Review of American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis

American Dialogue book coverKey Takeaway: The Founding Fathers of the United States are often looked to with deep reverence but superficial understanding, as many “originalists” or “constitutionalists” have not bothered to take the time to read what the founders actually said. If we want to have a proper dialogue with the past, and abide by the intentions and spirit of the founders, we must understand them in all of their complexity, and not as caricatures of our own narrow political agendas.

The idea that the constitution is meant to be read as a divinely-inspired and infallible document is deeply misguided. In American Dialogue, this is made clear throughout the book, but perhaps never more so than in the words of Thomas Jefferson himself:

“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment…But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”

You couldn’t find a more anti-originalist position than this. Jefferson didn’t believe that the dead should rule from the grave, or that living generations should be constrained by the dictates of the past. For all those advocating an originalist position, Jefferson himself would not have been an originalist.

The appropriate way to interact with the founders, as advocated by the author, is as a conversation informed by their wisdom but not constrained by their commandments.

Understanding original intentions is a tricky business anyway, considering the volume of written material, the complexity of the issues, and the frequent changing of minds within a social and political culture that is unrecognizable to us today. Jefferson understood all of this, and yet we look to the founders as semi-divine figures of an infallible nature, forgetting that four out of the first five presidents, including Jefferson, owned slaves.

Still, there is wisdom to be found, and the greatest wisdom is in the character and demeanor in which the founders resolved issues. The founders of the US, we should not forget, were political philosophers before they were politicians. They were all thoroughly familiar with history and the great thinkers from ancient Greece to the Enlightenment era. They embraced informed debate, based on careful reasoning and the complexities of history. If there is one thing we should learn from the founders, it is to understand the past on a deeper level so as to raise the standard of debate.

On a final note, one particular quote that stuck out to me was a quote by John Adams, writing to Thomas Jefferson:

“In every society known to man, an aristocracy has risen up in the course of time, consisting of a few rich and honorable families who have united with each other against both the people and the first magistrate.”

Adams predicted, centuries ahead of time, the rise of the two Gilded Ages (one of which we’re living in now, with income inequality as severe as before the Great Depression). He knew that all societies, unless something is done to stop it, eventually produce social and economic elites that achieve political domination at the expense of everyone else.