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Joseph Ellis on America's Founding Choices
"The Adoption of the Constitution" by J. B. Stearns, oil., ca. 1856) (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

"The Adoption of the Constitution" by J. B. Stearns, oil., ca. 1856. (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

It’s Election Day, and Americans know that one way or another they are making history today with their vote.

As voters go to the polls, we are going back, to the beginning — to the American Revolution and founders, and to the real story of how they created a nation.

The country’s first turbulent decades were a time of unfolding possibilities, big triumphs, big compromises. America was still being made.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis says the founders weren’t gods, and their plans were not pure genius. They weren’t even set on making a democracy with their revolution. But they did. And today we are shaping it still.

This hour, On Point: human then and human now. Historian Joseph Ellis and the story of the American creation.

You can join the conversation. Does it all look etched in stone to you now? Can you imagine a time when it really wasn’t?


We’re joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College. He is author of “American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic,” now available in paperback. His other books include “His Excellency: George Washington” (2004), “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation” (2000), and “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson” (1996).

Read an excerpt from “American Creation” at RandomHouse.com.

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  • Peter Nelson

    You don’t have to go to Egypt and gaze at the Pyramids or fly to Paris for the Eiffel Tower if you want to see one of the greatest human creations in history. The US Constitution may be found on the web, and hopefully on our bookshelves in seconds, for free. And it is a marvel.

    People often talk about the flaws and shortcomings of the document, but it needs to be understood as an essentially human creation – as much the embodiment of compromise and passion and fear and optimism as it is the product of rational design and logic. In many ways this is the glory of it, and the proof is in the persistence with which it has served us for over two centuries, even while we have morphed from a tiny agricultural nation hard on the east coast of a great wilderness, to a huge high-tech world power.

  • Mac Harris

    The electoral college is now more than just a stop gap against federal power over state power. It also became about getting the national leader to campaign in all regions, keeping us from spinning out to 4 or 5 or 6 regional nations. There are those in the central Canadian provinces that would like to see that vote weighting so that they got some input into the national election.

    The biggest problem with the college is that the state parties went to a winner take all system of selecting electoral votes.

  • Steve Harris

    Regarding direct popular election of the president, you should be aware of http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/, which proposes NOT to get rid of the electoral college but rather to have enough states direct their electors to vote for the candidate that receives the most votes.

    Currently, 50% of the necessary electors/states have signed on.

  • Justin

    Were the founding fathers naive for designing a government without political parties?

  • Michael D. Maginn

    Please ask Professor Ellis why he thinks the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers managed to muddle through while the French Revolution failed in its effort to build a republic.

  • Steve Harris

    Correction to my previous post: only 21 states, representing 19% of the needed electors, have signed on.

  • David Polan

    Great show on this historic day.
    Many many thanks!!

  • andrew

    i heard the logic behind the electoral college, very interesting with regard to the balance between popular representation and state representation. the aurthor suggests he doesn’t foresee a change to direct popular vote in his lifetime. i am curious about his thoughts about a more representative electoral college where the electoral college votes for each state go to both candidates in proportion to the popular vote in the state. i believe there are a few states that currrently do this, with maine being one of them . i would think this would reduce the risk of winning the overall popular vote and losing the overall electoral college vote.. is there any push or trend in that direction?

  • Sam

    What’s this? a first hour in which the main topic doesn’t revolve around McCain and or Obama; the elections been fun but I couldn’t be more happy about it being over either though.

  • J

    ‘There were a lot of casualties’,it was said, ‘if you got there [the Ohio Valley] to early’, but did the proportion of casualties decrease later if we are considering human casualties without regard to sides?

  • PJS

    P.N., thank you for the reminder. Regardless of the outcome at the end of this day, it (our Constitution) will still serve us well, I believe. And, in 4 years we will continue the lively debate – AND, vote again!! At the risk of showing my sympathies, as well as my age, I do feel sad, however, that I will not, almost certainly, have the opportunity of voting again for John McCain. I will console myself with the obvious fact – there must always be a loser, as well as a winner. And, I will also have the opportunity to see our first African American President inaugurated, as a consolation prize. MAYBE, I am a bit premature with this prediction. PJS

  • Peter Nelson

    Were the founding fathers naive for designing a government without political parties?

    Personally I think that political parties are the bane of our politics, so why encourage them? Political parties stand between the people and their government and create the illusion that the entire and diverse range of political philosophy and opinion can be boiled down to n parties (where n is the number of parties in power).

    I tend to be liberal on social policy and environmental topics and conservative on business/fiscal/economic policy. There is no party on my ballot that represents my views.

    Anyway, how should a system of government be devised that takes into account parties?

