Commentary / History

Ignoring the Founding Fathers, at Our Peril

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American Dialogue: The Founders and Us, by Joseph J. Ellis.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.  283 pp.

Reviewed by Edward Spannaus , November 29, 2018

This is both an ambitious and a provocative book.  Joseph Ellis, who taught college-level American history for decades,  takes the major debates among the Founders of our Republic, and looks at what has become of those debates today.  All too often we cherry-pick those debates for the nuggets with which we agree, and ignore or distort those annoying views of the Founders which contradict today’s firmly-held ideological beliefs.

Among Ellis’s favorite targets are those bought-and-paid-for politicians and think-tank “experts” who justify the demonization of the Federal government – and Federal government interventions into the economy which would benefit the population – by claiming that they are just channeling the views of the Founding Fathers.

Washington and his cabinet

History, writes Ellis, is “an ongoing conversation between the past and present from which we all have much to learn.”  Most deserving of his scorn are those who pretend that their present-day conclusions are reached via a detached and objective study of history.  There is no such thing, Ellis argues:  “History is what we choose to remember.”

Ellis’s format is that of a dialogue between “then” and “now.”  He organizes the book around four topics over which today’s politics and social life are deeply divided:  race, income inequality,  jurisprudence (law and courts), and foreign policy.  Each  “then” section presents the beliefs and actions of a particular Founding Father, firmly rooted in the context of the debates and political conflicts of the late 18th century.  The “now” sections discuss how those four issues play out today, and how the Founders are used – and abused – to justify often-intractable ideological views.  He concludes with a discussion of leadership – with an emphasis on various theories as to why our Revolutionary Age produced a quality of leadership for which we only dream today.

Jefferson:  “All men are [not] created equal”

Race. Ellis selects Thomas Jefferson as the embodiment of the central paradox of the founding: that an emerging nation which professed to believe – in Jefferson’s lofty words – that “All men are created equal,” could nonetheless hold almost 20 per cent of its population in slavery.  Jefferson was not only a slave owner; he was one of most committed advocates of the slave-based economy (politely called “agrarian”) and the “states’ rights” political ideology which was essential for its perpetuation.  Yet, this is the same Jefferson whose early drafts of the Declaration of Independence included an attack on George III for imposing the slave trade on the colonies.

The mature Jefferson argued that any Federal interference in the slave system could provide grounds for Southern secession.  Ellis points out that Jefferson described all Federal laws promoting internal improvements (infrastructure) as part of a conspiracy to establish Federal control over Virginia’s sovereign right to manage the slave system in its own way.  (Jefferson viewed Congress’s establishment of protective tariffs and the National Bank in similar terms.)

Moreover, Jefferson professed to believe that any racial mixing, or “amalgamation,” would be a disaster for the white race.  But this did not stop Jefferson from fathering six mixed-race children with his slave-concubine Sally Hemings.

Thomas Jefferson

Ellis traces the failure of Reconstruction to a lack of any economic component, which left the freed enslaved population in a condition of near-serfdom, and guaranteed long-term economic inequality.  He identifies the period from 1948 to 1968 as a “Second Reconstruction,” which saw desegregation of the military, public schools, and public facilities –but again, there was no economic foundation to these newly-established legal rights.  Many blacks in the middle- and working classes benefited from these changes, but many didn’t, remaining trapped in urban ghettos, where crime, drugs, imprisonment and hopelessness predominate. Ellis suggests that nothing less than a robust jobs program, a type of Marshall Plan for American cities, that aids poor blacks and whites alike, could break through this situation.  Otherwise, as whites become a statistical minority in American society, demagogues will stoke racial anxieties, and the backlash will grow.

