Excerpt from Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Founding Brothers

The Revolutionary Generation

by Joseph J. Ellis

Founding Brothers
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2000, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2002, 304 pages

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There is also truth in the opposite claim: that the Constitutional Convention should be called "the miracle at Philadelphia," not in the customary, quasi-religious sense, whereby a gathering of demigods received divine inspiration, but in the more profane and prosaic sense that the Constitution professed to solve what was an apparently insoluble political problem. For it purported to create a consolidated federal government with powers sufficient to coerce obedience to national laws--in effect, to discipline a truly continental union while remaining true to the republican principles of 1776. At least logically, this was an impossibility, since the core impulse of these republican principles, the original "spirit of '76," was an instinctive aversion to coercive political power of any sort and a thoroughgoing dread of the inevitable corruptions that result when unseen rulers congregate in distant places. The Antifederalist opponents of the Constitution made precisely these points, but they were outmaneuvered, out argued, and ultimately outvoted by a dedicated band of national advocates in nine of the state ratifying conventions.

The American Revolution thus entered a second phase and the constitutional settlement of 1787-1788 became a second "founding moment," alongside the original occasion of 1776. The first founding declared American independence; the second, American nationhood. The incompatibility of these two foundings is reflected in the divisive character of the scholarship on the latter. Critics of the Constitution, then and now, have condemned it as a betrayal of the core principles of the American Revolution, an American version of France's Thermidorian reaction. Strictly speaking, they were and are historically correct. Defenders of the Constitution, then and now, have saluted it as a sensible accommodation of liberty to power and a realistic compromise with the requirements of a national domain. That has turned out, over time, to be correct, though at the time, even the advocates were not sure.

Uncertainty, in fact, was the dominant mood at that moment. Historians have emphasized the several compromises the delegates in Philadelphia brokered to produce the constitutional consensus: the interest of large versus small states; federal versus state jurisdiction; the sectional bargain over slavery. The most revealing feature in this compromise motif is that on each issue, both sides could plausibly believe they had gotten the best of the bargain. On the all-important question of sovereignty, the same artfully contrived ambiguity also obtained: Sovereignty did not reside with the federal government or the individual states; it resided with "the people." What that meant was anyone's guess, since there was no such thing at this formative stage as an American "people"; indeed, the primary purpose of the Constitution was to provide the framework to gather together the scattered strands of the population into a more coherent collective worthy of that designation.

This latter point requires a reflective review of recent scholarship on the complicated origins of American nationhood. Based on what we now know about the Anglo-American connection in the pre-Revolution era--that is, before it was severed--the initial identification of the colonial population as "Americans" came from English writers who used the term negatively, as a way of referring to a marginal or peripheral population unworthy of equal status with full-blooded Englishmen back at the metropolitan center of the British Empire. The word was uttered and heard as an insult that designated an inferior or subordinate people. The entire thrust of the colonists' justification for independence was to reject that designation on the grounds that they possessed all the rights of British citizens. And the ultimate source of these rights did not lie in any indigenously American origins, but rather in a transcendent realm of natural rights allegedly shared by all men everywhere. At least at the level of language, then, we need to recover the eighteenth-century context of things and not read back into those years the hallowed meanings they would acquire over the next century. The term American, like the term democrat, began as an epithet, the former referring to an inferior, provincial creature, the latter to one who panders to the crude and mindless whims of the masses. At both the social and verbal levels, in short, an American nation remained a precarious and highly problematic project--at best a work in progress.

Excerpted from Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis Copyright© 2000 by Joseph J. Ellis. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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