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As one who is thoroughly fed up with our current political paralysis and small-minded partisanship, I have often wished our politicos shared a common passion for greatness as did the revolutionary generation. This book certainly dispels that notion.
In Founding Brothers Ellis focused on their deep bonds. In American Creation he looks through the opposite lens, describing their competitions and jealousies. In the process he reveals history and stories that will be new to many.
The revolutionaries are commonly faulted for not addressing the two biggest issues which even they recognized would surely put a blot on their legacy and the nation. Most agreed on the need to end slavery and develop a fair accommodation with the American Indian. Despite their agreement on the moral imperatives, however, they failed to avoid sacrificing them to pragmatic decisions as they went about creating the new nation state. This was a failure and in both instances led to exactly where they predicted, civil war and contentious expansion across the continent. Having said all that, it is hard to see how they could have solved the rubric successfully.
Ellis does a good job of giving us the back stories as to why that is the case. From Jefferson’s wager that Napoleon’s plan to occupy New Orleans would never come to fruition, to his and Washington’s belief that demography would in time accomplish what the fledgling nation could not in securing its future through expansion. The book is rich in these stories, bringing to light seldom heard of characters. The courting of Creek Nation chief McGillivray who (almost) always put the security of his nation first; how a slave leader prophesied the defeat of Napoleon’s army when it tried to subdue French slave colonies in the Caribbean, thus thwarting the plan to occupy New Orleans and leading to the Louisiana Purchase; the designs and strategies of France and Spain to leave America with a sliver of the east coast as they contested for the continent and its promise, and a host of other stories.
The stories the author highlights, including the Federalist / Republican divide, the irony of Jefferson's grand exercise of executive power in executing the Louisiana Purchase, and the tension between what the founders believed to be right and the compromises they made are instructive and illustrative of today's quandary. Nothing much has changed, so it seems, other than the time and issue of the moment. Politics is still politics, as they say.
As far as history telling goes this is a good read, but it does not equal Founding Brothers. In that volume Ellis simply told the story, in American Creation there is an undertone of opinion and aloofness that does not serve well. But, it will be an enjoyable journey for the casual fan of history who wants to refresh his or her appreciation for the beginnings of the American story.
Mayer's reading is solid and smooth, if a bit understated at times. It's the history of our national founding, man! Wake up! My way of saying I found it a bit too smooth and understated. But hey, I like a bit more adrenaline in my morning coffee as well.
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How did Washington really prevail against the British? Why was a "democracy" was never the objective of the founders. How Madison's model for a republic was greatly improved by the convention and a more stable and representative government created. The dilemmas the founders encountered over the Indian and slavery problems. How the Louisiana purchase affected solutions. And much more.