Adams: How to prevent an American oligarchy

 Economic Inequality. A closely-related topic is that of the increasing economic inequality in the U.S.   Here, Ellis features John Adams, as the only Founding Father who, warning of “the illusion of equality,” forecast that the rise of an American oligarchy was inevitable unless prevented by a strong Federal government.   Adams engaged in a life-long debate with Jefferson on these matters,  with Jefferson arguing that this was impossible in America, that we lacked the European conditions which gave rise to an aristocracy, and that “the people” in their democratic wisdom would not allow it.

Adams readily dismissed this Jeffersonian version of American exceptionalism.  His original design for the U.S. Constitution was intended to provide a tripartite structure of government, with a system of checks and balances, which would mitigate the natural tendency toward emergence of a class society.

Ellis skillfully draws out the profound irony that those who argued against Adams that American democracy would not allow the rise of an American aristocracy, were wealthy Virginia slave owners such as Jefferson and the even more extreme Jeffersonian, John Taylor of Caroline County.[1] While Adams argued that the rise of an American aristocracy was inevitable unless restrained by a strong national government, Taylor contended that Adams’ categories of the few and the many, were relics of a feudal world which had been shattered by the American Revolution. To which, Adams dared to ask:  how was it that a slave-owning Virginian with a huge estate, could be lecturing the son of a New England farmer about social and economic equality?

Adams’s and Taylor’s respective views of banking illustrate the national debate at the time. Both abhorred banks.  Taylor attacked the banks as instruments of “finance capitalism,” and he portrayed the agrarian South as a victim of a government-backed northern banking conspiracy.  He demanded the severance of all ties between banking and the Federal government.

John Adams

Adams professed to hate banks as much as anybody, denouncing them as “engines of inequality.” But he saw them as necessary and performing a valuable role in establishing credit and stabilizing the currency.  His solution to this dilemma, was to put the banks under the control of Congress, so that there would be only one bank, a Federally-controlled National Bank, with branches in each state.  Ellis describes Adams’s view thus:  “[T]he new financial aristocracy, like all aristocracies throughout history, could not be killed but must be controlled; the invisible hand of the marketplace required the visible hand of government to regulate its inevitable excesses.”

Equality of opportunity: The pursuit of happiness

In the “now” section of the chapter on economic inequality, Ellis posits that the economic basis of American Exceptionalism was the rise of a large middle class society, in which wealth was widely shared rather than concentrated at the top.  Equality of opportunity was the practical expression of the “pursuit of happiness.”

Since 1980, this has broken down, with the erosion of the middle class. “American history has somehow veered off course in an un-American direction.”

Ellis shows – as have many others – that today, the United States has a higher level of income inequality than any other democracy in the developed world.  The statistics demonstrating the accelerating concentration of wealth in the U.S. need not be repeated here.  Ellis suggests two explanations for this widely-recognized phenomenon: structural shifts such as technology, globalization, and “financialization,” and policy changes such as market deregulation and tax cuts.

These policy changes are the result of an obvious fact, Ellis asserts:  since 1980, the Federal government has stopped doing what it had been doing for the previous half-century, to offset the unequal distribution of wealth by the market economy.  Ellis offers as prime examples:  the slashing of taxes while loopholes were added to the tax code to protect high incomes and inherited wealth;  the minimum wage remaining stagnant; the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall, eliminating most Federal regulations on investment banking (and, we might add, breaking down the wall between commercial and investment banking); and the Citizens United Supreme Court decision which removed restrictions on corporate donations to political campaigns, resulting in a situation where Congress members are now expected to devote half of their time to fund-raising.

President Ronald Reagan: under his presidency there was a policy dramatic change. (Whitehouse.gov)

Just as FDR-style regulation became even more important because of structural changes in the economy in the 1970s (and, one could add, the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system which opened up a free-for-all in global trade and financial speculation), Ronald Reagan broke with his Republican predecessors such as Eisenhower and Nixon, by repudiating the New Deal.  While Reagan’s depiction of government as the enemy seemed to echo the Goldwater message of 20 years earlier, Ellis points out that anyone with a longer historical memory “could locate the origins the New Right in the old liberalism of agrarian, pre-industrial America, whose patron saint was none other than Thomas Jefferson.”

