Sometimes a book can have everything going for it—you’ve read and liked other books by the author, it’s a subject you’re interested in, it’s written clearly and simply, it’s gotten excellent reviews. And yet, in the end, you just don’t take to it.
That happened to me with Joseph Ellis’s American Creation. I quickly made my way through it with a feeling that can perhaps be described as disengaged moderate interest. It held my attention enough for me to finish it. But it left me with no feeling whatsoever—I don’t have specific items to single out to praise or discuss any more than any others, I don’t have complaints that I want to argue about with any real passion.
A collection of loosely linked essays, like his Founding Brothers (2000), Creation deals with important moments in revolutionary and post-revolution America—Valley Forge, the ratification of the Constitution, the failure to find a fair compromise with Native American tribes, the rise of the two party system, the Louisiana Purchase. As noted, Ellis is a fine enough writer (I particularly enjoyed his John Adams biography, but then again, I’ve always been an Adams girl). He’s a history professor at that Lesser of the Two Women’s Colleges in the Pioneer Valley, and it’s easy to imagine attending one of his lectures and learning in a rather pleasant manner.
One of Ellis’s reasons for writing this book, as he states in the preface, was to answer a question he frequently heard while out on tour for his last book: what made the Revolutionary generation so great and why aren’t there leaders like them now? This isn’t something that keeps me up at night, wondering where we have gone so dreadfully wrong. Why were the men of that era able to do so many important things that turned out so well? There’s no one easy answer—all of these decisions and actions were the result of a specific mix of people, events, geography, and sometimes timing. Take one of these away and swap in something else and you get a different result, maybe better, maybe worse. Someday a group of people, baffled by some difficult technological problem will be sitting around asking, “How the heck did they create all those things like the personal computer and the internet out of practically nothing in such a short period of time? If they could do it, why can’t we do --?” Things always look simpler from the future, I guess.
Ellis doesn’t try to oversimplify the answer to this question, and in fact does bring up ideas like the role the size of the colonies played in the Revolution (the amount of space to try to cover and control essentially defeated the British); the right combinations coming together, such as Madison and Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson; the right place at the right time theory—Napoleon’s decision to get out of the North American money pit after failing to quell a rebellion on Santo Domingo, leading to the hastily put together Louisiana Purchase. Again, all of this is fine enough. I just wasn’t shocked, thrilled, or left thinking much afterwards.
Only two things (I am killing the word “things” tonight. I may be the world’s worst writer) in the book caught my attention. One was the role Madison played in events—he is the star of this book. Quiet, retiring, frail, and brilliant, Madison worked behind the scenes with Hamilton to get the Constitution ratified, and joined forces with Jefferson to create a rival for the Federalists, the Republican party. Madison guided events, spoke out in his own voice when necessary, but more often under aliases, sometimes to make his own case, other times to speak for Jefferson, who wanted to appear above the world of dirty politics. Madison was undoubtedly one of the great thinkers of the time, and I’m sure Ellis intended him to come off as an unheralded hero of the Revolution. For some reason, though, he began to seem kind of creepy to me, skulking around behind the scenes and taking the heat to make Jefferson look better while also working for his own ends. I probably should be fair and try to find something else to read to give me a more complete picture of the poor No. 4 (I mean, is it really fair for me to malign a man who’s usually best known for being short and having a wife with an ice cream brand named after her?).
The other attention getter was a statement by Ellis in the Louisiana Purchase section of the book—that the Purchase was the most important executive decision in American history outside of Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima. Wow. Hmm. It certainly does seem like you could make a good case for that. But it is in my nature, when I see big, definitive statements like that, to question them. Is there some Civil War moment that could make a good candidate? Something from the Cold War? I don’t know, I’m going to have to think about this. I’m not saying Ellis is wrong, I’m just interested in finding an alternative to argue (suggestions welcome).
And on that note, I probably should exit. Like I said, there was nothing wrong with this book, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it. Again, it’s easy to read, it’s a quick read, you’ll probably learn something. For me, though, I felt nothing, there wasn’t enough.