Cover image for American dialogue : the founders and us
American dialogue : the founders and us
Ellis, Joseph J., author.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Physical Description:
x, 283 pages ; 24 cm
"The story of history is a ceaseless conversation between past and present, and in [this book] Joseph J. Ellis focuses the conversation on the often-asked question 'What would the Founding Fathers think?' He examines four of our most seminal historical figures through the prism of particular topics, using the perspective of the present to shed light on their views and, in turn, to make clear how their now centuries-old ideas illuminate the disturbing impasse of today's political conflicts. He discusses Jefferson and the issue of racism, Adams and the specter of economic inequality, Washington and American imperialism, Madison and the doctrine of original intent"-- Provided by publisher.


Call Number
Material Type
Cohocton Public Library 1 973.3 ELL New NonFiction Book
Cuba Circulating Library Association 1 POLITICAL & SOCIAL SCIENCE 973.3 ELL New NonFiction Book
Horseheads Free Library 1 973.3 ELL New NonFiction Book
Watkins Glen Public Library 1 973.3 ELL New books
Wellsville - David A. Howe Public Library 1 973.3 ELL New NonFiction Book

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The award-winning author of Founding Brothers and The Quartet now gives us a deeply insightful examination of the relevance of the views of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams to some of the most divisive issues in America today.

The story of history is a ceaseless conversation between past and present, and in American Dialogue Joseph J. Ellis focuses the conversation on the often-asked question "What would the Founding Fathers think?" He examines four of our most seminal historical figures through the prism of particular topics, using the perspective of the present to shed light on their views and, in turn, to make clear how their now centuries-old ideas illuminate the disturbing impasse of today's political conflicts. He discusses Jefferson and the issue of racism, Adams and the specter of economic inequality, Washington and American imperialism, Madison and the doctrine of original intent. Through these juxtapositions--and in his hallmark dramatic and compelling narrative voice--Ellis illuminates the obstacles and pitfalls paralyzing contemporary discussions of these fundamentally important issues.

Author Notes

Joseph J. Ellis was born in Washington, D.C. on July 18, 1943. He received a B.A. from the College of William and Mary in 1965 and a M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Yale University.

He was an instructor in the department of American studies at Yale University from 1968 to 1969 and an assistant professor in the department of history and social studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from 1969 to 1972. He began his career at Mount Holyoke College as assistant professor in the department of history in 1972 and was made professor in 1979. Ellis was dean of the faculty at Mount Holyoke from 1980 to 1990. He retired from his position as the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College.

He is the author of numerous books including After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture, His Excellency: George Washington, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, First Family: Abigail and John Adams, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, and The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. He has received the National Book Award in Nonfiction for American Sphinx in 1997 and the Pulitzer Prize for History for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation in 2001.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Eliis (Revolutionary Summer, 2013), a Pulitzer Prize-winning and best-selling historian, is aware of the difficulties and dangers implicit in seeking answers to our current debates and dilemmas in the archives of the Founding Fathers, yet he attempts to do so here, and his effort to apply the views of four historical icons to current political conflicts is interesting and useful. On the topic of racial relations, Ellis refers to Thomas Jefferson and seems to delight in pointing out Jefferson's inconsistencies and contradictions on the topic. Considering political equality, Ellis turns to John Adams, who didn't view equality as the natural political order and didn't share Jefferson's faith in the wisdom of the people; in fact, he viewed a very powerful executive as necessary to protect the public from both an emerging elite and themselves. On foreign policy, Ellis turns to Washington, who strove to manage foreign relations with Native nations and maintain American neutrality between France and Britain. Ellis is provocative and interesting and reminds us that our present controversies are not unique or new. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Ellis joins other best-selling historians currently seeking perspective, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, with a sure-to-be roundly publicized examination of American conundrums.--Jay Freeman Copyright 2018 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