Erasing history

But, as Ellis points out, something more than just historical amnesia was at work here. There was a systemic effort to dismantle the old New Deal coalition, bankrolled by corporations (and financiers) which created a network of think tanks, media outlets, and political action committees dedicated to promoting and spreading the anti-government message.  While Ellis tends to focus on the Koch brothers, they in fact are relative late-comers to the game, which was previously dominated by the likes of the Bradley, Olin, and Scaife family foundations.

Ellis’s overriding theme is that this debate over the size and function of the Federal government is not new:  it has been a central feature of what he calls the American Dialogue since the origins of our republic.  This was the dominant debate at the Constitutional Convention and the ratification conventions, expressed in the Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist debates of 1787-88. In the 1790s,  “Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and John Marshall led the Federalist pro-government side against Jefferson and the newly converted Madison.”

Indeed, when the Constitution was ratified, the Anti-Federalists lost the debate – but they never gave up, through the Nullification and later Secession crises.  But yet it is that losing tradition which is the core of what Ellis calls the New Right (and, emphatically, of the “Conservative Revolution” when Newt Gingrich and his colleagues took over Congress in 1994 with their “Contract with [on] America.”)

Today, Ellis concludes, we are in a second Gilded Age, in which this essential dialogue has almost disappeared. Advocates of a prominent role for government are on the defensive, while the anti-government side has a loud and well-financed megaphone which amplifies its message.  It’s just what Adams feared.

Madison:  A Nationalist Constitution

Law.   James Madison, and the evolution of his thought, is Ellis’s point of reference for discussing law and jurisprudence.  Madison underwent a transformation from a provincial Virginian, to a dedicated nationalist at the time of the Constitution Convention, a change triggered by the crisis which erupted with the end of the Revolutionary War.  The Confederation under the Continental Congress had only held together (and barely that) as long as was necessary to win the war, and then national unity flew apart amidst rivalries and jealousies among the states, and a widespread reneging on agreements.  For Madison, the creation of a nation-state was the only way to fulfill the Revolution.

Madison was the great orchestrator – the “whip” – for the Constitutional Convention.  He was crucial to recruiting Washington and Franklin to assume leadership roles in the Convention, which both were initially reluctant to do.  Washington agreed only on the condition that Madison would offer only radical solutions for the anarchy and chaos then raging – which for Madison meant a complete shift of sovereignty from the States to the new Federal government, and giving the national government complete authority over trade and commerce.

James Madison (wikipedia)

Madison won over the Virginia delegation, and influential leaders such as Gouverneur Morris and James Wilson to views, embodied in the “Virginia Plan,” which would have given the Federal government complete sovereignty over the states. But this was politically impossible, and the end result was a compromise in which sovereignty was divided between the states and the national government.

Madison gave up, believing he had failed in his promise to Washington for a wholly national solution.  But Hamilton and others didn’t concede defeat.  Washington and Franklin supported the final product as the best that could be attained. Washington insisted that Madison jump back in to take leadership of the ratification debate in Virginia.  Hamilton invited Madison to join him and John Jay in writing the pro-ratification essays which became known as the Federalist Papers.

Madison did both. In Virginia there was no stronger nationalist than Madison, who led the pro-ratification forces.  (John Marshall was equally nationalist, but he was young and not well-known.)  And all the while Madison was counting noses in the twelve states holding ratification conventions, to see how to “get to nine” – the number of states needed for ratification.  He staged-managed the drafting of what we now call the Bill of Rights, needed to obtain sufficient support for ratification, although he, like Hamilton, regarded it as unnecessary.

In sharp contrast to those today who assert that the Federal Constitution was written to limit the powers of the Federal government, and to protect “the people” from Federal tyranny, Madison never – in this period of his life – viewed the Federal government as a danger.  Rather, he saw popular majorities – Jefferson’s “the people” – as the biggest threat to the republic, and he understood the major threat to civil liberties as coming from the states, not the national government.

