In light of the current election, it’s really interesting to read American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, by Joseph J. Ellis. The triumphs begin, of course, with winning the War for Independence, and the tragedies are rooted in contentious issues that were set aside in the immediate interest of securing the fruits of victory, most notably slavery, women’s rights, and a just accommodation for the Indians. Instead of attempting to resolve all these problems, they created a framework for debate and evolving solutions. In short, the creation of America is still going on today.
The book dips into six significant periods from the founding of the republic, to the beginnings of a North American empire: Independence, Valley Forge, the Constitution, the Indians, the two-party system, and the Louisiana Purchase. Ellis shines at portraying the founders as human beings in all their brilliance and flaws. Jefferson, however, comes off as a crank sometimes, especially in his rants about accusing Hamilton and others wanted to make Washington a monarch. And in the last chapter, all Jefferson’s beliefs in limited executive power were swept aside by the irresistible temptation of the Louisiana Territory.
While I knew a little and learned more about everything, for me the most interesting section was the story I had never heard: that Henry Knox persuaded Washington to make a high priority in his first term cutting an honorable deal with the Indians. The way things were going, whether they just allowed settlers to push the tribes out or forcibly removed them, either way they foresaw a betrayal of their own principles.
So they reached out to Alexander McGillivray, the mixed blood (which these days we call “multiracial”) chief of the Creek Nation. Educated in Charleston, McGillivray fully understood the injustice of the Treaty of Paris reassigning vast territories without consulting the peoples who lived in them. Though mostly allied with the Spanish, he also didn’t believe the American state would last, so he saw no good reason to deal in good faith. After much persuasion, he was feted in New York and sent home with a treaty. Which was promptly broken when the federal government couldn’t muster enough troops to enforce it. Knox and Washington tried, but failed to prevent either foreseen betrayal.
And now, more than 200 years later, how is the creation of America going? We have a woman who nearly took the brass ring and will undoubtably run for President again. We have a biracial Black man who just received his nomination as a major candidate. We even have another woman contending for Vice-President. But then, there’s plenty of white men in power. It’s taking a long time, but the work of creation is still in progress.
So do you think a Native American will ever run for President?