The founders have much to tell us about current problems, none of it simple, according to this incisive study of American political creeds. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Ellis (American Sphinx) probes the writings of four Revolutionary War leaders on issues of ideology and governance that still roil America. Thomas Jefferson's hypocritical racial attitudes-he both deplored slavery (while owning dozens of slaves, some of them his own children) and believed that blacks could not live with whites as equals-frame Ellis's discussion of the menace of modern racism; John Adams's doubts about the feasibility of achieving true social equality underpin a look at rising economic inequality since the Reagan administration; James Madison's attempts to convert the early U.S. from a federation to a nation-state spark a critique of Supreme Court conservatives' originalist philosophy of jurisprudence; and George Washington's weary realism about popular passions, human fallibility, and the difficulty of spreading republican values to foreign lands prompts a dissection of the failures of recent American military adventures. Ellis's passions sometimes show, as in his criticism of Justice Antonin Scalia's writings on the Second Amendment. Still, his colorful, nuanced portraits of these outsized but very human personalities and shrewd analyses of their philosophies make for a compelling case for the troubled but vital legacy of the founding generation. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Ellis (Founding Brothers) connects readers with history to enable them to formulate salient questions for the pivotal debate about U.S. destiny-a conversation he hopes to revitalize. There should be constant dialog about the past and present, he argues, but during these divided times, Americans lack a sense of national unity and the ability to converse about the present and future, informed by the past. Drawing from his intimate knowledge of the Founding Fathers, Ellis addresses four 21st-century obstacles to reveal truths from their writings that should infuse wisdom into present-day debate: Thomas Jefferson's inconsistency on slavery and race; John Adams's warnings about financial aristocracy and economic inequality; James Madison's politically expedient concessions and the idea of original intent; and George Washington's approach to national and foreign policy, and the incompatibility of American imperialism with revolutionary ideals. Each discussion relates the historical lessons to the ongoing problem. Finally, Ellis explains why the ingenious but flawed founders were uniquely suited for revolution and government-creating. VERDICT Ellis's compelling historical examples and astute analysis will raise questions and ignite debate. This work should be read by academics and general readers alike. [See Prepub Alert, 4/23/18.]-Margaret Kappanadze, Elmira Coll. Lib., NY © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Preface My Self-Evident Truth "History is always unfinished in the sense that the future always uses its past in new ways." - Peter Gay, Style in History (1974) Self-evident truths are especially alluring because, by definition, no one needs to explain why they are true. The most famous example of this lovely paradox, which gave the term its name, is the second paragraph in the Declaration of Independence (i.e. "We hold these truths to be self-evident"), where Thomas Jefferson surreptitiously imbedded the creedal statement of the American promise. The ironies abound, since Jefferson almost certainly did not know he was drafting the American Creed, and subsequent generations worshipped his words for reasons different than he intended. Moreover, his initial draft described the truths as "sacred and undeniable," and it was probably Benjamin Franklin who suggested the change to "self-evident." But, in the end, such nettlesome details have proven powerless against the sweeping influence of Jefferson's message, which defined the terms of the liberal tradition in American history. My professional life as a writer and teacher of American history has been informed by another self-evident truth. As I try to put it into words, I worry that the very act of self-conscious articulation might drain away the unconscious magic of my working assumption and expose it as an illusion. But let me try. It goes like this: the study of history is an ongoing conversation between past and present from which we all have much to learn. There, having said it, I can see that the formulation is helpfully vague. It does not dictate what we can learn, and therefore casts a wide net that gathers in a messy variety of both personal and public lessons. Most of my experience comes from forty-plus years of teaching in a liberal arts college, where there is less distance between students and faculty. In such schools communication does not end with graduation, but lives on in a feed-back loop about the relevance and irrelevance of what had been learned years ago. The dominant pattern was a random and wholly unpredictable kind of relevance. There was the Chinese student who had done a research paper for me on the Massachusetts Constitution, which was drafted singlehandedly by John Adams. This served as the inspiration, so she claimed, for her work back in Shanghai, writing a putative constitution for post-communist China. At her twenty-fifth reunion another student told me that her career as a corporate executive had been influenced by two lectures on the Civil War, one from the northern, the other from the southern