By Robert R. Thomas
In assessing the here and now, history offers an indispensable perspective. American Dialogue is an enlightening example. As author and historian Joseph Ellis puts it, “The study of history is an ongoing conversation between past and present from which we all have much to learn.”
Subtitled The Founders and Us, his book’s focus is a dialogue between America’s founding fathers and our current historical state.
“We inhabit a backlash moment in American history of uncertain duration,” Ellis writes. “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.”
The book’s four chapters—Race, Equality, Law, and Abroad—examine these obstacles by connecting historical dots. Each chapter has a THEN and NOW section.
I found this roundtrip dialogue between the late 18th century and the second decade of the 21st century in each chapter captivating in its nuanced historical examination of each of these four major obstacles.
RACE: Jefferson v. “Abiding Backlash”
The THEN of Race is “Thomas Jefferson;” the NOW is “Abiding Backlash.”
“Thomas Jefferson” opens in his own words: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.” Ellis follows: “More than any other prominent member of the revolutionary generation, Thomas Jefferson lived a life thoroughly embedded in the twin American dilemmas of slavery and racism.” While Jefferson’s personal conflicts concerning slavery and race are certainly not historical secrets, Ellis’s rendition is a concise, cogent narrative on the subject.
“Abiding Backlash” opens with the words of James Baldwin: “In the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back; but I think the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further that the past will remain horrible for exactly so long as we refuse to access it honestly….Appearances to the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it.”
Ellis then points out that the multiracial future that Jefferson always feared is already visible on the horizon. By about 2045, he notes, the white population will become a statistical minority. And there will be upheaval, Ellis asserts. “The historical way to put it is that every expansion in the meaning of ‘We the people’ has been a struggle.’
EQUALITY: John Adams and today’s Gilded Age
The THEN and NOW dialogue in the Equality chapter is between “John Adams” and “Our Gilded Age.” As an old curmudgeon, I especially enjoyed the John Adams contrarian perspective with his critical posture toward the mythology of American exceptionalism.
Ellis put it this way: “Adams did not just read books, he battled them. Much as he needed a Jefferson or Taylor to focus his contrarian temperment, books became the fixed objects against which he did his mental isometric exercises.” The difference between Jefferson and Adams, Ellis states, is that “while Jefferson searched for abiding, or even eternal principles, Adams looked for patterns and paradoxes.”
In “Our Gilded Age,” Ellis notes, we enter an era of the new embedded American aristocracy of wealth. Adams was not a fan of an embedded plutocracy. He was not a fan of ideology.
Ellis examines the massive economic inequality of the NOW from the perspective of the Adams legacy which “strips our inquiry of burdensome market-based illusions and thereby helps us frame our analysis more historically and realistically.
“Once you realize that equality is the exception, not the rule, in a capitalistic society, the question changes,” Ellis asserts.”It is not ‘How can we free the marketplace from government regulations to increase productivity?’ It is instead ‘How can we free ourselves from illusions about the free market in order to assume a more equitable distribution of wealth?’
Not for nothing did Adams insist that Massachusetts was more than a mere state, but a commonwealth.Ellis cites two major overlapping explanations for our present Gilded Age of vast economic inequality: political decisions to deregulate the free market and reduce taxes on the rich, and structural shifts generated by technology, globalization, and financialization.
His concise historical review of these explanations and their connective dots is particularly enlightening. Upon describing the global depression of wages in all advanced societies, he describes the meteoric rise of the financializers by referencing the old ruling class axiom about a rising tide lifting all boats.
“Meanwhile,” states Ellis, “most of the yachts on the rising tide are moored in the harbors of finance located in New York, London, and Hong Kong. The emergence of the financial sector tracks the increase in economic inequality.” Ellis concludes with: “John Adams tried to tell us that outcome was virtually inevitable over two centuries ago.”
Invoking Lincoln and both Roosevelts to back Adams, all of whom decidedly did not believe the government was the Evil Empire, but was in fact responsible to the citizens, Ellis adds: “Something is not only missing but terribly wrong when these voices are absent from our national conversation.
LAW: “James Madison” and “Immaculate Misconceptions”
Madison’s history exhibits a “pragmatic mentality,” according to Ellis’s portrayal, “that propelled him through the final stages of his most creative phase, the drafting of the Bill of Rights.”
The history of how his drafting the list of rights came about is fascinating as it showcases Madison’s pragmatic mentality “to release his creative energies in response to specific crises that history presented,” writes Ellis, ”always poised to shift his position to accommodate what the evolving political context required.
He regarded such shifts not so much as contradictions as political adaptations of principle to changing conditions. This, it turned out, perhaps not so coincidentally, just happened to be “the adaptive genius of the Constitution itself.”
“Immaculate Misconceptions” focuses on the Supreme Court, historically juxtaposing Madison’s “Living Constitution” with Robert Bork’s’ “originalist” interpretations of the Constitution, a legal doctrine Justice Antonin Scalia favored.
Very infrequently has the Supreme Court stepped into redefining America’s political landscape in decisive ways. Ellis cites the two most striking cases, both involving race.
Dred Scott v. Sandford
In Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), Chief Justice Taney overruled two federal laws, legally ruling that freed slaves could never become citizens and the federal government was not authorized to limit the expansion of slavery into the western territories. His opinion was based on his interpretation of the intent of the framers.
The decision, states Ellis, “is generally regarded by historians and legal scholars as among the worst Supreme Court decisions in American history.” Taney’s decision offers a legal resolution to the insoluble problem of slavery.” The decision made the Civil War virtually inevitable.
Brown v. Board of Education
Coming nearly a century later, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) struck down the legal justification for racial segregation in schools citing the Fourteenth Amendment as being problematic and extending the Bill of Rights to the states.
