We want to believe that the present is messier and more dangerous than the past. Why can't we live in a time with a Jefferson or an Adams or a Washington? Why are we stuck with Bush and Clinton (or as we'll soon see) Obama?
The idea behind this book is that things looked pretty messy at the time back then too.
A few examples
- Thomas Jefferson was despised as someone intensely political, but apparently unaware of his backstabbing ways. He teamed up regularly with James Madison and founded the first opposition party -- all while insisting he didn't believe in political parties.
- Valley Forge was the low point of American history, with many soldiers dying and almost no hope of victory. Hope only arrived, in fact, during the early Spring with news that France was now supporting them.
- If there ever was a chance to achieve a morally good ending to the colonists interactions with native Americans, the Creek Indian chief Alexander McGillivray was probably it. The guy was half-white, well-educated, commanded a large and well-organized nation, and signed an equal treaty with George Washington and the new American government in the early 1790s. But unfortunately he was also what today we would call a corrupt warlord, who double-crossed the Americans and died at age 34 of alcoholism.
Ellis' big idea is that the real innovation of the American Founders was to stumble upon a system of government that, instead of resolving differences permanently, provided a framework for on-going discussion and experimentation with government. Unlike other places, America became a place where it was okay to be in opposition.
Although I liked the main theme, I thought the book could have used more organization. It flows more like a series of unrelated essays. A better book is Ellis' earlier Pulitzer Prize winning Founding Brothers.