November 15, 2007


At last, some adult conversation about the country's founders: AMERICAN CREATION: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic By Joseph J. Ellis (Jonathan Yardley, November 4, 2007, Washington Post)

Joseph J. Ellis is going to score no points with many of his colleagues within the academy when he says, as he does early in American Creation, that "the currently hegemonic narrative within the groves of academe . . . customarily labels (and libels) the founders as racists, classists, and sexists, a kind of rogues' gallery rather than a gallery of greats." The conversations within the academy on these subjects "are in-house affairs, the books and articles written in language that the uninitiated find inaccessible and often incomprehensible." By default it has been left to other writers, "many not professional historians," among them David McCullough, Walter Isaacson and Ellis himself, to publish books about the Revolutionary period, "mostly biographies, that became a publishing sensation because of their unforeseen popularity." He continues:

"The source of this founders surge need not concern us here, though clearly there is an audience for serious history about our origins that the academy has largely ignored. The major point is that the founders and the founding are back, in a big way, as serious topics of public conversation. The long latent interest in our origins -- the old 'How did it happen?' question -- has become relevant again. And, most importantly . . . one of the hallmarks of the recent founders surge is the emphasis on flawed greatness, the coexistence of intellectual depth and personal shallowness, the role of contingency and sheer accident instead of divine providence. The founding has at last begun to become the topic in an adult conversation rather than a juvenile melodrama populated only by heroes or villains."

The rehabilitation of the Founders in recent years is one of the unsung victories of the Culture War.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 15, 2007 7:57 AM

You say toe-mae-toe, I say toe-mar-toe, you say "sheer accident", I day "divine providence".

Posted by: ic at November 15, 2007 4:07 PM

Having just finished this book (returning it tto the library this afternoon, in fact) I may share the observation that Ellis comes close--oh, so close--to appreciating the beauty and virtue of the Constitution, but just barely misses the mark.

Slavery? Without the South, there would have been no Revolution and no Constitution. The choice was never between a Constitution with abolition and one with slavery, but between the Constitution we obtained and continued British rule.

Indians? Without the frontiersmen, without the trekkers-forth, there likewise would have been no Revolution and no Constitution, and there would have been no manifest destiny.

The spirit, song and people that wrested the land from the others, from British, Indian and Mexican, made possible the empire which has repeatedly saved humanity from itself, and which has gone on to offer equality, freedom and prosperity to the descendants of the very peoples it has rolled over.

Now see what happened. Exactly because the founders took care to set up a government of reserved rights, too limited to disturb domestic institutions, we received a system of rights superior to anything else the world has seen.

There is more. Because we have sought freedom, even if the freedom was once sought for motives of which some of us do not now approve, all the goods of the earth have been added unto us. Tell me, has not it all worked out for the best?

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 15, 2007 6:27 PM