Imperfect American Beginnings Explored
Historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis just released his eighth book on early American history. Asked why he stays at it, he tells the story of Willie Sutton.
Sutton was a lovable bank robber who would get out of jail only to begin stealing again, Ellis says in a phone interview.
“Why do you keep robbing the banks? Because that’s where they keep the money,” Ellis laughs, adding that he sells more books in Washington, D.C., than anywhere else.
Ellis, who received one of writing’s most coveted awards, the Pulitzer Prize, in 2001 for “Founding Brothers” is currently touring the country in support of his latest book, “American Creation.” In a series of six short stories, the 243-page book examines how the founders laid the groundwork for our current government.
“These founder guys are flawed creatures,” Ellis says. “If they were perfect, what in heavens name would we be studying them for?”
In the first chapter, “American Creation” discusses the 15 months after the first shots of the Revolution, calling that period the strangest time in American history because despite the ongoing Revolution, the colonies remained loyal to the crown. In his favorite chapter, “The Treaty,” Ellis discusses how the real losers of the American Revolution weren’t the British, but the American Indians. The British remained a superpower, he notes, while American Indians were displaced and forced to move west.
“It’s a good story, has great characters and it’s the story of failure. It raises the question could it have gone any other way?” Ellis notes, adding that it’s “almost un-American to say that some problems don’t have solutions.”
Ellis says the idea for his eighth book came to him during a book tour in the 2000 election season. Wherever he went, people were complaining about both the Electoral College and the lack of good presidential candidates.
“There’s a sense that once upon a time we had greatness and now we have something less than that,” Ellis says. “That’s not really fair. There was an incalculable advantage to being first.”
Ellis, who also is a history professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., based “American Creation” on primary sources, including the Founding Fathers’ correspondence and newspaper articles.
“This is my effort to sort of consolidate my alleged wisdom about how that greatest of American political generations came into existence,” he says.
Ellis plans to follow “American Creation” with a book titled “First Family,” about the relationship between John and Abigail Adams.
“Before there was Hillary [Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)], before there was Eleanor Roosevelt, there was Abigail Adams,” Ellis says. “In some ways she has more influence over policy than any other first lady in history.”
Ellis will appear at the Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington at 7 p.m. Wednesday to discuss “American Creation.”