American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis

American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis.

Review by James J. Carpenter

            While ordering lunch at a deli in South Carolina, the young cashier noticed I had a book with me. “Whatcha readin’?” he asked. “A book on American history” I responded. He then went on to lament how history is being deemphasized in school and to question how were we to avoid repeating the errors of the past if we don’t know what they were. The book I had that day was American Dialogue by Joseph J. Ellis.  Ironically, Ellis’ book deals in part with the very issue the young man raised; namely, what we can learn from the “ongoing conversation between past and present” (p. 4). I must confess I am a fan of Ellis’ writing and have read several of his books on early American history. The sub-title to his latest work, The Founders and Us, especially piqued my interest. Was this another attempt at deciphering the intent of the founders as it pertains to current issues or was it something else?  As I read each chapter, I discovered this work was significantly more and I saw important connections for classroom teachers.

            Following a preface, Ellis divides four chapters into two parts each: Then and Now. Each chapter focuses on what he identifies as four enduring issues that are more salient and challenging in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Ellis establishes the historical foundation for each subject and then examines the complexity of each in the context of a divisive political climate complicated by domestic and international obstacles. Acknowledging that a true conversation with the founders is obviously impossible, he attempts to connect their concerns regarding these controversial topics with those of modern America. Hence, his use of the term dialogue in his title. The four areas he identifies are race, equality, law, and foreign policy. In each case, Ellis chooses one member of the founding generation as the central figure with whom to engage in his “dialogue”: For race, it is Thomas Jefferson; for equality he chooses John Adams; James Madison is his focus for law; and for our diplomatic relations abroad he uses George Washington. In the Now portions of each chapter, Ellis situates each current issue “as recent entries in long-standing patterns” (p. 8). His choice of both issues and founders reflect, he argues, “what is still an ongoing argument about our destiny as a people and a nation” (p. 7). Ellis’ final chapter is an epilogue he uses to discuss the successes and failures of early American leadership because he believes “the founders managed to maximize the creative possibilities of their time more fully than any subsequent generation of political leaders in American history” (p. 228).

            His discussion of each issue is both insightful and challenging. For example, choosing Jefferson for his chapter on race is perfect given Jefferson’s conflicted and apparent hypocritical relationship with slavery and African Americans. Ellis argues that Jefferson’s criticism of slavery “operated at an elevated region of his mind, which never descended to the ground that he walked and that his slaves at Monticello worked” (p. 22). He was incapable, according to Ellis, of imagining a biracial society, let alone a multiracial one. In the modern context, this darker element of Jefferson’s legacy is reflected in a more subtle version of racism fueled “by white assumptions of black inferiority” (p. 58). The resurgence of more strident voices on this issue only complicate the fulfillment of the democratic ideal of racial equality as implied, if not expressed, by Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence. In examining equality, Ellis compares the views of John Adams with those same famous words: “all men are created equal.” He portrays Adams as more of a realist or even a cynic who “insisted that inequality was the natural condition of mankind.” Not only did Adams mean differences in physical and mental attributes, he also believed distinctions based on money and social class “always were and always would be a permanent fixture in all societies on earth, including the aspiring republic called the United States…” (p.81). In twenty-first century America, Ellis argues “we currently inhabit a second Gilded Age” characterized by “unacceptable levels of economic inequality” (p. 114); A result Adams “tried to tell us … was virtually inevitable over two centuries ago” (p. 115).

Considered the “Father of the Constitution” by many if not most, Madison was the “obvious person to focus on” in his chapter on law. Ellis argues that during the period of 1787 to 1789, Madison’s actions “just might constitute the most brilliant political performance in American history” (pp. 121-122). Considering him to be a pragmatist, Ellis describes Madison’s changing constitutional interpretations from opposing Hamilton’s plans for strengthening the national government to later rejecting John C. Calhoun’s secessionist arguments not as inconsistency but rather a reflection of Madison’s willingness “to accommodate what the evolving political context required” and “as political adaptions of principle to changing conditions” (p. 149). Ellis contrasts this Constitutional adaptability to the originalist interpretations perhaps best exemplified by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. For Ellis, if arguably the chief architect of the Constitution interpreted its words differently according to the historical context, how can modern jurists rigidly apply eighteenth-century understandings to twenty-first century issues by “channeling the wisdom of the founders” (p. 170)?

