against. I learned a great deal about how our country was founded, who the men involved were, and how different our country might have been if a few winds had blown in just slightly different directions. This is a book I highly recommend to all who care about the foundations of our republic.

Two Random Tours Through History

I recently finished two books that took different and interesting approaches of presenting history.  The first, Pop Goes the Weasel by Albert Jack, uses nursery rhymes as a guide through British history.  Actually, the intention is to delve into the origins of the very common nursery rhymes we all learn and subsequently teach our children.  But, given that so many of them are rooted in historical fact, it ends up being quite the whirlwind tour of history.

For example, Humpty Dumpty was a cannon used in the English Civil War in the mid 1600s.  It was used to great effect to keep the Parliamentarians at bay, until the tower it was housed in was destroyed, sending Humpty to the ground, where it was useless.  Or Baa Baa, Black Sheep being about a tax on wool, where, as is typical, the working class got stiffed in favor of the business owner and the church.  Or the Three Blind Mice being three bishops upon whom Queen Mary I took revenge when she ascended to the throne for their role in persecuting Catholicism during Edward VI’s reign.

The book is written such that the story behind each rhyme is independent of the others. As such, some of the style does get a little tedious, as Jack introduces each one in a way to try to pique the reader’s interest that becomes repetitive.  But, as a reference, it is a great way to organize things as you can easily go back and reread about any given rhyme with ease.  Not all of the origins of these rhymes are overly convincing, as Jack himself points out as he explores alternative theories about each one.  My only real issue, however, is that there are no references or citations that document where the theories came from.

Not being a British history buff, I still enjoyed learning about all of these dark episodes in British history (as it does seem most of these seemingly innocent rhymes have their origins in the dark recesses of regicide or other equally murderous plots.  It does make me wonder how differently the book could have read if the rhymes were used specifically as tools to guide us through British history.

Which brings me to the second book, American Connections by James Burke. I first encountered Burke during my first year as a Vandal.  If you’ve never been exposed to his unique approach to history, Burke draws connections between people and things to highlight the links between them, the interconnectedness of the people, events, and inventions that drive history.  In American Connections, he uses the Founding Fathers — all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence — to make connections through history to our own times.  As an example, take Thomas Jefferson –> Cesare Beccaria –> Jean-Baptiste Joseph Delambre –> James Macie –> David Brewster –> Dr. John Bostock –> Dr. John Elliotson –> Dr. James Esdaile –> Karl von Reichenback –> Gustav Fechner –> Ernst Mach –> Wilhelm Ostwald –> William Ramsay –> Harold Edgerton –> Jacques Cousteau –> side-scan sonar –> USNS Littlehales –> National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration –> Littlehales renamed Thomas Jefferson (if you are interested in what all of these people have in connection, you’ll have to read the book).

Burke does an admirable job of taking us from 1776 to our modern times through these connections.  Along the way, he makes some interesting observations about society at the time and the progress of, for example, scientific knowledge (people like Mach and Ostwald were very important for several branches of science).  As he goes through the chains of people connecting one another, he has an odd fascination with their sexual behaviors.  Besides making it clear which were homosexual (possibly to highlight the role that homosexuals have had in history?), he also touches on people who had very let’s say active sex lives, with many loves.  I wonder if this is because he thought it would spice up the story (which it certainly does, at it seems everyone was engaging in three- or foursomes or were nymphomaniacs) or if it was simply easier to connect people with others through these “hubs”, these people who knew (in more ways than one) so many others.  I suspect it is a bit of both.

Near the end of each chapter (focused on a different signer), it felt like Burke copped out a bit by connecting to some big corporation or some big organization and finding someone who worked for that group as his final link.  It just felt like he stalled a bit, not finding anything more direct.  It also felt like something that he could always do to make that final link, it was just a question of how long he wanted to go until he got there.  However, it is a minor quibble.

Overall, his approach is a very entertaining one through American and British history.  Not that I would retain much, as names and places are thrown about with abandon, but the overall richness stays with you.