  • Linda Corrigan

    I was wondering about the bail out. I know that with this election change is coming. However, I have a great Idea. There are 50 states. Why not give each state 1 billion dollars each, that is only 50 billion out of the 700 billion. Hardly a much of a hit. MOst of the upper corps and banks are not trickling down their rates to the bottom half of the population. I still pay high interest rates on cards. Let us give the money to the states, and let them trickle the money downward to the human services that will have an affect. to education to aliviate the budget woes about to happen. Too services that benefit the communities and would relieve some of the burden from the states. I beleive in the trickle up theory and I bet things would start moving faster if we went from the bottom up rather than the bottom down. Linda Corrigan, Counselor-Oxnard, CA

  • Linda Corrigan

    Opps, I meant to say Top to bottom. Linda Corrigan-Oxnard, CA

  • Peter Nelson

    I was wondering about the bail out. I know that with this election change is coming. However, I have a great Idea. There are 50 states. Why not give each state 1 billion dollars each,

    Considering that you’re from California, I’m suprised you think it should divided by state rather than population. $1B is a much bigger windfall for a state of 500K population like Wyoming than it is for a state with 36M population like California.

    Anyway, why give the money to people who have already demonstrated they can’t manage money? I think they should give the money to people who have consistently shown they can manage money and won’t waste it. People who have saved their money and made conservative investments. People with no credit-card debt, car loans, or other consumer debt. People such as … me! 8-)

  • Linda Corrigan

    I am so proud and excited about this election year and voting for this historic time. I had to vote by mail due to my work hours, and I am especially proud that my adult children are voting this year as well. They wanted to know how I voted, I voted Obama, and No on 8. They are doing the same thing because they beleive that if the proposition passed, that their constitutional rights would be threaten, and changed and it would change for their children as well. They are saying don’t turn the clocks back in time. A time of choas, racism and discrimination and time of civil rights. My daughters understand what that means, how it affected my life and their fathers, and now they are concerned about their future. The stories of the past tell them my experiences of racism,in which at the time,didn’t quite understood the impact. As adults, they understand because they experienced it as well. I’ve always taught my children to read the information, research history, pay attention to laws being passed, and to work toward a freeer and educated society. I am proud that they are taking that step and that they are involved in the changes. That democracy means freedom to choose who they want in their life, where they desire to live, and contribute to the betterment of society. That education is important and knowledge is power. That is what I convey to them always. Thank you Linda Corrigan-Counselor-Oxnard, CA

  • Bill

    Why does Peter Nelson think it is his duty to respond to individual questions on this website? Every time I come on this site to check comments, I see Mr. Nelson is the primary contributor. I think his insight is valuable, but at times he acts like the moderator of this site and that is not necessary. Mr. Nelson, please regulate your posts. Your credibility is reduced when you make too many comments.

    Tom, thanks for a great show and happy election day to you all.

  • Peter Nelson

    Why does Peter Nelson think it is his duty to respond to individual questions on this website? Every time I come on this site to check comments, I see Mr. Nelson is the primary contributor.

    Before or during the broadcast people post questions for the guests. But afterwards this is a discussion forum. Discussion requires two-way conversation, so it’s apppropriate to respond to other people’s comments.

    I admit that I am an opinionated poster, but I make every effort to be well-informed and to cite sources. Prior to your comment I made 3 out of the 15 comments here, which hardly seems like I’m dominating the conversation. At least one other poster also made 3 comments.

    So rather than curse the darkness, light a candle – contribute more to the conversation yourself. This is a rich topic and could easily be expanded-upon with any number of historical examples or political science perspectives. Our Founding Fathers were sons of the Enlightenment and, as such, were creating a political science experiment. “Founding Choices” is exactly the right title because there are many choices they could have made, and many more choices available today, thanks to academic research on alternative voting systems.
    Here’s a link to a good LWV summary:

  • jeff

    What I find so disturbing is the lack of intellectual curiosity and the the amount of stupidity that now prevails in this country. To think that there are people who are running our government who believe in talking snakes.

    The Framers would be both proud and shocked by todays election. However they would not be surprised by the venom being put forth by both parties.

  • Peter Braun

    I understand that Professor Ellis, whose historical work I much admire, said that he would likely not see a change in the electoral college in his lifetime. I suggest that he apprise himself of the remarkable initiative making its way through many state legislatures that may upset his prediction. Please suggest to Professor Ellis to go immediately to the website of National Popular Vote http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/ Four states (Illinois, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Maryland) comprising 50 electoral votes, have already passed and signed this legislation; it is progressing through the legislatures of many other states, including the largest ones. The bill calls for each such state to cast all its electoral votes for the presidential candidate who has won the national popular vote. The measure becomes binding once enough states with the necessary 270 or more electoral votes have enacted the bill.

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