Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
“American Dialogue: The Founders and Us”, Joseph J. Ellis
May 27, 2019
“The study of history is an ongoing conversation
between past and present from which we all have much to learn.”
Joseph J. Ellis (1943-)
American Dialogue: The Founders and Us
The study of history allows us to better understand – not to idolize or condemn, not to excuse or justify – the past. It provides us the ability to debate today’s issues, many of which have roots in years long ago.
As Joseph Ellis explains, the U.S. was founded on paradoxes: A Declaration of Independence was declared; a Constitution was drafted and confirmed; a government of three co-equal branches was formed. Yet slavery would be the future for African Americans; the lands of Native American Indians would be confiscated, and women would not receive the vote until 1920. These are the inconsistencies that consume Professor Ellis, and which make necessary a dialogue; for, as he sums up, “…we rise or fall together, as a single people.” He accomplishes this in four parts: Thomas Jefferson and race; John Adams and economic equality; James Madison and the judiciary, and George Washington and foreign policy. In a final chapter entitled “Leadership,” he reminds us that in 1788 four million newly minted Americans had a choice for President between George Washington and John Adams. Two hundred and twenty-eight years later, three hundred and fifteen million Americans had a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump!
Professor Ellis recently retired as Ford Foundation Chair of history at Mount Holyoke College. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize (Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation) and the National Book Award (American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson). He has authored a dozen biographies and histories about our founding years.
In this book he engages four of the founders, their thoughts at the time and their impact today. Jefferson: “While his views on race were horrific, his words on liberty and freedom are magnificent. We should know both and not let the former destroy the latter.” Adams: “Reason holds the helm, while passions are the gales.” While we strive for equality, “inequality is the natural condition of mankind.” Madison: During debates as to whether sovereignty should remain with the states or reside in the federal government: “…argument itself became the abiding solution, and ambiguity the great asset.” He was the principal author of the Constitution and, with Alexander Hamilton, the voice behind the Federalist Papers. Washington: “The myth, the monument and the mythology are so mixed together they can never be disentangled.” He was the architect of foreign policy. “He saw Europe as the past and the American frontier as the future.”
The American founding was a “collective enterprise,” with founders harboring different beliefs as to the meaning of the American Revolution and for what sort of government should evolve. “This political and psychological diversity enhanced creativity by generating a dynamic chemistry that surfaced in the arguments whenever a major crisis materialized. Diversity made dialogue unavoidable.” Given today’s focus on identity, there is irony in the diversity that emerged from founders who were all white, heterosexual (as far as we know) males of English heritage. Their diversity came to fruition in debate, formed from opinions derived from reading and were based on how and where they lived. It was from this furnace of invisible differences and visible sameness that our nation was born.
“Conflict is part of the human condition and can never be eliminated. Neither can the desire for power and the tendency to abuse it,” wrote Wilfred McClay in his history of the U.S., Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. Yet, by almost any measure the results of the Founders have been a resounding success, as Joseph Ellis tells us. For someone born in the developing world there is no other country where most would choose to live. Part of that is geographic. We are abundant in natural resources. We have no aggressive neighbors. As well, we have no landed aristocracy. We are merit based. Ultimate authority is embedded in our citizens. We are peopled with those from myriad lands and cultures. To travel to this country from afar required (and requires) aspiration, a willingness to work hard and self-reliance. Our system of government has been tried, notably during the Civil War and during the 1960s. We, the people, have prevailed, and we should again today, as divisiveness again consumes our nation. Professor Ellis quotes Alexis de Tocqueville on America: “I am full of apprehension and hope.” These thought-provoking essays provide reason for on-going dialogues and continued debate. For it is only when arguments cease and all seems settled, when silence reigns, that we should worry.
Like us today, the Founders weighed the possible versus the ideal – “the distinction between a realist and an idealist, a skeptic and a believer.”Joseph Ellis recognizes the individual flaws of the founders, but he also acknowledges the extraordinary success of what they achieved – the nation and government they built. One does not have to agree with all opinions expressed to get the value of the message conveyed by Professor Ellis – an intelligent and necessary dialogue is only possible with knowledge of the issues and resolutions that were confronted and decided upon by those who founded this nation two hundred and fifty years ago. This is a book that should be read by all who care about the political and cultural chasm that divide us today.