This decision was not based on the intention and language of the framers, but rather on several sociological studies that concluded that segregation by race was inherently discriminatory.
This decision was an example of Madison’s “Living Constitution” rather than Bork/Scalia “originalism” and is generally considered the landmark Supreme Court decision of the twentieth century because it launched the movement for a racially integrated society.
The commonality between these two decisions is they both expanded the powers of the Supreme Court. “The last place they (the founders) preferred to place sovereignty over the document they drafted that summer of 1787,” writes Ellis, “was the Supreme Court, the most unrepresentative branch of the government and the most removed from the well-spring of ultimate authority called ‘the People.’”
Origins of originalism
Beginning with the historical origins of the judicial doctrine of “originalism” in several law schools, especially the University of Chicago, Ellis then begins to connect the dots of the history of the conservative reaction against this liberal agenda: “The appearance of originalism in the early 1970s coincides with the emergence of a highly orchestrated and fully financed corporate campaign by the New Right to wrest control of the national debate over the power of the federal government from liberals, who had dominated the debate for the past half century.” He references Jane Mayer’s Dark Money (2016) for a more complete chronicle.
To illustrate the political direction of the conservative court, Ellis focuses on three controversial recent Supreme Court decisions that have given the Supreme Court a place of prominence in America’s political culture:
—Bush v. Gore (2001) awarded the presidency to Bush, the only time in history the Supreme Court had exercised that power;
—District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) overturned two centuries of legal precedents to expand the reach of the Second Amendment;
—Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) overturned a century of precedents regarding campaign finance by expanding the reach of the First Amendment’s right to free speech to corporate money.
While the latter decision may be the most infamous of the three when it comes to expansive intrusion into American politics, the account of the Heller decision most intrigued me because it shines a light on“originalism” and its role in expanding Second Amendment gun rights.
For Ellis, the “collision between Scalia’s originalist convictions and his political agenda helps explain why his opinion in Heller is so difficult to follow, indeed seems almost designed to create a maze of labyrinthian pathways that criss-cross, then double-back on one another like a roadmap through Alice and Wonderland.”
Scalia’s “legalese hash”
He then follows with a convincing exegesis of Scalia’s “originalism” argument, countering the ideological legalese hash with Constitutional historical analysis. This section of the book alone is worth the price of admission.
Ellis concludes his examinations of “Immaculate Misconceptions” with a stiff dose of the NOW: “The fate of 320 million Americans will be decided by five judges who, citing nineteenth-century dictionaries to translate words from an eighteenth-century document, misguidedly claim they are the only channeling the wisdom of the fathers.”
ABROAD: Republic v. empire?
ABROAD, the book’s final chapter, centers on American foreign policy. The THEN is “George Washington” and the NOW is “At Peace with War.”The essential questions in this chapter are contradictory. Washington was the first American statesman to face the contradiction: How can a republic, which is based on consensus, also be an empire, which is based on coercion?
In the NOW update of “At Peace with War,” the question goes like this: How can a democracy function as an imperial power?
With Washington, U.S. domestic policy also became foreign policy, especially with western expansion. “Whether the Native Americans fit in the republican vision of westward expansion was clear from the beginning,” Ellis states, “—they did not.”
He then offers a brief history of treaties and their abuses as examples of our domestic/foreign policy and the ensuing genocide. Historically, the contradictory question blossoms with Washington, the primary architect of American foreign policy as evidenced in his Farewell Address (1796).
In the NOW of “At Peace with War” Ellis offers several compelling questions about the state of today’s foreign policy, ending with these two: “Is America’s seventy-year reign at the top ending?” and “Are there any voices from the founding still sufficiently resonant to point in a different direction?”
To add insight to these queries, Ellis cites Robert D. Kaplan, a prominent student of American foreign policy. I was particularly pleased with this reference because I have long admired Kaplan’s work. Highlighting Earning the Rockies (2017), Kaplan’s memoir of a 2015 coast-to-coast trek which, Ellis points out the trip “quickly became a meditation on America’s role in the world, prompted by his conviction that ‘the answers to our dilemmas overseas lie within the continent itself.’”
As Kaplan observes, “The American narrative is morally unresolvable because the society that saved humanity in the great conflicts of the twentieth century was also a society built on enormous crimes—slavery and the extinction of the native inhabitants.”
American Dialogue‘s epilogue examines Leadership by opening with John Adams writing to Thomas Jefferson: “Public affairs go on pretty much as usual, perpetual chicanery and rather more personal abuse than there used to be. Our American Chivalry is the worst in the World. It has no laws, no bounds, no definitions; it seems to be all a caprice.”
Ellis emphasizes that the “fully flawed patriarchs” are to be remembered, but not canonized by citing three enduring contributions to political thought by the founders and two failures that were tragedies. A key to the tragedies is inability of the patriarchs to imagine a bi-racial state, as Ellis clearly explicates.
American Dialogue concludes with the primary Constitutional source: the actual author of the document. While Madison is often touted as the “Father of the Constitution,” Gouverneur Morris, a Pennsylvania delegate, composed and wrote it over a four-day period. Madison said of Morris: “The finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to his pen, and a better choice could not have been made, as the performance of the task proved.”
Ellis ends his scholarly and lively historical analysis and critique with Morris:
“Morris’s words ‘We the people’ provide an answering echo on the other side of the American Dialogue, sounding the parallel truth that our rights and responsibilities coexist in a collective whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Although Jefferson’s words are forever, Morris’s words enjoy a special relevance in our own troubled time, since they remind us that we rise or fall together, as a single people.
EVM reviewer and board member Robert R. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.