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Joseph Ellis on American Creation and the Founding
Sep 8 2008

Joseph Ellis, of Mt. Holyoke College and author of American Creation, talks about the triumphs and tragedies of the founding of the United States. His goal in the book and in this podcast is to tell a story for grownups rather than for children, where the Founders are neither saints nor evil white, patriarchal slave-holding demons. It is a nuanced story of triumph--a military victory over a seemingly unbeatable vastly more experienced army, the creation of the first geographically large republic, a nation without a state religion, a nation that creates a party system with a loyal opposition, a Constitution with the virtues of ambiguous sovereignty, and tragedy--the failure to resolve the slavery issue, and the tragic conflict with the Native Americans. Some of these outcomes were intended by the Founders, others emerged unintended.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Sep 8 2008 at 3:34pm

It is well worth reading R.A.M Rodgers “Command of the Ocean”. It gives a fabulous account of this period from a British Royal Navy prospective.

Sep 9 2008 at 8:44am

Your experience going to a new school not meeting expectations reminded me of moving from Montreal to Windsor as youth. My grade school in Montreal was named after a famous Canadian brain surgeon, Wilder Penfield. As students, we were well aware of who this man was. When he was alive he would actually visit the school once a year to give a talk to the students of the school named after him. It was a real source of pride to be at a school named after a great Canadian scientist.

My family moved to Windsor (a factory town near Detroit). My school there was called HJ Lassaline. Schools are always named after famous, august people, no?

First day at my new school I asked my teacher in front of the whole class who exactly HJ Lassaline was. The teacher looked stunned. She had to admit she had no idea (I believe she had been there as a teacher for several years). She said at lunch her and I could go to the front where they have a plaque dedicating the school to HJ Lassaline and providing some biographical information.

It struck me later in life there were three glaring problems with this:

1) A teacher (of all people) never exhibited the intellectual curiosity to find out the history of her school. If there is a name on MY paycheck I try to learn as much as possible about that name.

2) The school never bothered teaching the kids about who this man was.

3) No student in her history as a teacher ever asked such a simple question.

(Later in life being a teacher myself I now have a good sense of what a zap to the pride it can be when a 10-year old provides evidence you might not be suited to your profession.)

I’m at least encouraged to see my old school now actually provides a web page about the man:

Sep 9 2008 at 4:28pm


Really great podcast. One topic I would love to see explored further in a future podcast is the epistemological foundations of the constitution. Where did all these ideas come from: independent judiciary, three branches, two houses, bill of rights, one man one vote. etc

As an evangelical, many of my brethren talk about the Christian foundations of democracy and the ideas of representative government. I am pretty sure that these claims are heavily exaggerated. I suspect enlightenment thinkers deserve the most credit. By the way, Ellis made reference to a book called Faith of our Founders. Can you post a link to it? There is also a book called Faith of our Founding Fathers and I am not sure which one he was referring to.



Sep 15 2008 at 6:34pm


I think you’ve got an incontinence problem: you were “we”ing all over the place ;^) It felt odd to hear a Masonomics professor constantly refer to “we” regarding the American Revolution — unless you’re a whole lot older than I thought, of course. It’s such an easy verbal trap to fall into in any subject!

Your loyal listener,


Oct 7 2008 at 1:24pm

I would say in response to Steve’s question that many of the ideas did indeed come from the enlightenment thinkers, most notably from Locke and Voltaire, even Vattel to some extent. However, it goes back even farther than that, as so many of the founding fathers were fervent readers of Cicero, Socrates and Plato.

On a side note, it would be amiss not to mention the role the English government played, as they did have a somewhat similar construct in their monarchy, but with less checking power given to the other branches so there was probably at least some influence on the American founders.

I have been meaning to pick of a copy of Adams’ Defense, in which I think we will find a jumbled but fully representative account of early American influences.

Comments are closed.


About this week's guest:

About ideas and people mentioned in this podcast:Books:

      • The Federalist, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Online Library of Liberty.