Madison of course dramatically shifted his views in a Jeffersonian direction in the 1790s, in order to get himself re-elected to Congress. In 1799, he authored the “Virginia Resolutions” which asserted state sovereignty, and claimed that the states had the right to nullify an act of Congress.  Madison reversed himself again during the Nullification Crisis of the late 1820s, repudiating the secessionist arguments of Calhoun, and claiming that this was not what he meant by nullification.

Originalist sin

In the “now” section on law, Ellis takes on – nay, demolishes – the “originalist” school of legal interpretation for which the late Justice Antonin Scalia was the best-known spokesman.  The basic tenet of “originalism,” also known as “original intent” or “original meaning,” is that the Constitution must always be interpreted according to what its words and sentences meant at the time when the Constitution was adopted.

Justice Antonin Scalia (U.S. Supreme Court)

As this ideology developed at the University of Chicago (not accidentally also the home of radical free-market economics known as the “Austrian School”) and spread throughout the law schools and self-styled conservative think tanks, it came to represent a fanatical anti-government outlook, opposing almost any government regulation or restrictions on the markets, and for expanding the scope of corporate and financial power.   The institutional embodiment of this ideology is the Federalist Society, which has a virtual hammerlock on the appointment of Supreme Court and appellate court judges by Republican administrations.

Needless to say, today’s self-professed “originalists” look at only one side (in fact, the losing side) of the debate over the Constitution and Federal power.  Says Ellis:

They are deaf to the pro-government voices of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, and the younger James Madison….  If a full-blooded originalist were ever appointed to the [Supreme] court, her or his opinions would be difficult to predict, because they would more accurately reflect the broader argumentative context of the founding era.  Such a rare creature could even claim to be a thoroughly Madisonian originalist by inhabiting the multiple incarnations of Madison over his lengthy career.

            Washington: Building an Exceptional Nation

Foreign Policy. George Washington is Ellis’s featured Founder in the section called “Abroad.” He peels away the mythology around this pre-eminent Founder to reveal a profound thinker, and a committed nationalist and Federalist, who tried to design a foreign policy which would enable us to build a moral republic on this continent, while avoiding entanglement in conflicts on the European continent.

George Washington

From the Treaty of Paris forward, Washington’s primary concern was managing Western expansion, which he saw as key to binding the feuding states together into one nation.  He saw the western territories both as providing opportunity for young American to strike out on their own, but also for immigrants seeking to escape from the oppressive monarchies of Europe:

My first wish is to see this plague to Mankind [war] banished from the Earth…. Rather than quarrel about territory, let the poor, the needy, & oppressed of Earth, and those who want Land, resort to the fertile plains of our Western Country, to the second land of Promise, & there dwell in peace, fulfilling the first great Commandment.

Whereas Jefferson saw no need to regulate the flow of settlers over the mountains, Washington wanted a more controlled approach – what he called “compact and progressive seating” – which would assure a density of population in each wave of settlement.  His objective in concentrating population flows, was that a widely-dispersed western migration would leave settlers isolated and vulnerable to being pulled into alliances with European powers such as Britain and Spain.  This cautionary approach was expressed in the Ordinance of 1785 – a precursor to the great Northwest Ordinance of 1787 – which already provided for a township system to provide order to western settlements.

The great contradiction in this republican settlement policy, was the presence of Native Americans, who didn’t fit into this grand plan.  The dominant assumption was that the Indian tribes were a “conquered people” who had sided with the British during the Revolution, and therefore had no rights.

Ellis provides us with a fascinating discussion of Washington’s efforts to develop a coherent and humane Indian policy, which, he says, preoccupied our First President as his highest priority in his first year in office.[2]  It was Henry Knox who persuaded Washington that dispossession of the Indians from their homelands would be a grave violation of natural law. Both Knox and Washington envisioned assimilation of the Indians as the preferred outcome.  However, under the “democratic” pressure of settlers pouring over the Alleghenies, Washington and Knox were powerless to prevent the tragedy that ensued.