Just as Madison was the logical choice for the previous chapter, George Washington, as “the primary architect of American foreign policy in the founding era,” was the clear option to review the origins of American foreign policy (p. 173). Ellis concentrates on the contradiction inherent in a democratic republic being an imperial nation at the same time. His first example of this is Washington’s failure to protect the sovereignty and rights of Native American tribes in the western territories acquired in the Treaty of Paris (1783). He continues with problems of neutrality during the war between Great Britain and France in the 1790’s culminating with the highly partisan debate and vote over Jay’s Treaty (ratified in 1796). In analyzing Washington’s Farewell Address, Ellis believes that focusing on the prescription for an isolationist foreign policy overshadows a more important, “deeper message” to be found in the address; namely that “foreign policy must be based on a realistic appraisal of American interests, not on popular referendums or nostalgic memories” (p. 193). It is this advice, he argues, that has been ignored since the end of the Cold War, a period distinguished by “nearly perpetual war” without “successful outcomes,” despite “the overwhelming military superiority of the United States” (p. 211). This has resulted in a policy that “became an inherently improvisational process” (p. 209). American exceptionalism today means the opposite of its original understanding: “In effect, precisely because the conditions shaping the American founding were unique, it was highly problematic to presume that the American model was transportable beyond the borders of the United States” (pp. 215-216). The future of our foreign policy, according to Ellis, is destined to continue to be an erratic one.

            Ellis emphasizes that the founders, and especially the men he uses in each chapter, were not godlike or superhuman. Rather, they were men of talent who were able to make the most of that particular moment in time. Ellis also stresses that the founders did not speak with one voice. They “harbored different beliefs about what the American Revolution meant” (p. 232). These differences were at the heart of the arguments that occurred when major issues arose. For Ellis, this “made dialogue unavoidable” (p. 232). It is this diversity of opinion that prevents any political party or special interest group from claiming to know or represent the framer’s intent. Ellis alleges that “it is the argument itself, not the answer either liberals or conservatives provide, that is the abiding legacy” (p. 232). And it is this assertion that makes this book important reading for social studies teachers. It can serve as a springboard for ideas to get students to see history as relevant and not as a dead discipline. Teachers can pose interesting questions for students to consider and have them consult historical references for evidence to support their answers. For example, students can probe the meaning of the democratic ideal of equality. How has this concept expanded over the century? What does equality mean in a society still grappling with issues of race or of enormous economic differences? What is the relationship between equality and equitable treatment? Teachers can also have students investigate the complexity of current issues in historical context. For instance, what did the Second Amendment mean in 1791? Given the extent of gun violence in the United States today, is there a need to revisit or revise the existing amendment? Is there a role for the federal government in addressing economic disparity? What should the role of the United States be in world affairs?

            The value of this book for teachers is the emphasis Ellis gives to the importance of history. Not just to memorize dates and events but to illustrate the differing opinions held by our revered historical figures. Making students aware of this reality will enable them to better evaluate sources and to critique current arguments surrounding controversial issues. Indeed, Ellis is openly critical of “the most flagrant forms of ideological prejudice” employed by leaders or analysts who are guilty of “cherry-picking the evidence” to support a current political or social issue (p .7). An informed citizenry in a democracy requires more than a knowledge of facts; it requires the necessary critical skills to detect political bias and to make better informed decisions.

            We are living in one of the most polarized eras in American history. Citizens are regularly bombarded with claims as to what the framers’ intent was in grappling with twenty-first century problems. In part, Ellis rebuts this practice by reminding us that appealing to the past to shed light on current solutions is problematic. “By definition, all efforts to harvest the accumulated wisdom of the past must begin from a location in the present, so the questions posed of the past are inevitably shaped either consciously or unconsciously by the historical context in which they are asked” (pp. 6-7). Ellis’ goal is not to resolve any dispute as to the founder’s intent or “to find answers” but rather “to argue about [these questions]” (p. 9). And this, to me, is the value this book has for educators entrusted with teaching future democratic citizens. Democracy is built on deliberation, debate, and even arguing. However, as Ellis demonstrates, the founders understood the value of compromise as a means to keep moving forward. Not all compromises were successful but they at least enabled the nation to avoid remaining stagnant. In an era when both parties employ a “my way or the highway” approach to solving critical issues, our students need to understand that reason can facilitate problem solving. Dialogue, even intense disagreement, about issues is at the heart of democratic government. Ellis’ book offers examples of how teachers can use the founders to confront controversial questions in the twenty-first century.