Podcasts and Blogs:



Podcast Episode Highlights
0:36Intro. Story: Russ about 7, family moved from Moses Lake, eastern WA to Lexington, MA; father warned him that other kids would know all about the Revolution. Lived there about 10 years, only remembers the high school, "Apr. 19, 1775," glorious day. Muzzey Jr. High, named after Isaac Muzzey, fell in first shots of the Revolution, shot heard round the world. Most understanding from Ellis's American Creation, Founding Brothers, American Sphinx, and a few other people. Glorious time for American history. Over last decade, surge of interest in the Founding. Always been general public interest in the Civil War; some has moved back. Most young Americans, not interested in anything before 1980.
5:22Quote: "During the last quarter of the 18th century...". How do we get here from there? Five tragedies. Last quarter of the 18th century is big band, radiating ideas. Recover that sense of improvised genius, identify major sources of creativity, identify the failures, which are tragedies--Shakespearean or Greek. Greek tragedy is a function of fates, the gods, couldn't have turned out any other way. Shakespearean tragedy is a function of human weakness, foibles; could have turned out differently. Story of the Founding isn't a melodrama--it's an epic, an epic in which irony and paradox are the dominant values you have to have in mind. Not just good guys vs. bad guys, but all mixed together. Human failure, inadvertent brilliance, improvised on the edge of catastrophe. Not a romance, an adult rather than a juvenile story. College age, 18-22, still disposed to see things in highly moralistic terms, not ready for real history. Need to have history happen to you before you can be capable of understanding what real history is like. We fought a war, we won the war, and then we had to decide what kind of government we wanted, and it worked out great, partly because the Founders were so wise, and then we just went on living--common story. To complicate that version, several major achievements we need to recover in their original form. We won the war, or maybe better said the British lost--they withdrew. How many wars between 1750 and 1950 did Great Britain lose? One--the American Revolution. How was it that these 13 colonies.... Not possible for the Continental Army to defeat them. Had an average experience of service of 6 months, vs. British average of 6 years. Had to transform war that was a battle between armies into a battle of insurgency. Starts to have eerie undertones; analogous to our experience in Vietnam and now Iraq. Washington's genius: Not quite a guerilla strategy. War of posts, not to engage unless you had overwhelming force until the will withered away. A lot of tense moments; most dire threat might have been fall of 1776, American army defeated on Long Island, NY, left; maybe even a woman involved in the story; have to also also be lucky.
15:50Not exactly Washington's preference to fight the war. Regards war as a summons to duel; feels honor bound to engage if Howe presents his army. Doesn't have the troops or the provisions to match the British army and attack NY. Absence of resources makes it impossible and also tells us something important: popular support for the war starts to wane and states don't provide resources. Only about 3000-4000 troops there for the duration, poorest, slaves, integrated units. In the end, Washington's judgment allows us to effect a strategy that leads to a victory. He does it not through his solitary wisdom but relies on his staff, contrary to British army and Howe, who made decisions and asked his officers if they agree or disagree. Washington tells you three options and doesn't tell you which one he prefers. Wants written responses from his officers, 15 people. Get more honest responses. In most cases the generals were not trained; Greene rank amateur, Knox former bookseller, some former British officers, but mostly a group of amateurs.
20:18Civil War has all these set battles, full of strategy. Revolutionary War has a lot of sit and wait. Valley Forge, turning point, 1777-1778, winter, starving to death. Outside of Philadelphia, agrarian, productive area for grain and wheat. Farmers would rather sell to the British, who are paying pounds sterling. Blood on the snow from people walking with rags on their feet. About 2000 soldiers die from starvation or exposure. It's during that time that Washington begins to recognize, from the foraging expeditions, that it is a war for control of the countryside. Deploys his soldiers in a huge arc to try to establish control, else citizenry will end up siding with the British. It works. Opportunity in Yorktown, PA, Cornwallis lands on peninsula there instead of where he thought it would be in NY. No cell phones. Decisive battle of the war. Photographs give the Civil War a lot of vitality, Ken Burns; American Revolution is represented by paintings. There are some set battles, Monmouth Court House. Gruesome. Half the casualties were death from bayonet. British taking no prisoners. We think of it a kind of stately war, rarified, but it was one of the more grisly wars in American history. Vision of the bright colors of the uniforms, but at first a motley crew, different states with different colors. British make fun of them, hooligans, ruffians, motley crew. In New England militia stood their ground in battles but outside New England you couldn't count on them. Myth of the minute man is misleading.