In his second term, trans-Atlantic relations were Washington’s policy focus, as the French Revolution and popular support for France threatened to involve the young American Republic in Europe’s wars.

Ellis doesn’t shy away from showing how Washington — who today is given god-like status — was viciously attacked and vilified as a traitor and a British agent by the Jeffersonians for his efforts to maintain neutrality and avoid war with Great Britain.

Riots against the Jay Treaty also targeted President Washington.

In dealing with Washington’s Farewell Address, Ellis appropriately gives as much weight to Washington’s warnings against partisan passions and demagoguery and his calls for Americans to unite as a nation, as he gives to his famous warnings against foreign entanglements.  In today’s terms, Ellis argues, Washington was our first foreign policy “realist,” believed that relations between nations could not be based on affections or trust, but must be governed by an objective assessment of our national interests.

This is what has been often characterized as isolationism, but it was based on the sound belief that the infant American republic needed time to build up its economy to become self-sufficient, and not dependent on ties to any other country.  Ellis points out that Washington saw the United States as exceptional, but he did not believe that its experience or its institutions could be easily transferred to other countries which lacked our advantaged situation.

“He sounded a cautionary note for all subsequent statesman of the Jeffersonian [or Wilsonian] persuasion who sought to bring democratic principles to faraway places in Asia and the Middle East,”  Ellis writes.  “It is a rich irony that precisely because Washington regarded the origins of the United States as exceptional, he could not endorse the modern version of American exceptionalism.”

The Founders’ true legacy

Ellis’s main point is not just that it is important to study history – although he does argue that with passion and with some compelling illustrations.  He also stresses the critical importance of the historical dialogue itself.

There is no one  “correct” view of the Founding Fathers – liberal or conservative.  In fact, Ellis contends aptly, those terms and categories don’t translate well back to the late 18th century from the 20th and 21st centuries.  There was a profound diversity of views – political, economic, even temperamental – among the Founders, as the Adams-Jefferson correspondence, or the Hamilton-Jefferson conflict, so clearly show.  It was this diversity, Ellis argues, that gave rise to the creativity and the dialogue which defined the founding of the republic.

Left alone, Ellis says,  Jefferson would have brought the young nation close to anarchy, and Hamilton, to autocracy.  One can disagree with this-or-that characterization, but still recognize the critical point:  that no one personality or party had all the answers.  Despite all the good they did as individuals,  the Federalists were a disaster as a party. Not for nothing did the Founders fear the development of party politics, where partisan passions took precedence over the common good.

Thus Ellis’s conclusion (my term, not his) that no party or ideological camp today can claim exclusive ownership of the Founding Fathers. They were too diverse for that.   “The American Dialogue they framed is a never-ending argument that neither side can win conclusively,” Ellis writes.  “It is the argument itself, not the answers either liberals or conservative provide, that is the abiding legacy.”

[1] Readers of this blog have met John Taylor previously, in our series on John Marshall and the American System.  Proto secessionist Taylor was one of Marshall’s most fervid opponents, attacking Marshall’s decision in the National Bank case and protective tariffs in the same breath.

[2] Another detailed and fascinating discussion of Washington’s Indian policy can be found in Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in Worchester vs Georgia, the 1832 case  involving Georgia’s ultimately-successful efforts to evict the Cherokee Indians from the territories guaranteed to them by the Federal government.

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One Comment

  1. I very much appreciated your review of Ellis’s book on the Founders. It provides, according to what you write, a most nuanced view of the founding generation—its genius, and its flaws. I especially appreciate the discussion of the importance of John Adams and his unwavering stance in defense of the Federal Republic as against the Jeffersonian states’ rights treason. I recommend the fine biography of Adams by David McCullough published in 2002.
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