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Monday, November 12, 2007

They were fighting for the rights of man

Trust and Caution By JON MEACHAM NYT Sunday Book Review: November 11, 2007 They were fighting for the rights of man while we quarreled over a lockbox for Social Security. The signing of the Constitution; painter unknown. AMERICAN CREATION Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic. By Joseph J. Ellis. 283 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.
If at this point I were to note the familiar contradictions of the birth of the nation — chiefly the triumph of liberty, but only for propertied white men — and say that Ellis has written an entertaining account of, as his subtitle has it, the “triumphs and tragedies” of the founding, there would not be much new for me to say, or for you to read, either in this review or in Ellis’s book. 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. The observation is especially relevant at the moment, I think, because of the country’s evident desperation to move beyond the Bush years into — well, into just about anything else.
Modern political campaigns talk of revolution when in fact the founding gave us a nation that prefers evolution. Despite the hurly-burly of presidential bids, with their evocations of hope (Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, John Kennedy’s New Frontier, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America, Bill Clinton’s Bridge to the 21st Century), no single election will lead us through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Short of what William Faulkner called “the last red and dying evening,” nothing will ever be finally, fully finished. The poor shall be with us always, and the world will defy our best and most conscientious efforts to eliminate evil, or even to master it for very long.
How to live in a tragic milieu and yet strive toward triumph — for while perfection may not be possible, progress is — was a consuming concern for the founders, who, led by James Madison, made a virtue of creating competing centers of power within the constitutional structure. For the new American Republic, Ellis writes, “government was not about providing answers, but rather about providing a framework in which the salient questions could continue to be debated.” To transform disagreement from a natural source of strife into a source of stability was a crucial insight, and is arguably the great achievement of the Constitution. What frustrates the passionate about America — its creaky checks and balances, diffuse sovereignties and general aversion to sudden change — is, Ellis argues, what makes possible the triumphs we do manage to pull off.
Instead of loosely linked portraits in the manner of his “Founding Brothers,” Ellis offers loosely linked moments and issues, from Valley Forge to Indian policy to the Louisiana Purchase. “American Creation” is not a seamless narrative; it is allusive rather than immersive. In a way, the fragmentary nature of the book mirrors one of Ellis’s key points. The past itself is fragmentary, and the fundamental task for any generation at any given moment is to bring order to intrinsically chaotic forces and events. History is messy because life is messy, and politics is provisional because life is provisional. Ellis shares the founders’ tragic sensibility, finding redemption in seeking the good rather than in achieving the perfect. The wisdom of the American founding lies in the recognition that the former is possible, and the latter is not.
The acknowledgment of limitation and the appreciation that the founders themselves purposely moved with caution is hardly the stuff that emotional Independence Day orations are made of, but they are essential truths about America’s beginning, and may help explain why our revolution worked when others failed. As Ellis says, “In my judgment the calculated decision to make the American Revolution happen in slow motion was a creative act of statesmanship that allowed the United States to avoid the bloody and chaotic fate of subsequent revolutionary movements in France, Russia and China.”
The other issues he takes on — slavery, Indian removal, the rise of the party system — are handled well, and readers will find Ellis’s conversational tone congenial. (One quibble: Ellis’s voice is occasionally so informal that it can veer toward the cliché: Robert Livingston’s support for the Louisiana Purchase “sealed the deal”; conflicts “heated up”; a British expeditionary force is sent to crush the American rebellion “in the bud.” The book would have been better if Ellis had chosen to crush phrases like that in the bud.)
In all, however, Ellis has done us a great service by reminding us why America can be so frustrating. For one man’s obvious reform is another man’s nightmare. “Unlike mathematics, in politics there was no agreed-upon solution reached by sheer brainpower and logic,” Ellis writes, “but rather an ongoing and never-ending struggle between contested versions of the truth.” Making it up as one goes along, then, is in the best tradition of the American Revolution.
s the decades passed and the founders died off, John Adams grew amused — in a John Adams kind of way — by the deification of the Revolutionary generation. “I ought not to object to your reverence for your fathers” he wrote an admiring younger correspondent, “but to tell you a very great secret, as far as I am capable of comparing the merit of different periods, I have no reason to believe that we were better than you are.” Perhaps so, but what Adams’s generation did with its moment was to create the means by which subsequent generations, including our own, could argue about ends in a largely peaceable way. “It was patched and piebald then,” Adams said of the founding, “as it is now, ever was and ever will be, world without end.” To which we may, I think, safely add: Amen. Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, is the author of “Franklin and Winston” and “American Gospel.” He is at work on a book about Andrew Jackson.

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