28:19Another triumph: Constitutional Convention and James Madison's wisdom and genius. No monument to him. Lawyers and judges know a lot about him. Correctly regarded as the father of the Constitution, framed and defended it in the Federalist Papers. 1783 peace, life is operating under the Articles of Confederation; so they just sat down and figured things out, right? Doesn't work like that. Sovereignties resided in the states. After the war, become a confederation, defeat the British, and now plan to go their separate ways. Small group of people--Hamilton, Washington--learned that if they don't come together into a union they will dissolve and perhaps be picked off. At end of war, vast majority of allegiances are to their states. United States "are", not "is". Constitutional Convention is in some sense a coupe de tat, replace the Articles of Confederation altogether. Charles Beard's interpretation: somewhat malevolent conspiracy. Polling people at the time, no sense of national identity. What we create is the first large-scale republic in world history. Republics were small Swiss cantons or Greek city states. Presumed that a republic couldn't work over a large land mass. Consolidated republic. How did Madison make the case? He knows he's going to have to meet that historical argument. Goes on a cram session of classics and ancient history. Reads Adam Smith, David Hume; articulates argument in the Convention itself as well as in Federalist Papers. Instead of seeing size and scale as a problem or weakness, it is an asset or strength: if you increase the size of a republic, you increase the number of interest groups or factions, which will eventually cancel out one another, much in the way that the market place of Adam Smith is a series of competing interest groups that increases productivity. Enlarging the size of the republic will enhance its stability. Counterintuitive argument but it wins the day in 1777-1778. Did he really persuade people? Not too many people who could grasp it. Circulation of the Federalist Papers didn't get far beyond NY. People voted one way or the other is more about local and regional issues, their own best interest from joining the union. Interest driven rather than idea driven politics.
36:43Grade school cartoon version: a bunch of very smart men sat around and debated, but biggest debate was whether to have a national government at all. Why was Madison able to carry the day? Hamilton, Washington agreed, but how did they convince others, including the man in the street? Economy good, though banana republic, heavily in debt. But birth rate going up, Virginia's economy booming, etc. Madison thought he failed when he left in 1777, wanted a clear delineation of Federal sovereignty, instead got ambiguous relationship. Wanted popular representation in both Houses. What he perceived as a failure was the secret of the Constitution's success. Its very ambiguity created a framework in which there had to be an ongoing argument on a case by case basis of where sovereignty lay. If Madison had gotten his way, Constitution would never have been ratified. Looked too much like what London and England had represented. Wanted something close to them, town meeting or state representatives. Took till after 1812. Federal government is still a little alien to many Americans--to conservatives, government is them rather than us, historical grounds. Spirit of '76 was very much fought over: what was the authentic government that should emerge. Correspondence between Adams and Jefferson in their twilight years, 1812-1826, both die on same day, 50th anniversary of the Declaration; they still don't agree about what the American Revolution represents. Impatient with jurists, Supreme Court Justices who say they will decide on the basis of original intent of the Framers--well, they didn't agree! Very aware that their debate was a public debate even though it was conducted by letter, though. Adams is a Federalist, New Englander, slavery misguided; Jefferson thinks the states should have total control over all domestic policy, federal government is really a foreign government. Issue doesn't get resolved.
