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Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic

A-American CreationJoseph Ellis is best known for his portrayals of the Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson in the National Book Award–winning American Sphinx, George Washington in His Excellency: George Washington, and Jefferson, Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr in his Pulitzer Prize–winning group portrait, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Now Ellis attempts something like a moving picture, examining the characters of the Revolutionary era through six pivotal events. The names are familiar—Valley Forge, Constitutional Convention, Louisiana Purchase—but Ellis’s analysis is anything but, as he uses each episode to reveal the complexities of a different Founding Father. He also introduces readers to important but overlooked personalities such as Robert Livingston, whose negotiations with Napoleon’s government led to the Louisiana Purchase, and the crafty Creek leader Alexander McGillivray. But the true stars of Ellis’s book are the American ideas that, like the Founding Fathers, continue to be debated today.
Knopf. 283 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 030726369X

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"American Creation is one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking books I’ve read in years. … This gift [for suspense] is all the more remarkable because the suspense is built almost entirely from the intrigue of ideas rather than the visceral emotions of flesh and blood adventures." Debby Applegate

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"If there is anyone who emerges as consistently heroic in Ellis’ judgment, it is Washington, whose rectitude and realism did much to hold the country together. … [Ellis] proves himself once again to be a superb guide to the people and events that shaped the young United States." Philip Seib

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"It is difficult to imagine an educated American who does not know that the Revolution was selective and that the Revolutionaries, many of them slaveholders who were complicit in the bloodthirsty treatment of Indians, were flawed and imperfect. But Ellis rescues his enterprise by going beyond the familiar critique of the founding to explore a point that remains underappreciated: that America was constructed to foster arguments, not to settle them." Joe Meacham

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"The events that occurred during this period were a collection of ironies, contradictions, improvisations and compromises that defined the political and physical face of America. Some of the issues debated at our creation are still being debated today." Dan Danborn

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"How did the same leaders manage to be so great in some instances and so dreadfully wrong in others? Ellis tries to answer the question in his modest but useful book." Randy Dotinga

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[C]an it be that Ellis is just a trifle guilty of the ‘presentism’—seeing the past through the prism of the present—that he elsewhere deplores? It is possible to agree that slavery and the decimation of the native population are the great stains upon the moral standing of this country, yet also to understand that people of intelligence and good will saw things differently then." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

Reviewers embraced American Creation for the same reason they enjoyed Ellis’s previous books: his treatment of the Founding Fathers is neither idolatrous nor iconoclastic. He portrays them as the fascinating, complex, and human characters they really were. Some historians disagreed with details of Ellis’s interpretation, but they tended to emphasize that, like the founders themselves, Ellis has created a useful framework in which the ideas of the Revolutionary period can be discussed. Ellis’s prose, on the other hand, did not inspire any comparisons with Thomas Jefferson’s; in fact, several reviewers suggested another round of editing. But all critics agreed that the author’s masterful handling of the material checked and balanced the occasional tyrannical sentence.