Just What Did the Founders Think They Were Doing?

By Cuddihy, Edward | The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), June 14, 2015 | Go to article overview

Just What Did the Founders Think They Were Doing?


Cuddihy, Edward, The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)


Just what did the founders think they were doing anyway?

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783- 1789

By Joseph J. Ellis Knopf, 290 pages, $27.95

Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It

By John FerlingBloomsbury, 409 pages, $30

Seldom do two books published in the same cycle dovetail so perfectly into the telling of one grand story as do the latest works of noted historians Joseph Ellis and John Ferling.

American history in the second half of the 18th century is often a misunderstood blur, colored by patriotic myth and punctuated by a glorious revolution, out of which blossomed a powerful new nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Or did it happen that way?

Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, and Ferling, a much acclaimed academic historian, have dissimilar writing styles. Their grand views of the American saga are at odds. There is no evidence they even knew of each other's latest books. Yet the volumes are perfectly complementary and contain only minor overlap.

They attempt to answer questions that have troubled serious historians now for 150 years.

For Professor Ferling, the salient question is: Why did the Anglo- centric leaders of 13 highly successful British colonies, along with 2 million proud subjects of the British Crown, turn their backs on the most powerful - some would say the most progressive - nation in the world, reject the protection of a superpower, and beg for help from the hated enemy, the French? And Catholics, no less.

For Ellis, the question is: Why did those successful former colonies - now 13 sovereign nation-states - opt to give up the individual independence they had fought so long to win at such a staggering price in lives and treasure? Why did those diverse sovereigns decide to cobble together a new central government, which to many seemed an awful lot like the one they had just overthrown?

We will deal with the questions in reverse order because the shadowy period Ellis writes about, the years from the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 to the birth of the United States in 1789, appear the more consequential in terms of today's American nation.

1789? Wasn't the nation born on July 4, 1776? Ellis would claim no. He argues Abraham Lincoln, while well-intentioned, was wrong in his Gettysburg Address when he cited July 4, 1776, as the birthday of our nation.

In Ellis' view, the all-important Declaration of Independence is just that: Thirteen former colonies, each with its own governing body and laws, most jealous and distrustful of the others, together declared to take their leave of the British Empire. The Brits knew that like audacious teenagers, they'd come crawling back when their juvenile adventure failed.

For the next 13 years, the states were not a nation, but a loose federation, probably more like Europe's Hanseatic League along the Baltic coast than a nation, as rancorous and disjointed as today's European Union.

During eight years of war, they ignored each others' requests for help, they formed a Grand American Army led by George Washington, but they armed and fed their own state militias, and they defied the decrees of their own Confederation Congress. England's ignorance of the geopolitical situation across the Atlantic went a long way toward keeping the federation and the rebellion alive.

When the war was won, the loose confederation began to disintegrate, drifting into spheres of influence, with states levying tariffs on each other and the citizenry disdainful of any taxes or laws that weren't local.After years of study and a half dozen books on this era, Ellis has formed a clear vision of the characters and events that transformed the federation into a single nation. His story is not what we were taught 50 years ago. Not even close.Ellis credits Washington, John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for the compromise Constitution that has taken on an almost mystical aura over the last 226 years. …

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