44:19Summary: two more triumphs: large space; ambiguity sovereignty. Tragedy application: treatment of native Americans. Henry Knox comes to George Washington and urges him to resolve the problem of the native Americans. Knox, Washington's Secretary of War: We need to reach a just resolution with the native peoples east of the Mississippi. We can't just regard them as conquered people; most of them weren't conquered. They had sided with the British, though. We will set up a series of enclaves, signing treaties with these tribes, will be regarded as sovereign nations, as sovereign as France or England. Executive branch has a lot of autonomy. Attempt to set this up with Creek nation, massive area, as big as Alabama. Creek chiefs come to the capital, which was then NY, with extraordinary fanfare, but nobody's written about this; plan makes logical sense, is signed; but they can't enforce it. To enforce Creek borders from intruders-settlers--would take too many troops. Georgia in fact encouraged it, Yazoo Companies. Washington felt it was the largest failure of his presidency, and that because the Indians didn't even have their own press the story wouldn't even be told. Could it have happened differently? Demography here is really all-powerful. By 1800, 50-60,000 native Americans, but 500,000 settlers. Demography defeats all other plans of justice. Can't stop it, and Federal government at the time didn't have the power to do so. In 20th century could call out the National Guard, but not established in the late 18th century. Washington going to the Senate over the advise and consent clause, thinks it means he has to go the Senate for a 2/3 vote. Jumble. They say they can't vote on it till they see all the documents. Defeats whole purpose of coming here. Realizes it cannot involve his actual presence in the Senate. Messy improvisations, trial and error.
52:37Back to one of the triumphs. Indian story spins out of control, Federal branch cannot impose its will on Georgians and cannot subsidize agricultural education. What might have happened had Madison totally failed and we'd stayed a confederacy of states rather than a federal nation? Clear that Founders were deeply afraid of becoming an Empire, but in many ways we did just become the next British Empire. We would have become a series of regional sovereignties, New England, Middle Colonies, South; likely we would have been much more vulnerable to European intrusion, French, British, Spanish; conflicts as we spread across the continent, civil war over who controls the West. Riddled with conflict and perhaps violence. Would have been a relatively weak country. What would economy have turned out like?
56:11Two triumphs and a tragedy: One of the triumphs: creation of a viable two-party system. Embryonic version in Britain. Legitimizes dissent, makes it possible for two sides to argue about a controversial issue; loser is not sent to the guillotine or firing squad as later in France and Russia. If you lose an election you go into the wilderness for four years and then come back. Related to separation of church and state. Up until that time, state religion was viewed as the glue that would hold everybody together. Without that they would all end up arguing and fighting. Iraq. At the Federal level in the Bill of Rights, religion and politics separate, wall of separation; doesn't reach the rest of civilization for a century. Religion flourishes as a consequence. Faith of our Founders. Baptists would be persecuted and supported it. Was an embryonic version in British history. Burke has statements that he understands it; Madison also. Legitimate opposition is hard for others to grasp. Most think one has to be right and the other has to be wrong. Create a context that becomes a willingness to accept opposition.
1:00:27Tragedy of slavery, greatest tragedy: Could we have ended slavery peacefully at the end of the 18th century? There were people suggesting plans for gradual emancipation. Normal argument against it was economic--it was unaffordable, you'd have to compensate the slave owners. Economic side was soluble; Louisiana Purchase produced enough to do it, especially since all the incoming states had to be free states. Even the most enlightened opponents of slavery, Washington, Harriet Beecher Stowe, all assumed that the slaves once freed would have to be sent elsewhere, to Africa or Caribbean. Could not imagine a bi-racial society. Most of the Founders thought they didn't have to do anything because slavery would die a natural death. They didn't foresee the cotton gin, cotton kingdom; they saw it as a choice between making an effort to end slavery, which would kill the republic in the cradle--the South would secede. Was it possible to do this and still preserve the Union? Difficult question; to Washington and Adams the answer was clear--not worth the risk. Jefferson was less willing to give serious consideration to gradual emancipation. Washington had more slaves that Jefferson and was only one to free his slaves in his will; partly for his legacy. Better manager, not in debt even though he lost money, but easier for him than Jefferson. In some sense Jefferson couldn't legally free his slaves because his creditors, not he, owned them. His only surviving daughter becomes a ward of the state. Sad, sad story.

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