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Joseph Ellis Explains Just How Revolutionary The Revolution Was

June 2024
3min read

MANY YEARS AFTER PLAYING THEIR famed roles in promoting revolution and republicanism among the dispersed peoples of colonial North America, John Adams and Benjamin Rush engaged in a lively correspondence about the importance of human agency in determining the course of history. “I shall continue to believe that ‘great men’ are a lie,” wrote Rush, “and that there is very little difference in that superstition which leads us to believe in witches and conjurers.” Adams agreed heartily and even went a step further: “The feasts and funerals in honor of [George] Washington is as corrupt a system as that by which saints were canonized and cardinals, popes and whole hierarchical systems created.” Adams meant no disrespect to Washington, a man he had known for 25 years and in whose administration he served two terms as Vice President. On the contrary, said Adams, were Washington still alive, he would surely be mortified by the “pilgrimages to Mount Vernon as the new Mecca or Jerusalem.”

In his new book, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (Knopf, 304 pages, $26.95), the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis engages the founders’ own ruminations on human agency to launch a wide ranging and fascinating investigation of the early years of the American republic. Though no less a figure than Washington credited the revolution’s success to (in Ellis’s words) “large-scale historical forces beyond human control”—namely, time and space—“rather than the actions or decisions of men,” Ellis, the author of several important books on the founding generation, views these claimswith a skeptical eye. The revolutionary generation knew they were writing for posterity, he reminds us, and so they purposely downplayed their own achievements–and, by extension, their own missteps.

Ellis’s new book is less a cohesive monograph than a collection of related essays that balance narrative and analysis. If any one argument can be said to weave together the separate pieces of American Creation, it is that the founding generation had five central achievements: first, they defeated the most formidable military power in the modern world; second, they “established the first nation-sized republic”; third, “they created the first wholly secular state”; fourth, they created a system of overlapping sovereignty; and fifth, they institutionalized political parties, entities that were thought to destabilize republics but that ultimately strengthened the American system of self-government. Importantly, Ellis emphasizes two signature failures of the founding generation, namely, their failure to strike a just arrangement with several million American Indians and to eradicate the institution of slavery.

The chapters that compose American Creation walk the reader through seminal moments in the nation’s founding: the debate over independence that consumed the Continental Congress in 1775 and 1776; the Continental Army’s terrible winter at Valley Forge (1777–78); the debate over the ratification of the Constitution in the late 1780s; the formation of the Democratic-Republican party in the early 1790s; the federal government’s bad-faith negotiations with American Indian tribes in this same period; and the Louisiana Purchase.

Ellis covers a lot of old ground, but he often brings fresh insight to bear.His chapter on Valley Forge is the book’s strongest.

He points out that Washington’s army was made up not of the sturdy Massachusetts farmers of Lexington and Concord fame but rather of “indentured servants, recently arrived immigrants from Ireland or Scotland, emancipated slaves, landless sons from New England, mechanics from Philadelphia. They represented the poorest strata of American society, there because, truth be known, they had no brighter prospects.” Neither were they all huddled together en masse at Valley Forge. “The headquarters of the Continental Army was located there, to be sure, but the army itself was deployed in a wide arc, stretching from northern Delaware up through Valley Forge, then around to southern New Jersey.” That winter, as Gen. William Howe’s British troops stayed warm and ate well in Philadelphia, Washington’s ragtag army starved and froze. From an initial troop level of about 12,000, the force was depleted by early spring to about 5,000 before reinforcements arrived.

Ellis argues that Valley Forge gave birth to two important reversals of then current belief. “It is almost an established maxim in European politics,” observed Washington’s indispensable officer, Nathanael Greene, that, in a protracted war, “the longest purse will remain masters of the field . . .money is the sinews of war.” But the winter of 1777–78 taught Greene and his comrades an altogether different lesson. To win the war, they simply needed not to lose. When the snow and ice thawed, the Continental Army shifted from an offensive war to a long campaign of attrition.

More important, the ordeal of Valley Forge convinced a core group of revolutionary leaders that a weak, decentralized government could not sustain a revolution. “Peeking ahead to the 1780s and 1790s,” Ellis writes, “it is no accident that the leadership of the Federalist Party–to include Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall—shared the sufferings of the Valley Forge winter, and internalized in those dire conditions a palpable sense that a fully empowered central government was necessary to win the war and oversee the peace.”

Editing his grandfather’s papers in the 1850s, Charles Francis Adams warned of a tendency “to forget that the patriots of former days were men like ourselves . . . and we are almost irresistibly led to ascribe to them in our imaginations certain gigantic proportions and superhuman qualities, without reflecting that this at once robs their character of consistency and their virtues of all merit.” Though he has built a career on chronicling the great men of yesteryear, Joseph Ellis is ever mindful of this problem. The result is another fine book that will inform scholars and general readers alike.


—Joshua Zeitz is a contributing editor of American Heritage and the author of Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made

America Modern (Crown 2006).



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