By Joseph Ellis
A couple of years ago, I wrote about Joseph Ellis’s two presidential biographies, his demystification of George Washington, His Excellency, and his rather fanboyish tribute to Jefferson, American Sphinx. Of the two, I was most disappointed with Sphinx. Ellis seemed a bit too earnest in rationalizing Jefferson’s contradictions, almost afraid that, if left unexplained, we’d somehow come to the wrong conclusion about the author of the Declaration of Independence.
Then we come to American Creation, where Ellis eloquently explains something I’ve always argued until I’m blue in the face. The Founding Fathers were not a unified monolithic group with a clear-cut agenda, ticking off bullet points one by one. (Action item 1: Fire George III, Action item 2: Kick out British troops, Action item 3: Write Constitution, Action item 4: Elect Washington president…)
Ellis defines the Founding Period as the 28 years from 1775 to 1803, from the first shots of the Revolution to the Louisiana Purchase. He then portrays the defining moments of this period as plays with a shifting cast of stars who wax and wane with each installment. They are the 15 months from the first shots at Lexington to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge, the drafting of the Constitution, the rise of the two-party system, and the Lousiana Purchase.
Ellis is a bit scarce in his details about the Constitution. While accurate, he sounds like he’s saying that Congress commissioned a constitutional convention in Annapolis that adjourned to Philadelphia for a few Yuenglings, then picked up where they left off. There is nothing on the arguments over the type of presidency America would have, Hamilton’s suggestion the president by elected for life, or the arguments over a bicameral legislature vs. a unicameral one. He does, however, detail Madison’s surprising proposal that the federal government have veto power over all state laws. While generally a bad idea, it would have ended John C. Calhoun’s political career before he was even born.
But if Ellis was a Jefferson fanboy in Sphinx, he gives no such quarter to our third president in Creation. Here, Ellis calls Jefferson on the carpet for failing to push slavery into its eventual extinction. Jefferson was one of several forward thinking slave holders who saw the institution as a moral paradox in a republican nation. But, Ellis suggests, if John Adams and other northerners could desire emancipation without fear of freed black reprisals, Jefferson should have been able to reach that same conclusion. But then Jefferson’s mind often worked on multiple contradictory tracks, making him equal parts genius and mad man. Fortunately for America, Jefferson’s madness was a managed one.
By Charlie Stella
I’m linking the Kindle edition here because the hardcover I read is out of print. That’s good for you because the ebook is only $3.99. Good for you. Good for Charlie.
Why’s that good? Eddie’s World is Charlie Stella’s debut from way back in 2001. Eddie Senta is a knockaround guy with problems. He wants out of the mob life, but he needs one last score. His wife is becoming insanely successful to the point where she wants to have a baby. Just not with Eddie. But Eddie can be in the baby’s life after a time. Confused? In the meantime, he’s planning to heist a former employer of $15,000. He’s getting help from an ex-coworker, an on-again, off-again drunk who is in sexual bondage to her boss.
Unfortunately, she’s got a new boyfriend named James. And James wants the money for himself. Since he’s under federal protection, he sees no reason not to help himself. James is Murphy’s Law personified, and he makes everything turn to garbage for Eddie.
Stella’s mob is not the romanticized mob of The Godfather and Goodfellas. He portrays it as a largely blue collar organization with few of the trappings from the movies. Guys like Eddie don’t get rich doing what they do, and Eddie works full time as a freelance word processor (a job Stella does in real life.) You want a grand epic about honor among thieves, go read Puzo. Stella has been in the streets and can tell you how it really works.