What would our Founding Fathers think about the most divisive issues of our time? So many things have changed since the United States was formed. Joseph J. Ellis—one of the foremost scholars of early American history, a bestselling author and recipient of both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award—explores this question in his richly rewarding American Dialogue: The Founders and Us. Ellis utilizes the documentary record the founders left behind to help readers better understand the world the Founding Fathers lived in. He includes sections on Thomas Jefferson and race, John Adams and economic inequality, James Madison and the law, George Washington on foreign policy and a section on leadership. The Founding Fathers often disagreed; their greatest legacy is for those who have followed to be able to argue differences, rather than provide definite answers.
All of our present problems have histories, but “none of them is as incomprehensible, when viewed myopically or ahistorically, as our racial dilemma.” Early in his political career, Jefferson advocated measures to end slavery, but he was unable to imagine a biracial society; he insisted on the inferiority of blacks even as he fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. Adams believed that all men are created equal—but also that inequality was the natural condition for human beings. Of all of the prominent founders, Adams was the only one who anticipated the country’s embedded economic inequality.
The founding of the nation, particularly the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, was a messy political process that, of necessity, involved various compromises. Jefferson wrote in 1816: “Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence. . . . They ascribe to men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human. . . . But I also know that law and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.” These words are relevant today for those who believe in a “living Constitution.”
This immensely stimulating, in-depth look at the past and America’s challenges in the present should be read by anyone interested in American history.
This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.