At the very beginning of 2018’s American Dialogue: The Founders and Us, historian Joseph J. Ellis lays out his personal self-evident truth. This guide star that leads his work is simple yet important: “The study of history is an ongoing conversation between past and present from which we all have much to learn.”
I couldn’t agree more. Especially in times of crisis such as we face now.
Over the book’s 200+ pages, Ellis demonstrates how just such a dialogue takes place in the hands of a talented historian, biographer, writer, and thinker immersed in the study of our nation’s founding. Focusing on key issues of our day, he carries on a rich, thoughtful, and challenging conversation with four founders that helps us go back to the beginning and understand some of their controversial decisions, and how that differs from choices we are making today.
The questions are well chosen given our highly polarized times. Ellis notes that we are “currently incapable of sustained argument” as our creedal convictions — formed during the revolutionary era — bump up against “the emergence of a truly multiracial society; the inherent inequalities of a globalized economy; the sclerotic blockages of an aging political architecture; and the impossible obligations facing any world power once the moral certainties provided by the Cold War vanished.” This attempt to take these questions back to the founders to see what we can learn is smart in its conception and — while not without flaws — nonetheless illuminating in its execution.
As it should, the conversation begins with our original sin of slavery and race. Ellis chooses Thomas Jefferson as the founder who “lived a life thoroughly embedded in the twin American dilemmas of slavery and racism.” When Jefferson made a census of his “family” at Monticello in 1800, “he counted eleven ‘free whites’ and ninety-three slaves, two of whom were his own children.” Ellis, who is one of Jefferson’s most astute biographers, shows how this founder’s views on race changed significantly from 1776 to his death fifty years later in 1826. While assuming in the early days of the revolution that slavery would end like other barbaric practices, later he presented a multi-layered defense of his inaction on emancipation that cast him in the role of helpless victim.
Andrew Levy’s study of Robert Carter III, The First Emancipator, is just one of many works that shows Jefferson’s defense to be a lie. Carter’s actions to emancipate 450 enslaved individuals shortly after the country was formed — and similar emancipations by other well-known figures such as Edward Coles, and Richard Randolph (Jefferson’s cousin) as well as hundreds of property owners forgotten to history — shows that Jefferson was really not looking for an answer to the question of what happens once the slaves are freed.
In bringing the conversation to today’s troubled times, Ellis takes the reader through the failings of the First Reconstruction (1865-1877) and into the promises and shortcomings of the civil rights movement and what has been called the Second Reconstruction. Even with the acquisition of basic rights such as voting, Ellis notes that we too often equate ending segregation with ending racism. That false equivalence should be clear to all by now. He also notes the lack of a real economic component to either era of reconstruction and the overlap between issues of race and class. In predicting another major backlash near the middle of this century as America moves to a minority-majority country, Ellis quotes James Baldwin who wrote,
“In the context of the Negro problem, neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back; but I think the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further that the past will remain horrible for exactly so long as we refuse to assess it honestly….Appearances to the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in American bears some responsibility for it.”
The second dialogue focuses on questions of equality, and engages with the work of John Adams. Ellis shows in multiple ways how the pragmatism of Adams contrasted with the idealism of Jefferson. Adams felt that humans are not controlled by reason, but instead are driven by their emotions. Leadership, in Adams’ view, “entailed not listening to the voice of ‘the people’ when it ran counter to the abiding interest of ‘the public.'” Out of this world view, Adams thought it was inevitable that oligarchs would arise in America, just as they had throughout history. According to Ellis, Adams had “two rock-ribbed convictions: the new financial aristocracy, like all aristocracies throughout history, could not be killed but must be controlled; and the invisible hand of the marketplace required the visible hand of government to regulate its inevitable excesses.” In other words, America was not exceptional, except for the fact that it would attempt to look out for the greater public good against the over-reach of the financial oligarchy.
Ellis’s rather short dialogue on our second Gilded Age shows how the federal government during the presidency of Ronald Reagan worked to repudiate the underlying assumptions of the New Deal. This was the result of a well-funded and explicit campaign to undermine the regulations and protections put in place under FDR and supported by both parties through the next 50 years. We are at a point now where the top ten hedge fund managers make more than all the kindergarten teachers in the United States precisely because “one side enjoys the advantages of a very large and expensive megaphone that amplifies its message.”
The final two sections of Ellis’s book look at the law and foreign policy. James Madison is the founder chosen for his work to shape our Constitution and how we interpret that work today. Madison’s greatest achievement was recognizing that the Constitution presented a “framework for debate” and that “argument itself became the abiding solution.” The Constitution is an inherently “‘living document’ that successive generations interpret in light of changing historical circumstances.” That understanding — supported strongly by Thomas Jefferson —provides the springboard for Ellis’s strong and sustained attack against the misconception of “originalism” as most proudly practiced by Antonin Scalia. In a scathing critique, Ellis takes apart Scalia’s one-sided opinions, and those of his conservative colleagues on the Supreme Court, as essentially a weapon to overturn liberal precedents. Ellis quotes Justice William Brennan’s description of originalism as “arrogance cloaked as humility.” Noting that at one point in time it is useful for new nations to have mythical heroes, “…over the past half century the scholarship on the founders and the blatantly political character of the Supreme Court” makes such illusions untenable.
“To repeat, the American founding, most especially the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, was always a messy moment populated by mere mortals, whose chief task was to fashion a series of artful political compromises. And the Supreme Court has never floated above the American political landscape like a disembodied cloud of heavenly wisdom. It always was a political institution comprised of human beings with no special connection to the devine. Both illusions were now exposed as childish fables.”
George Washington is the natural founder for a discussion on foreign policy, but Ellis doesn’t focus as much on the obvious warnings in his Farewell Address as he does on the first president’s work to reconcile the “Indian” question and western expansion and then on the Jay Treaty to avoid war with Great Britain. On both issues, Washington took stances that were wildly unpopular. He did not succeed in providing safe nations for Native Americans, but he was able to ensure that the Jay Treaty became law, buying the new nation time to develop before it would be forced to fight against a foreign government again. Underlying this work by Ellis is Washington’s very pragmatic (and very un-Jeffersonian) belief that America would not succeed in bringing democratic principles to faraway places. Ellis’s response to the current state of affairs is that our country has come to be “at peace” with the idea of continual war. He focuses on the fact that despite our overwhelming military superiority, the United States has not produced successful outcomes in our battles after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. There are many reasons that Ellis draws upon to reach his conclusions, but they often boil down to financial and accounting chicanery. Keeping the costs off the “books” reinforced the larger pattern of deception in the post-Cold War era, “making war almost painless: it is not declared, few have to fight, and no one has to pay.”
Ellis ends his work with an epilogue on leadership, and points to how extraordinary it was to have the collection of founders working in one place at one time as our nation was formed. And his focus on a virtually unknown founder, among the general public, speaks to his expertise on this era in our history.
The editorial task of writing the Constitution was undertaken by one man, Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris, who made the revisions to the draft of the Constitutional Convention in one four-day period. Madison said that “a better choice could not have been made, as the performance of the task proved.” Morris was the individual who changed, “We the people of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut” then state-by-state down the seaboard as written in the original draft, to the simple and magisterial “We the people.”
“Morris’s words ‘We the people’ provide an answering echo on the other side of the American Dialogue, sounding the parallel truth that our rights and responsibilities coexist in a collective whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Although Jefferson’s words are forever, Morris’s words enjoy a special relevance in our own troubled time, since they remind us that we rise or fall together, as a single people.”
More to come…