Of all the remarkable elements of the American story, perhaps the most remarkable is that in nearly two and a half centuries, the conversation that has animated the United States and the contention that has divided its residents have changed very little. All spring from certain elemental questions:
How do we approach the problem of race? How do we bridge the gaps between rich and poor? How can we ensure the rule of law in a raucous and increasingly diverse nation? What should the American profile abroad be?
These issues were the preoccupations of the founders. Unfortunately they failed to arrive at definitive answers to guide us, contrary to what some commentators, politicians, and originalist jurists believe.
Now Joseph J. Ellis, the Mount Holyoke College emeritus professor who has made a lifetime of studying the early years of American national life, has taken those recurring questions and those astonishing founders, and held them up against our current agonies, seeking to make sense of the present through the prism of the past and to provide some guidelines for the future.
(For instance, his takeon our commander-in-chief? “[D]emagogues,’’ he writes, “tend to enjoy only limited life-spans,’’ dismissing him, perhaps too peremptorily, as “the proverbial blip on the historical radar screen.”)
The questions Ellis poses — or rather the continuing debate he joins — are perplexing, not so much the background music of our republic as its recurrent modal themes. Race and equality, for example, are the persistent and preeminent questions of our national life precisely because they were the persistent and preeminent questions since our inception. The founders, caught between their soaring ideals and their personalinterests, agreed simply to push forwardand succeeding generations have fared no better.
“The American Dialogue they framed is a never-ending argument that neither side can win conclusively,” Ellis writes before adding that “[i]t is the argument itself, not the answer either liberals and conservatives provide, that is the abiding legacy.” But many readers of this thoughtful and thought-provoking volume will close the pages thinking that those great minds of the 18th century Enlightenment sure did punt a lot of problems into an uncertain and oftentimes dangerous future.
It is often forgotten — though not by Ellis — that Thomas Jefferson feared a multiracial future for America even as his personal actions created a multiracial present at his own Monticello. “[T]he ongoing battle for racial equality,” Ellis writes, “remains the longest, most challenging struggle in American history.” Similarly, it is often forgotten that John Adams, rescued from obloquy in recent years, “insisted,’’ as Ellis puts it, “that the freedom to pursue one’s happiness in the marketplace essentially ensured the triumph of inequality in American society.”
Ellis treats the rule of law and diplomacy in similar manner. Madison, he argues, “initially regarded . . . the great failure at the Constitutional Convention — the coexistence of federal and state claims to authority” as “in fact the great achievement.” Maybe not always. And our purist views of the Supreme Court, displayed in the passions over the Kavanaugh nomination fight, are far different from those of our stubborn myths. The court, Ellis reminds us, “always was a political institution comprised of human beings with no special connection to the divine.”
As for foreign policy, Ellis explains that George Washington’s farewell-address admonition on isolationism “levitated beyond the controversial context of its origins to become the foreign policy version of Jefferson’s self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence.’’ Here a variation on a famous line from “Poltergeist II: The Other Side’’ (It’s back!) comes to mind.
Overall, our present difficulties — our historical challenges — may be best summarized by the single most insightful sentence in this book:
“While there is much to admire in the founders, the distinctive brand of leadership they provided is impossible to duplicate because — and this is deeply ironic — we inhabit a democratic America that they made possible but that then made them impossible.”
The issues Ellis examines certainly are not peculiar to the American agenda. Britain in its imperial days (and since) faced racial questions; France with its new President Emmanuel Macron faces (continuing) wealth-gap challenges; Russia has (always) faced rule-of-law problems; China and Japan have never (fully) resolved the tension between isolation and engagement.
These may be the eternal, enduring questions of humankind, but Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams, Monroe, and Washington, among many others, were a special breed, and we have treated them as such, elevating them beyond the giants of the Webster/Calhoun/Clay generation that followed and our own lawmakers and diplomats, so much smaller in sorry comparison.
Race and equality, for example, are the persistent and preeminent questions of our national life precisely because they were the persistent and preeminent questions since our inception.
Maybe it was too much to expect the founders to createa flawless system. This book may prompt readers to consider that there may be no certainties in a world where philosophy, practicality, and personal interest collide. Save this one from Gouvernor Morris, one of the chief architects of the Constitution: “[W]e rise or fall together, as a single people.’’ AMERICAN DIALOGUE:
By Joseph J. Ellis
Knopf, 304 pp., $27.95
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