American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic by Joseph J. Ellis

American Creation is an excellent summary of what Ellis calls “the Founding Era”, defined as the 28 years between the start of the War for Independence in 1775 and the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

The author’s method is to focus on six key periods or events: the 15 months between the violence at Lexington and Concord and the signing of the Declaration of Independence; the Continental Army’s winter at Valley Forge, “a pivotal moment” when George Washington realized he could not win the war by winning full-scale battles with the British; the political battle between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists to ratify the Constitution; the approval of the Treaty of New York in 1791 between the United States and the Creek Nation; the beginning of party politics with the creation of the original Republican Party by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, mainly in response to Alexander Hamilton’s proposed Bank of the United States; and finally the Louisiana Purchase, when President Jefferson doubled the size of the United States but set the stage for the Civil War by ignoring the issue of slavery’s expansion to the new territory.

Being relatively ignorant about the history of this period, it was especially surprising to read about Thomas Jefferson’s checkered career and the creation of the first Republican Party, which later became the Democratic-Republican Party and eventually split into two parties, the Democrats and the Whigs (it’s ironic that the current Republican Party is known as the Grand Old Party, even though the Democratic Party is 30 years older). Jefferson and his follower Madison engaged in all kinds of bad behavior premised on the bizarre idea that people like Washington and John Adams wanted to restore monarchy to America.

The other especially surprising story is the attempt by members of Washington’s administration to create a policy that would protect the interests of the Indians east of the Mississippi. The Creek Nation occupied much of the American South and was lead by Alexander McGillivray, an expert negotiator who was only one-quarter Indian. McGillivray eventually agreed to the Treaty of New York, which reserved a large part of the South for the Indians and included the promise that Federal troops would stop any further settlement in the area by American colonists. As with most treaties between the United States and the Indians, the agreement was immediately broken by the Federal government, mostly because there weren’t enough Federal troops to enforce it.   

One of Ellis’s principal conclusions is that the struggle over the balance of power between the central government and the states was built into the Constitution from the beginning and has defined much of American history, even to the present day. My conclusion is that we’ve been lucky to do as well as we have, given the political and economic conflicts that have existed since the Founding Era and will apparently never be resolved.