Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Adams teach us a lot but applying their lessons to our challenges seems a thankless task
History is misused. Perhaps worse, history is too often ignored. To address both problems, Joseph Ellis hopes to restore dialogue in national life, using the Founders as touchstones rather than infallible guides.
Elliss career has focused on writing about the Founders and he stands firmly on the side of history: The more history you learn, the larger the memory bank you can draw on when life takes a turn for which you are otherwise unprepared.
Indeed. Since 2016, US national life has certainly taken a turn for which we were otherwise unprepared, though its roots go back decades, even in some respects, such as race, beyond the founding itself.
Ellis starts with Jefferson and race, writing that the Virginian, who began his career with a failed attempt to make emancipation easier, was thoroughly embedded in the twin American dilemmas of slavery and racism our most eloquent apostle of freedom is also our most dedicated racist, and in his mind, those two convictions were inseparable. Jefferson could simply not imagine a biracial America, despite his longtime romance with Sally Hemings, his slave, though he freed her children.
Following the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s, [t]he new narrative featured the upside of the Jeffersonian legacy while dismissing the downside as a premodern vestige of values that were now, at last, gone with the proverbial wind. This last assumption has proven woefully naive, most especially the belief that ending segregation was synonymous with ending racism.
Ellis wants to add another panel to the Jefferson Memorial, featuring Jeffersons views on race and slavery, as a counterweight and a reminder of the continuing tensions over race in American society.
Elliss chapter on John Adams is the most successful, discussing Adamss prediction that the American aristocracy would be commercial in nature, as in our new gilded age, with money awash in politics. In Elliss view, Adams asks us to broaden our minds: Think about the word republic, which comes from the Latin meaning public things. Do we still believe, as he did, that there is a public interest beyond the reach of majorities of the moment? Are we a society composed of winners and losers, givers and takers, or is there some larger status we share as citizens?
The chapters on Madison and modern jurisprudence form a stout defense of the living constitution (which again traces its origins to Jefferson) and sharp criticism of Antonin Scalia and originalism, focusing on the former supreme court justices (re)interpretation of the second amendment and gun rights in contrast to what the Framers probably understood.
In foreign policy, Ellis helpfully reinterprets George Washingtons policies on Native Americans and the British/French conflicts of the 1770s to offer a more nuanced view of Washingtons presumed support for isolationism. Ellis sees this instead as the start of the realist tradition in American foreign policy in contrast to Jeffersons idealistic support for the French Revolution. Ellis stands for realism, whether in opposing Jacobins or not invading Iraq.
Ellis writes that my hope is that the founding era can become a safe place to gather together, not so much as to find answers to those questions as to argue about them their greatest legacy is the recognition that the argument itself is the answer. Yet throughout his own views are crystal clear: he plumps for the liberal tradition in contrast not only to Trumpism but to most of what passes for modern conservatism, starting with Ronald Reagan.