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.
Potentially Sensitive Areas: None
Booklist (September 1, 2018 (Vol. 115, No. 1))
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.
Kirkus Reviews starred (July 15, 2018)
An eminent historian sharply illuminates the “messy moment” of the nation’s founding and its implications for contemporary America.Ellis (Emeritus, History/Mount Holyoke Coll.; The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, 2015, etc.), winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, offers a lucid and authoritative examination of America’s tumultuous beginnings, when the Founding Fathers grappled with issues of race, income inequality, law, and foreign policy—all issues that still vex the nation. Believing that history is “an ongoing conversation between past and present,” the author asks what Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and Adams can teach us today. “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?” These and other salient questions inform Ellis’ vivid depiction of the controversies swirling as the Constitution was drafted and ratified. The Founders were men of deep contradictions and evolving political views. As a young man, for example, Jefferson “insisted that the central principles of the American Revolution were inherently incompatible with slavery.” The older Jefferson, who owned hundreds of slaves and fathered many children with his slave Sally Hemings, fervently believed that races should not mix. Slaves should be freed, he conceded, and then sent to the unpopulated West, Santo Domingo, or Liberia. As to equality, the Founders “were a self-conscious elite” who did not value “the innate wisdom of the common man.” John Adams’ “prognosis for the American future was a plutocratic aristocracy.” Freedom to pursue wealth, he asserted, “essentially ensured the triumph of inequality.” Ellis places Washington’s famous warning against foreign entanglements in the context of westward expansion, Native American removal, and postwar negotiations. Most fascinating is the author’s cogent critique of constitutional originalists, intent on recovering “the mentality and language of the framers on their own terms in their own time.” A discerning, richly detailed inquiry into America’s complex political and philosophical legacy.
About the Author
Joseph J. Ellis, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, is a nationally recognized scholar of American history from colonial times through the early decades of the Republic. The author of seven books, he is recipient of the National Book Award in Nonfiction for American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and the Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers. He lives in Massachusetts.
Her website is www.josephellishistorian.com
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