The Founding Fathers: a good generation, although perhaps not the greatest

Let's be real, urges historian Joseph Ellis. America's founders were neither saints nor sinners.

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No modest man ever made it to the presidency, least of all the obsessively self-interested John Adams. But even he admitted that America's Founding Fathers – of which he was one – were hardly gods sent down to live among mere mortals.

When a young man tried to fawn over him for being part of a truly great generation, Mr. Adams patiently told him to get a grip. "I ought not to object to your reverence for your fathers ... [but] I have no reason to believe that we were better than you are."

Fast forward to the present, when all those men in wigs still seem anything but ordinary. To many, they're either glorious saints from a better America or sinners who doomed the country to domination by rich white men.

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In reality, these are silly "cartoons," argues bestselling historian Joseph J. Ellis, who's grown tired of both "mindless" cheerleaders and "naive" critics who can't handle the fact that history is colored in shades of gray.

On one hand, the political masterminds behind the Constitution could boast of a "monumental achievement" in human history, Ellis writes in his new book American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic.

But at the same time, he writes, blacks and native Americans were left in the gutter, doomed to decades of slavery in one case and near-extinction in the other. How did the same leaders manage to be so great in some instances and so dreadfully wrong in others?

Ellis tries to answer the question in his modest but useful book. In a brief 283 pages, he tells not one story but six in a series of essays about turning points in early American history, from the Revolutionary War to the Louisiana Purchase.

Much of Ellis's personality comes through both in the main text of "American Creation" and its acknowledgements. He admits to not getting along with research assistants – he got rid of them this time around – and wrote the whole book in longhand.

This suggests a certain stubborn iconoclasm, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that the author is not a historian who suffers fools lightly. Ellis, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2000 book "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation," crankily slams colleagues for engaging in "hindsight history" and a "bizarre" obsession with marginalized groups (easy for a middle-aged white man to say).

Those looking for windows on life in the 18th century won't find one here, as Ellis is more interested in decisionmakers and their debates than those who were affected by them. Political debates were just as dry and tedious back then as they are today, which makes for rough sledding at times.

But Ellis's sharp writing style and appreciation for irony are saving graces, as is his unearthing of what he calls perhaps the most important debate in American history, pitting mild-mannered nation builder James Madison against a reactionary, whip-smart, and eloquent Patrick Henry, who had no patience for the fledgling Constitution or religious freedom.

"American Creation" comes most alive when Ellis offers insight into how American's founders dealt with minorities through the issues of slavery and Indian relations. Contrary to our perception of people in the past as being either oblivious to or in denial about their prejudices, Ellis shows that many of these men were well aware of their failings and even predicted history would be anything but kind.

But self-knowledge wasn't enough.

As Ellis writes, the founders somehow lost their amazing creativity and knack at solving problems. Beating back the world's greatest military power? Done. Creating a new government that changed the world? Done. Resolving the Indian and slavery issues in the spirit of the new nation's core beliefs? Um, no.

Never mind the eloquence of the Cherokee chief who must have known what was coming when he reminded the founders that "we are made in the same hand and in the same shape as yourselves." Never mind, as Ellis puts it, that slavery "violated all the principles the American Revolution claimed to stand for."

In essence, Ellis's take on the Founding Fathers is a classic mixed review. As the author notes, this is just the kind of history we need, taking into account "flawed greatness, the coexistence of intellectual depth and personal shallowness, the role of contingency and sheer accident instead of divine providence."

John Adams, who feared flashier founders would rob him of his place in history, would definitely agree.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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