“The study of history is an ongoing conversation between past and present from which we all have much to learn,” write Joseph Ellis in his new book, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us. The book serves as Ellis’s attempt to sit with several of the Founders and carry on that conversation, with “us,” the readers, as spectators. As John Adams so often did with his own books, we can engage in the conversation by writing notes in the margins and underlining passages, and we can even read the original works of the Founders ourselves. Knowing they were writing as much to history as to each other, they left behind a rich documentary legacy.
Ellis’s book plumbs these writings to explore four salient points that trouble the American present. “By definition, all efforts to harvest the accumulated wisdom of the past must begin from a location in the present…” he admits. The present he writes from and that we read from, he says, is “inescapably shaped by our location in a divided America that is currently incapable of sustained argument and unsure of its destiny.”
Let that comment be a warning shot for any reader who seeks to avoid modern politics by reading this work of history. American Dialogue is, at its heart, a commentary on current events as seen through the lens of the Founding. If we study history so we can learn from it, Ellis has some lessons he’d like us to consider.
Ellis does try to write to “us,” as though he’s invited us to sit in on a casual classroom lecture. But there is urgency to this conversation, too. We are “bumping up against four unforeseen and unprecedented obstacles,” he writes: “the emergence of a truly multiracial society; the inherent inequalities of a global 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.”
And then lest anyone mistake the urgency, he adds: “These obstacles because more difficult to negotiate in 2016, when the most inexperienced, uninformed, and divisive presidential candidate in American history was elected to occupy the Oval Office.”
Ellis reframes these “four unforeseen and unprecedented obstacles” as race relations, economic inequality, law, and foreign policy. He divides the book into four parts—one focusing on each—then divides each part into two sections, “then” and “now.”
In each “then” section, he chooses a Founder who best embodied the struggle with that topic. For race relations, he uses Jefferson; for economic inequality, he uses Adams; for law, he uses Madison; for foreign policy, he uses Washington. By the end of each section, he tries to sum up the lessons each Founder learned while grappling with the issue.
In each “now” section, Ellis tries to show how the struggles around each topic have carried forward to today. He offers no clear answers, but he sounds several dire warnings. For instance, he points to the inexorable shift in demographics that will eventually leave whites in the statistical minority by the mid-part of this century—a shift reactionaries already revile. “[A]mple opportunities will present themselves for demagogues to stoke fears of a looming apocalypse,” Ellis warns. “Indeed, voices in this vein are already audible in such slogans as ‘Make American great again’ and ‘Take our country back.’”
Ellis is similarly unflinching in his discussions about income inequality. Money has allowed the rich to become powerful by controlling the discussion. The media isn’t “liberal” at all but, instead, owned by wealthy corporations that use the media to protect their interests. Tech firms, too, tip the scales. “Until some semblance of balance is restored, there is no realistic hope for reducing our unacceptable levels of economic inequality…” Ellis laments. “[A]t present there is a thumb on the right side of the political scale that renders a balanced argument truer to the long-standing legacy of American Dialogue currently beyond our reach.”
In discussing law, Ellis condemns the judicial philosophy of “originalism”—the idea that jurists can interpret the Constitution based on the Founders’ original intent—in part because the Founders themselves had very different notions about what the Revolution and the Constitution meant. “[T]here is no single source of constitutional truth back there at the founding to be discovered,” he points out, calling it “hubris … to claim a preternatural affinity for diving the truth that no previous members of the Supreme Court have ever possessed.”
“The great sin of the originalists is not to harbor a political agenda but to claim they do not,” he adds,” and to base that claim on a level of historical understanding they demonstrably do not possess.”
Too many readers will, unfortunately, skip Ellis’s book because of his obvious antipathy toward the political right. He can be written off as just another liberal college professor or an intellectual elite. That’s too bad, because his discussions about the Founders are fascinating and illuminating.
Whether you agree or not with his political observations, they are grounded in historical context, well reasoned, and illustrated with specific examples, which make them worth listening to and perhaps even learning from even if not agreeing with. To read and consider them keeps in line with the premise of the American Dialogue as the Founders established it. “[T]heir greatest legacy is the recognition that argument itself is the answer,” Ellis aptly points out.
We have lost that recognition, he contends, to our grave detriment. If we are “incapable of sustained argument,” we must regain our ability to argue, debate, and discuss and abandon our current tendency to name-call, vilify, and ignore.
In the end, we need all points of view from both ends of the political spectrum, just as the Founders did. “If left alone, Jefferson would have carried the infant national perilously close to anarchy. Hamilton would have erred on the side of autocracy,” Ellis says. “The collision of convictions not only enriched the intellectual ferment, it also replicated the checks and balances embedded in the Constitution with a human version of the same balancing principle.”
In other words, the key is for people to engage in conversation with those they disagree with, not ignore them or write them off. Dialogue requires talking as well as listening—and a willingness to engage in both. That, in the end, is what American Dialogue is all about.