perspective, which helped her to think ironically. Several former students, both women and men, reported that their efforts to negotiate the inescapable tension between career and family were informed by their reading of Abigail Adams's letters, citing most especially her indomitable resilience. Such examples suggest that I was not completely fooling myself in believing that history has something to teach us all, even though it was impossible to know at the moment of learning just what that something might be. Self-conscious attempts to teach or preach relevance in history are therefore unnecessary, because the connection between then and now is imbedded in the enterprise, fated to emerge in the future in unforeseeable ways. In that sense, reading history is like expanding your memory further back in time, and 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.   ***   Obviously, a few reassuring testimonials from former students do not a compelling case make. But since my belief in history's utility was an unquestioned article of faith, it did not require overwhelming evidence, only sufficient support to sustain its credibility. And on that score the historical record provided several dramatic illustrations of a usable past that caught my eye. My two favorite examples featured John Adams during the American Revolution and Abraham Lincoln on the issue of slavery. In June of 1776 Adams wrote to several friends in Boston, asking them to scour the Harvard library for books on military history, especially accounts of the Peloponnesian and Punic wars. He had just been appointed head of the Board of War and Ordnance, effectively making him secretary of war, a post for which he freely admitted he was wholly unprepared. He decided to give himself a crash course on how to manage an army. Over the ensuing months he bombarded George Washington and the general officers of the Continental Army with advice gleaned from his reading. His most relevant strategic suggestion, which was based on his analysis of the battles between Thebes and Sparta as recorded by Thucydides, was to adopt a defensive strategy, what he called "a war of posts." Much like the Spartans, Adams argued, the British were virtually invincible on a conventional battlefield, so the Continental Army should engage only when it enjoyed tactical superiority in numbers or terrain. Such advice cut against all of Washington's aggressive instincts, but he eventually, if reluctantly, embraced it. The result was a protracted war that the British had to win, while the Americans had only not to lose. This proved a more attainable goal, eventually achieved when the British abandoned the conflict after the battle of Yorktown in 1781. In 1858 Abraham Lincoln also began a research project, in his case focused on the records of the Constitutional Convention and the early histories of that seminal event. Lincoln's research was prompted by the landmark Supreme Court decision, Dred Scott v Sanford (1857), in which Chief Justice Roger Taney, writing for the majority, ruled that the framers of the Constitution regarded slaves as property rather than persons, meaning that slave-owners could not be deprived of their property without their consent, which led to the conclusion that any law prohibiting slavery in the western territories was unconstitutional. Lincoln's reading of history led him to a dramatically different conclusion, namely that many of the founders sought to limit slavery's expansion, a view which he presented in its fullest form in his Cooper Union Address (1860). He discovered that twenty-one of the thirty-nine signers of the Constitution were on record for banning or restricting slavery in the territories. Both Washington and Jefferson, as well as sixteen signers, endorsed the Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River. Jefferson had even wanted to ban slavery in all the new territories. As for the larger question of slavery itself, Lincoln argued that the founding generation regarded it as a moral embarrassment that clearly defied the principles announced in the Declaration of Independence, which was the major reason the delegates in Philadelphia refused to permit the toxic term to contaminate the language of the Constitution. As Lincoln described them, the founders thought of slavery as a cancer they could not surgically remove without killing the infant American republic in the cradle. Throughout the trials and tribulations of America's bloodiest war, Lincoln maintained he was acting as the agent of the founding generation, so that the Union cause spoke for the true meaning of the American Revolution. It is worth noting that both Adams and Lincoln went back to the past with explicit political agendas, which is to say that they knew what they were looking for. So, for that matter, did Chief Justice Tanney, who harbored a proslavery agenda. 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. Unlike my former students, who discovered relevant historical insights later in life, almost accidentally, the Adams and Lincoln examples were self-conscious attempts to generate historical evidence in support of preferred outcomes. When it comes to the writing of relevant history, there are no immaculate conceptions. This is an inconvenient truth that most historians acknowledge under their breath, admitting that objectivity, in the sense that mathematicians or physicists use the term, is not a realistic goal for historians. The best they can strive for is some measure of detachment, which serves the useful purpose of stigmatizing the most flagrant forms of ideological prejudice (i.e. cherry picking the evidence to claim that Thomas Jefferson was an evangelical Christian or Andrew Jackson a New Deal Democrat.) But if you believe that the study of history is an ongoing conversation between past and present, detachment itself is delusional. In his Style in History (1974) Peter Gay put the point succinctly: "History is always unfinished in the sense that the future always uses the past in new ways." In fact, the past is not history, but a much vaster region of the dead, gone, unknowable or forgotten. History is what we choose to remember, and we have no alternative but to do our choosing now.   ***   My goal in the pages that follow is to provide a round-trip ticket to the late eighteenth century, then back to our location in the second decade of the twenty-first. The founding era has been chosen as a destination for two reasons: first, of all of the terrain in American history, I know it best; second, it produced the Big Bang that created all the planets and orbits in our political universe, thereby establishing the institutional framework for what is still an ongoing argument about our destiny as a people and a nation. Thus my title. The questions we will be carrying back to the founding from our sliver of time in the present are inescapably shaped by our location in a divided America that is currently incapable of sustained argument and unsure of its destiny. We inhabit a backlash moment in American history of uncertain duration. Our creedal convictions as Americans, all of which have their origin in the founding era, are bumping up against four unforeseen and unprecedented obstacles: the emergence of a truly multiracial society; the inherent inequalities of a globalized 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. These obstacles became more difficult to negotiate in 2016, when the most inexperienced, uninformed, and divisive presidential candidate in American history occupied the Oval Office. The Now sections of the ensuing chapters represent my effort to place each of these topical areas--race, income inequality, jurisprudence, and foreign policy--in historical context by viewing them as recent entries in longstanding patterns. The Then sections focus on specific founders, chosen in part because of their prominence, but mostly because, based on my previous work in their papers, each founder speaks with special resonance to the subject under scrutiny. Much in the way the founders went back to the Greek and Roman classics for guidance during the political crisis of their time, we are going back to the founders, our classics, in ours. Our goal, then, is to learn more about our origins in the fond hope that doing so will allow us to frame the salient questions of our own time with greater wisdom than we are currently able to muster on our own. Moreover, the very act of posing such questions also enhances the prospects of viewing the founders themselves from new angles that cast their legacy in a different light. We can safely assume that the dialogue between now and then is an interactive process possessing the potential to change both sides of the chronological equation. Although the founders are busy being dead, they still speak to use in the vast archive of letters and documents they left behind. The historical record is so rich because the revolutionary generation realized that they were "present at the creation" and therefore preserved their thoughts in the belief that posterity would want to remember them. Over the years, a small army of editors has worked assiduously on that preservation project, producing the fullest account of any political elite in recorded history. My attempt to recover the American Dialogue is wholly dependent on that documentary record. Of course, the suggestion that there is an ongoing conversation across the centuries is a literary conceit, but we pay homage to the dialogue every time we cite the seminal texts of the founding to fortify our current convictions. As a lovely song once put it, the fundamental things apply, as time goes by. In the pages that follow I will try to do justice to both sides of the dialogue. What did "all men are created equal" mean then and now? Did the "pursuit of happiness" imply the right to some semblance of economic equality? Does it now? Who were included in "We the people" then? Who is included now? Is it historically correct to describe the United States as an "exceptional" nation? If so, what are its current implications? Did the founders leave a legacy of government as "us" or "them"? If the correct answer is both, which legacy best meets our needs now? Given our current condition as a deeply divided people, my hope is that the founding era can become a safe place to gather together, not so much to find answers to those questions as to argue about them. Indeed, if I read the founders right, their greatest legacy is the recognition that argument itself is the answer. Excerpted from American Dialogue: The Founding Fathers and Us by Joseph J. Ellis All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

My Self-Evident Truthp. 3
Chapter 1 Race
Then: Thomas Jeffersonp. 13
Now: Abiding Backlashp. 49
Chapter 2 Equality
Then: John Adamsp. 71
Now: Our Gilded Agep. 103
Chapter 3 Law
Then: James Madisonp. 119
Now: Immaculate Misconceptionsp. 151
Chapter 4 Abroad
Then: George Washingtonp. 173
Now: At Peace with Warp. 207
Epilogue: Leadershipp. 223
Acknowledgmentsp. 241
Notesp. 243
Indexp. 267

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