Present at the creation

“… he watched a bewildering collection of interest groups and political factions conspire to block essential legislation and conceal their narrowly partisan agendas behind a veil of popular rhetoric.”

That’s not a sound bite from one of today’s presidential candidates. It’s an observation made by James Madison, the most influential framer of the Constitution and future fourth president of the United States, about the political infighting taking place during the shaping of the Constitution’s predecessor, the Articles of Confederation, as recounted in Joseph J. Ellis’ “American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic.”

In the book, Ellis chronicles the formative first 28 years of the United States, from the earliest days of the Revolution to the conclusion of the Louisiana Purchase.

Ellis lists his characters with names familiar to any schoolchild from history class — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison — as well as some not so familiar, such as Alexander McGillivray, a paradoxical Native American chief and statesman, but his book reads like no history text you’ve ever read.

Using personal papers and correspondence, and many other historical documents, Ellis pieces together a new picture of what perhaps was running in the minds of the Founding Fathers during America’s birth pains.

Few in this day, and even in his own, would question the integrity of George Washington. His 6-foot-3 frame gave him a commanding presence. Still, at the outset of the Revolutionary War, he was anything but an experienced commander.

“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 his way out of Philadelphia in the hope of giving himself a crash course on commanding an army,” writes Ellis.

Needless to say, Washington figured it out, and the rest, as they say, is history.

One of the central arguments during the creation of the Constitution was how to resolve strong federalist power vs. state power. Remember, America just tossed out King George III and did not want to recreate that nightmare.

The brilliance of that document comes not from what it says, but from what it doesn’t say.

“At the practical level, however, the Constitution had created a political framework in which state versus federal sovereignty was an ongoing negotiation to be resolved on a case-by-case basis,” says Ellis.

Quite simply, the solution was there was no solution.

The incredible, almost improbable, success of the Great Experiment also had its deep failures.

Indian policy, suffrage, and most especially slavery, all had been considered in backrooms and whispered conversations during the nation’s earliest years, but it would take decades, centuries in some cases, before any of these issues were addressed.

“On the tragic side, slavery south of the Potomac became a deeply embedded presence, now spreading relentlessly westward,” writes Ellis. “And a vital Native American existence east of the Mississippi was put on the road to extinction.”

There are many more important stories told in “American Creation” — the survival of the Continental Army during the winter of 1777-78, Abigail Adams’s not-so-subtly arguing for women’s right to vote ala “Lysistrata,” Jefferson deftly purchasing land that would double the size of the nation and play Spain and France against each other at the same time — just to mention a few.

Filled with powerful, masterfully drawn word-pictures and eye-opening insights, Ellis’s “American Creation” should be a must-read for anyone prior to going to the voting polls – most especially the current crop of candidates.

It is both strangely comforting and unsettling that our current political process is just as messy and salacious and earnest and affirming as it was in the day of the founders.

“American Creation” lets us know we still have much to learn from, both good and bad, from the founding of our nation.