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.

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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.

A couple kiss at sunset by the Washington Monument. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

To his credit, Ellis admits that objectivity, in the sense that mathematicians or physicians use the term, is not a realistic goal for historians. The scientific reference is surely a sly echoing of Jeffersons Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which states that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry. But if the goal is to encourage national dialogue not only with the past but with ourselves, thats easier if the authors thumb isnt quite so heavy on the scale.

In this sense, Ellis is not ambitious enough. Does he really believe Chief Justice John Roberts wants to repeal the school desegregation case Brown v Board of Education? The Now sections are, regrettably, sloppier than those on the Founders. Ellis succeeds more in recovering lesser-known history, such as the near abolition of slavery in the territories in 1784 and Washingtons attempts at humane policies towards Native Americans.

Despite their personal foibles, the Founders remain as reference points for modern life, not least in exposing contradictions within the American polity and psyche. At some level, this is not new. Walt Whitman wrote I contain multitudes. On the academic front, Michael Kammen covered the inherent dissonances of American society in People of Paradox, in 1972.

Ellis has breathed the air of the Founders for so long that he stumbles somewhat on modern politics. But his book is necessary, and part of the tragedy is that those who need it most are less likely to read it, or to learn from it if they do.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us


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