So Fragile a Victory
It’s one thing to read a triumphal view of the American Revolution and the nation’s founding architects—as tend to get published each year right around holiday time—and quite another to come across passages like the following from Joseph Ellis’s American Creation, set in the summer of 1775 as the first real encounter of the war takes shape in Boston, and George Washington sets off from Philadelphia to take charge of the nascent revolution:
Compared to the cream of the British officer corps that he would encounter at Boston, Washington was a rank amateur who had never commanded more than a regiment in battle. He purchased several books on military organization and tactics on the way out of Philadelphia in the hope of giving himself a crash course on commanding an army.
We might like to think that deep down we know Washington was indeed a human being, not that animatronic marble statue presented to us in textbooks. But there’s no denying the shock of being confronted with the evidence of that humanity, as Ellis (Founding Brothers, American Sphinx) does so vividly in that anecdote. Did Washington come to the bookstore clerk, hat in hand, and ask politely for the military history section? Did he read late into the night, quill clenched in teeth, thinking the whole time that if he screwed this up then that was it for the new Republic? One hates to say that it brings history alive, but that’s exactly what this kind of storytelling can, and does, accomplish.
Ellis is very good at relating this kind of moment, and it’s a skill that makes American Creation as enjoyable a read as it is. This is fortunate as the organizing principle behind the book can seem a bit loose, as evidenced by the grab-bag subtitle: “Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic.” Although it may well be that Ellis simply had a goodly pile of research that he didn’t want to waste and wanted to see how he could get a decent book out of it, that shouldn’t by any means deter readers, particularly those who appreciate a brisk, left-field approach in their history.
In his foreword, Ellis puts pretty plainly his principle behind the book, namely that he was trying to answer the question of “what besides dumb luck can account for the achievement that was the American founding?” The chapters that follow are then given rather portentous titles (“The Year”, “The Argument”, etc.) even as they, generally successfully, try to deal in plain language with the almost incomprehensibly momentous events that were occurring nearly every month. The fact that all of it could have so easily gone the other way helps Ellis keep a dramatic tension humming throughout: there’s nothing quite so thrilling in a history book as the near possibility of utter failure (Ellis points to the revolution’s success being based on “some combination of imagination, vigorous commitment, pragmatic adjustments, and dumb luck”). This is true whether the near collapse of the American insurgency almost happens on the battlefield or in the debate-filled coffee shops and taverns of Philadelphia (which is where all the real work got done, apparently).
One place where the revolution almost came to naught was during the frozen winter the Continental Army spent at Valley Forge, a period of travail etched like a bronze statue in the American psyche. But Ellis, an author who loves the odd and truth-telling detail, wonders in his chapter on that harrowing time how exactly “the Continental Army was starving to death while located squarely in the middle of America’s most bountiful breadbasket.” The answer is as prosaically logical as it is surprising: there was food around, but local farmers preferred to sell to the British troops warmly bunked up in Philadelphia, since they paid in reliable pounds sterling instead of “vastly inflated” and nearly worthless Continental currency. So: American farmers nearly starved their own volunteer army to death because the occupying army paid better.
While Washington struggled to adapt to the necessary guerrilla tactics of harassment and attrition (garnering no shortage of lucky breaks along the way), the new government was coming together but through a similarly random-seeming series of events. Given how reverently later generations would view the documents left behind for posterity by the founding fathers, it takes one aback to see just how off-the-cuff their making was. Things like the Federalist Papers, which Ellis writes are seen by many these days as the “seminal source for interpreting the original intentions of the framers” were created not so much in a cool and composed chamber of thought, but more in the heat of expedient debate and looming deadlines, produced by Hamilton and Madison like “harried journalists turning out copy on a deadline.”
No less haphazard and lucky was the Louisiana Purchase. Quite possibly the easiest and most fortunate land grab in history, the Purchase essentially cemented America’s place as the single dominant power on the North American continent, and for quite a good price. However, like most momentous events discussed in American Creation, it came about through an improbable series of events that somehow coalesced in America’s favor; Ellis described it as “the perfect storm in which European clouds, Caribbean winds, and North America’s prevailing westerlies converged.”
As a sort of diplomatic soap opera involving Napoleon, Jefferson, scheming French diplomat Talleyrand (whom Ellis describes as “the kind of man who considered Machiavelli naïve”) and “black Spartacus” Touissant L’Overture, this passage in the book is without compare. It’s almost too little of a good thing, as Ellis relates in a mere page or two an astounding series of events that deserve their own book. A bloodcurdlingly evil (there is in fact no other word for it) French plan to falsely support and then crush Touissant’s slave rebellion on Santo Domingo, before then sending the army on to capture New Orleans and block American expansion fails miserably when the French army was essentially annihilated on Santo Domingo. And so the Louisiana Purchase was essentially saved by a slave rebellion in the Caribbean.
Although chapters like the one just discussed are most of what makes American Creation such an enthralling book, they also highlight Ellis’s biggest problem. He’s so committed to the eye-catching detail, the dramatic and little-known episode, that the book’s narrative—never that clear to begin with—easily gets lost in the shuffle. When an author just can’t resist melodramatic passages like “These were the cherished principles Jefferson proclaimed. He was about to violate every one of them,” it becomes pretty difficult to take him too seriously.