Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis is currently on tour to promote his latest book, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us. On Wednesday, October 17, he stopped by the National Archives in Washington, D.C. for a lecture and a book signing.
In the book Ellis took on the major question “What would the Founding Fathers think?” with respect to four major issues that pose challenges in American society today: racism, income equality, law, and foreign policy. Each section is subdivided as “then” and “now” to provide the context and comparisons. It’s been difficult to discuss these topics productively because, as the author quoted from his preface, “we inhabit a backlash moment in American history of uncertain duration.”
Going back to the Founders doesn’t mean we’ll find all the answers, Ellis pointed out in his remarks, but their writings can serve as a framework and “safe place” to argue. “We can’t argue [since] we’re all in our apps and bubbles,” as he described the problem.
Race is the first topic in the book with a look back to Thomas Jefferson. Today we remember Jefferson as the author of the magic words “all men are created equal” and as a lifelong slave owner. What’s worth noting is that many individuals in his time considered the slavery question, but ran into a roadblock on what the U.S. would do with slaves after they were freed en masse.
The oft-mentioned solution was to move them outside of the U.S. rather than to integrate. “What Jefferson exposes to me … is how recent our commitment to being a multi-racial society is. It’s a mid-twentieth century commitment,” stated Ellis.
Racism, as we’ve seen, is still making heavy waves in our discourse. Ellis pointed out, “When we get a demagogue who plays the race card up, which we’ve got … It’s speaking to a significant American constituency that has never come to terms with the full implications of the civil rights movement and guess what – never will.”
John Adams, Ellis’ favorite Founding Father, comes next with the topic of income inequality. Adams understood very well that America would follow Europe and ultimately have its own aristocracy, albeit one based on wealth and not titles. “Once you get that, the wealth will be used by the top people to control the government. You’ll get a plutocracy and once it’s in, it’ll be hard to change. [Adams] predicts the Gilded Age, so he’s extremely relevant for us because we’re at the Second Gilded Age,” Ellis explained.
Indeed, it’s a sober picture that the American middle class had its “robust character” in the period of 1940 until 1980. The ensuing increase in income inequality after 1980 has led to the greatest income inequality that we’ve ever had.
The American Dream is out of reach for “about 50 percent of the population.” Even though Adams doesn’t have a solution to offer us, Ellis argued that the Founder knew exactly what not to do. “What’s not the answer is supply side economics. What’s not the answer is trickle down economics. Capitalism by definition produces inequality,” he said.
Ellis looked to James Madison for the issue of jurisprudence or our American legal system. The book outlines more about the concept of originalism, where one looks for the original intent of the authors of a document, legal or otherwise. Madison changed positions throughout his writing from 1786-1788, which is also the time of the Constitutional Convention. Still later, Madison expected the Constitution to last for about 100 years. “There are no original meanings or original intentions to recover,” Ellis observed.
As one might expect, Ellis was asked to weigh in about the Supreme Court, a body that he regards as “conspicuously and unalterably politicized.” He said, “Everybody agrees and [Donald] Trump himself has said that the single most important power of the president is to appoint Supreme Court Justices. The Founders didn’t want it that way.”
As for foreign policy, the United States has run into problems as a superpower since the end of the Cold War, which fit “an almost Jeffersonian model” according to Ellis. “It was us, the good guys, against an evil empire. This fits into a moralistic paradigm that shapes our decision making,” he said.
The U.S. lacked a “strategic planning process” after the Cold War and also entered into wars later that no longer fit the paradigm. Ellis went on to say, “In the globalized world, there’s no such thing as isolation. We’re trapped. We’re going be a superpower. It’s not going to be cost effective and we have to make choices about what we’re going to do.”
On the one hand, the dialogue may leave one feeling dejected about what the U.S. should do next to address these issues. However, there is much value in having this self-awareness on where the nation stands and how to open the debate.