What would our Founding Fathers think about the most divisive issues of our time? So many things have changed since the United States was formed. Joseph J. Ellis is one of the foremost scholars of early American history, a bestselling author and recipient of both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, explores this question in his richly rewarding American Dialogue: ‘The FOUNDERS AND US’.
Ellis utilizes the documentary record the founders left behind to help readers better understand the world the Founding Fathers lived in. He includes sections on Thomas Jefferson and race, John Adams and economic inequality, James Madison and the law, George Washington on foreign policy and a section on leadership. The Founding Fathers often disagreed; their greatest legacy is for those who have followed to be able to argue differences, rather than provide definite answers.
All of our present problems have histories, but none of them is as incomprehensible, when viewed myopically or a historically, as our racial dilemma. Early in his political career, Jefferson advocated measures to end slavery, but he was unable to imagine a biracial society; he insisted on the inferiority of blacks even as he fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. Adams believed that all men are created equal but also that inequality was the natural condition for human beings. Of all of the prominent founders, Adams was the only one who anticipated the country’s embedded economic inequality.
The founding of the nation, particularly the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, was a messy political process that, of necessity, involved various compromises. Jefferson wrote in 1816: Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence. They ascribe to men of the preceding age wisdom more than human, but I also know that law and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. These words are relevant today for those who believe in a living Constitution. This immensely stimulating, in-depth look at the past and America’s challenges in the present should be read by anyone interested in American history.
The award-winning author of Founding Brothers and The Quartet now gives us a deeply insightful examination of the relevance of the views of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams to some of the most divisive issues in America today.
The story of history is a ceaseless conversation between past and present, and in American Dialogue Joseph J. Ellis focuses the conversation on the often-asked question what would the Founding Fathers think? He examines four of our most seminal historical figures through the prism of particular topics, using the perspective of the present to shed light on their views and, in turn, to make clear how their now centuries-old ideas illuminate the disturbing impasse of today’s political conflicts.
He discusses Jefferson and the issue of racism, Adams and the specter of economic inequality, Washington and American imperialism, Madison and the doctrine of original intent. Through these juxtapositions–and in his hallmark dramatic and compelling narrative voice–Ellis illuminates the obstacles and pitfalls paralyzing contemporary discussions of these fundamentally important issues.
Published in Melange Intl. Magazine in November 2018.