Following is a book review from last fall’s New York Times that I saved. There is no need for me to edit the review or to comment, it speaks for itself. Joseph Ellis is an incisive and balanced historian of the nation’s early leadership, writing of them as both idealists and pragmatists. Well worth a read.
If the historian Joseph J. Ellis has a project — an unfairly pedestrian term to describe his rich body of work — it is to restore to the nation’s founders some measure of their humanity. In books like “Founding Brothers,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001, and “American Sphinx,” a brilliantly drawn portrait of Jefferson, Ellis renders the founders in fine shadings: wise and bold and prescient, yes, but also, at times, blinkered and uncertain, men in conflict with one another and even themselves. Ellis is not a revisionist; he is not pulling down statues from their pedestals. He does not begrudge the founders their disagreements or the fact that more than two centuries later, so many of their arguments remain unresolved. As he writes in his newest book, “American Dialogue,” the founding generation’s “greatest legacy is the recognition that argument itself is the answer.”
Like his previous histories, “American Dialogue” follows particular founders into (and not always out of) hard-fought and consequential disputes. But in one key respect this book is a departure: Ellis’s subject is not only the founding era, but also our own, and the “ongoing conversation between past and present.” In chapters labeled “then,” Ellis considers Jefferson’s contemptible views on race, Adams’s premonitions about the rise of an American aristocracy and the emergence of a grossly unequal society, Madison’s belief in the Constitution as a “living document” and Washington’s brand of foreign policy realism. In chapters labeled “now,” he listens for echoes of these ideas in 21st-century America. This, it turns out, is a dispiriting exercise: Mostly what Ellis hears is noise. Our civic dialogue has broken down, Ellis observes, and our “divided America,” contentious in all the wrong ways, is “currently incapable of sustained argument” on any subject — the kind of argument that goes somewhere other than round and round, the kind that yields understanding and possibly, over time, solutions.
One of the liveliest debates in American history, which Ellis has described before, took place in the letters Adams and Jefferson exchanged during their final 14 years of life, between 1812 and 1826 (the two men died, as legend and fact both have it, on the same day, July 4, 50 years after declaring America’s independence). Ellis returns to their correspondence in “American Dialogue,” focusing on Jefferson’s romantic notion that economic and social equality would be the natural order of American life and Adams’s retort that “as long as property exists, it will accumulate in individuals and families. … The snow ball will grow as it rolls.” Jefferson’s was the prevailing view at the time. Meanwhile Adams’s “prophecy,” as Ellis notes, struck most of his peers as “so bizarre and thoroughly un-American … that it served as evidence for the charge that he had obviously lost his mind.” Adams saw no way to prevent the consolidation of wealth and power by American oligarchs, but he did believe it could and must be moderated — regulated — by a strong national government.
There can be no question whose forecast was right. Jefferson’s ideal of an egalitarian, agrarian society was an anachronism before the 19th century was out, while the Gilded Age, near that century’s end, provided garish confirmation of Adams’s insight. So, of course, does the current age. Turning his attention to the present, Ellis paints a vivid if familiar picture of the redistribution of wealth to the top of the income scale, as well as the abandonment — indeed the denigration — of Adams’s belief that, in Ellis’s words, “the free market required regulation for capitalism to coexist with the egalitarian expectations of democracy.”
And here, the dispassionate historian calmly takes the gloves off. Since the 1980s, Ellis argues, the political right has engaged in a persistent, well-funded and “radically revisionist” act of historical fraud, painting government as “demonic” in the eyes of its creators. Faced by the reality that Adams anticipated — deep, endemic, expanding inequality — conservatives peddle Jeffersonian remedies, like the crippling of federal power. Ellis thinks the right has been so successful in selling this “extreme version of capitalist theology” that it has, to a meaningful degree, shut down the centuries-old debate about the role of government. The advocates of regulation and economic reform have been shouted down and shoved to the sidelines, Ellis contends, turning “mainstream politics” into “a one-sided conversation, a muted version of the American Dialogue.”
Ellis sees the same dynamic at work in another vast area: the law. The book traces Madison’s “evolutionary odyssey from 1786 to 1789,” an extraordinary period in which Madison stage-managed the Constitutional Convention and the ratification debate, wrote a substantial portion of the Federalist Papers and drafted the Bill of Rights. Along the way, as Ellis recounts, Madison was forced to part with his deeply held belief in federal supremacy and to embrace, instead, the blurrier concept of dual sovereignty — the idea of a nation caught, eternally, somewhere in the balance between state and federal authority. Madison came to see this tension as the genius of the Constitution: “the great asset,” as Ellis puts it, “that ensured the argument could never end” and granted future generations the freedom to interpret the Constitution in ways that were relevant to changing circumstances. As Jefferson wrote, “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.”
It would never have occurred to Madison, therefore, that the Constitution should dictate every answer or foreclose all debate, no matter what is said at meetings of the Federalist Society or in Supreme Court confirmation hearings. As Ellis argues, the prevailing conservative doctrine of “originalism” is a pose that rests on a fiction: the idea that there is a “single source of constitutional truth back there at the founding,” easily discovered by any judge who cares to see it. As a historian, Ellis takes particular offense at the machinations made by Justice Antonin Scalia in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) — a sophist’s masterpiece of an opinion that concluded the founders sought to arm the American people without limit and without end. Though Scalia is gone, his ideology remains ascendant, while Madison’s heirs, the proponents of a “living Constitution,” are “on the permanent defensive.” History, to that end, is bastardized, sanitized and turned into talking points.
Ellis has addressed current issues before, in interviews and essays. (The chapter on originalism draws on a 2010 Washington Post op-ed.) But never in his books. It will no doubt be jarring for some readers to find, amid mentions of the Ordinance of 1784 and Shays’ Rebellion, references to the Koch brothers and police brutality. But Ellis writes with insight and acuity in the present tense, just as he always has in the past tense, and in “American Dialogue” he draws connections between our history and our present reality with an authority that few other authors can muster. It may cost him some of his readership on the right, but Ellis, clearly, has reached the limit of his tolerance for the mythical, indeed farcical, notion that the anti-Federalists won the argument in the late 18th century, or that the founders, to a man, stood for small and weak government, unrestrained market capitalism, unfettered gun ownership and the unlimited infusion of money into the political sphere. There is a healthy argument to be had about the legacy of the founders, but as this book makes clear, it has to start with the facts.
Jeff Shesol, the author of “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court,” is currently at work on a book about the space race of the early 1960s.