37 pages 1 hour read

Joseph J. Ellis

American Creation

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2007

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Important Quotes

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“In the Adams formulation, the true history was about chance, contingency, unintended consequences, about political leaders who were often improvising on the edge of catastrophe. Events, not men, were in the saddle, and all the founders were imperfect men rather than gods come down from Mount Olympus.” 

(Prologue, Page 6)

At the beginning of the book, Ellis examines the “great men” theory of history, which centralizes the decisions and actions of men in historical events. He states that this has contributed to the mythmaking surrounding the founders of America, adding to the sense that they are beyond criticism. However, he views them as humans who are flawed but do the best they can under the circumstances.

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“Taken together, these triumphal and tragic elements should constitute the ingredients for an epic historical narrative that defies all moralistic categories, a story line rooted in the coexistence of grace and sin, grandeur and failure, brilliance and blindness. No aspiring historian, or novelist, could wish for more. But that is not the way the story has been told. Instead, we have been asked to choose between two simplistic narratives of the founding, one featuring the founders as demigods who were permitted to glimpse the eternal truths, or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it, ‘to see God face to face,’ the other crowded with a cast of villains who collectively comprise the deadest, whitest males in American history.” 

(Prologue, Page 11)

Ellis makes his case for how to view the founders. He rejects the idea, fashionable in recent historiography, that they merely represent the “dead, white male” perspective of history. Their stories, he argues, had far too significant consequences to dismiss them so blithely. Instead, their lives and actions, while messy like those of all humans, are multi-dimensioned and contain the ingredients for an epic tale. 

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“For George III and his chief minister, Lord North, it was akin to an axiom of political physics, a veritable Newtonian principle of political theory, that there must be one sovereign source of governance. To suggest otherwise was tantamount to arguing there was not one but many gods.” 

(Chapter 1, Page 24)

This shows the prevailing way of thinking about sovereignty at the time of American independence. Ellis argues that the revolution could have been avoided if the British had agreed to share sovereignty with the colonies. However, it is hard to change one’s mindset when no alternative perspective exists. This is partly what makes the Constitution a pioneering document—it proposed sharing sovereignty between federal and state governments.