Eminent historian Joseph J. Ellis has written an important book focusing on how four founders of the United States thought about and dealt with four contentious issues that are still disturbing American society and government today.
The chief controversies he discusses are: race, income inequality, law and foreign policy. Ellis surveys the writings of four revolutionary leaders on these matters of ideology and governance, then examines and comments on how our nation addresses these same issues today.
First, he exposes Thomas Jefferson’s two-faced attitude toward race. Jefferson spoke against slavery yet, at the same time, owned dozens of slaves, some of whom were his offspring. Jefferson also believed blacks and whites could never live as equals. This historic picture of race is a prime example of the way that important issues that were left unresolved at the nation’s founding continue to grow and trouble America today.
In the section about income inequality, the author turns to John Adams who recognized that leadership by an aristocracy was a threat to the young nation. Adams asserted that the freedom to pursue wealth “essentially ensured the triumph of inequality.” Ellis uses this prediction to look at and measure the rising inequality in the United States since the Reagan administration.
The chapter expounding on James Madison’s goal to convert the early United States from a confederation to a nation-state is followed by a chapter that contains the most passionate statements by the author. Here Ellis offers an extensive critique of the current Supreme Court’s originalist philosophy of the law, particularly Justice Scalia’s interpretation of the Second Amendment, originally meant to mandate public service in the militia, as meaning today, that everyone should have unlimited access to assault weapons.
The fourth revolutionary leader Ellis lifts up for the reader’s scrutiny is George Washington. He notes that Washington wrestled with the difficulties of the desire to spread Republican values to foreign lands. The foreign entanglements Washington was addressing were western expansion, Native American removal and postwar negotiations with European powers. This historical discussion prompts Ellis to then take a close look at the failures of recent military confrontations and foreign relations initiatives in the Middle East.
“American Dialogue” makes it stunningly clear that there are hundreds of lessons America has not learned since its founding. Ellis believes history is an “ongoing conversation between past and present.” With the portraits of these four outsized, but very human, revolutionary leaders and their ideologies, he provides an historic perspective for the issues that continue to vex and challenge the United States in 2019.