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American Dialogue: The Founders and Us Kindle Edition
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“Joe Ellis knows that history is not simply about the past, it’s about the present having a conversation with the past. In this elegant and fascinating book, he conducts a discourse between our current troubled times and the period when our founders crafted our national creed. The result is an exploration of our values that is both timely and timeless.”—Walter Isaacson, author of Leonardo Da Vinci
"Ellis has taken those recurring questions and those astonishing founders and held them up against our current agonies, seeking to make sense of the present through the prism of the past. . . thoughtful and thought-provoking. . . this book may prompt readers to consider that there may be no certainties in a world where philosophy, practicality, and personal interest collide."—The Boston Globe
"Ellis is not concerned with quiet insights or reassurance. He means to mark out where we have strayed from, and how we have betrayed, America's founding ideals."—The Washington Post
"American Dialogue tries to break the conversational deadlock by going back to the beginning and exploring the controversial choices made by the Founders themselves, asking hard questions about who they were, what they did, and what legacies they left behind. . ."—San Francisco Book Review
“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. . . These and other salient questions inform Ellis' vivid depiction of the controversies swirling as the Constitution was drafted and ratified. . . A discerning, richly detailed inquiry into America's complex political and philosophical legacy.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
About the Author
- ASIN : B0796D467V
- Publisher : Vintage (October 16, 2018)
- Publication date : October 16, 2018
- Language : English
- File size : 2002 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 258 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #188,363 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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I heard Ellis once describe Jefferson as the penultimate paradox of a man: how could the man who wrote the words "all men are created equal" also be an unapologetic racist? How could the man who wrote "All men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights - that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" own over 800 slaves in his lifetime - showing no regard at all for their pursuit of happiness. (One could make the argument Jefferson did this for The Hemings Family, but this would be ill-advised). In his chapter on Jefferson, Ellis points out repeatedly the multitude of character flaws and personal demons of our third president, who deemed his presidency so irrelevant a part of his life that he didn't even have it inscribed on his tombstone. Instead, the obelisk reads: Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.
Adams is his, and my, favorite of our founding fathers - especially given how under-appreciated his legacy has been in our times (though the McCullough biography and HBO Mini-Series has helped in staging a sort of comeback for the erudite lawyer turned revolutionary orator and statesman). Adams feared our government would snowball slowly into oligarchy if we did not learn from history and educate ourselves about the fallibility of man. A deeply anxious mind, coupled with an overwhelming sense of responsibility and commitment to preserving the American founding, Adams spent almost his entire life after college and early law years dedicated to the service of his country; he was our first vice-president, second president, head of the board of war and ordnance, minister in the UK and Netherlands, and of course - a pinnacle delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress.
The section on Washington, by far the most statuesque of the founders, is covered with tact, amusement and deep reflection. Here was a man who embodied leadership in all forms yet was so nervous of revealing too much about his personal life and inner-thoughts that he had his wife Martha burn their letters to one another upon his death. Washington commanded the Continental Army as best he could, though not without dire mistakes. He eventually took Adams' advice and started conducting Fabian tactics, what is also called battling in "a war of posts" were you attack your enemy and retreat as quickly as possible before they can retaliate. Washington knew, more than any other, that America had not to win the war for independence; they only had to not lose. (SIDE NOTE: this unfortunate strategy did not work out as well for the united states in Vietnam).
The last sections covers Madison and his shaping and spurious calls to form our Constitution. Madison, more than any other member of the Constitutional Convention, it is widely acknowledged, is the pinnacle figure in creating what would become the law of the land and Ellis spends plentiful time arguing for his cause. He also mentions, briefly, how Madison feared a growing elite would usurp power economically in our nation without the proper checks and balances in place. (One note: Ellis brings up Pickettey's book Capitalism in the 21st century as a point of showing how bad income inequality has gotten; he even writes that the top ten hedge fund managers in the country have more wealth between them than every pre-K teacher in the country. I wish he would have talked more about the other side of the rational for income inequality, i.e. Walter Scheidel's remarkable book The Great Leveler: income inequality from the stone age to the twenty-first century.... but I digress.)
This book is worth your time. It will challenge how you think about the current state of our countries experience together. By understanding the imperfections of those who helped in creating our republic, our responsibility should be to acknowledge our own imperfections and work to bridge the partisan divides that separate our country into camps red/blue and in between. Ellis is pragmatic in that he admits he is pessimistic about the future, but he does see glimmers of hope possible on the horizon. As Dr. King famously said (and I'm paraphrasing) " the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
Let us hope to heed this progress, for all of our sakes and our children's.
Take the first founder, Jefferson. Ellis writes what can only be described as a scalding essay effectively criticizing Jefferson for his changing views on slavery. Initially at the time of drafting the Declaration of Independence, a severe critic of slavery and desirous of ending it, by the time of his death he was a firm defender of the institution even to the point of adopting southern arguments justifying it even if this led to severe strains on the union. Tough indictment but fair. But when we turn to the essay, one is mystified at its purpose. It is nothing more than a meandering recounting of the abuse of African-Americans throughout American history--with material that is thoroughly familiar to the reader. I don't think Ellis, a careful and meticulous historian, is blaming all this history on Jefferson; if not, then what is the point and what does the essay add?
Things do pick up with the second group of essays on John Adams and the third set on Madison. The interesting conflicting opinions in retirement of the two former presidents on the issue of is equality versus domination by aristocrats is fascinating to read. Ellis' accompanying essays nicely captures the equality issue and why it has waxed and waned with different presidents. Jefferson pops up here as well arguing that there was no federal authority over domestic policy.
The Madison material is the strongest aspect of the book. We learn a great deal about Madison and his contributions to the Constitution, the invention of federalism, and his drafting of the Bill of Rights. The accompanying essay is a perceptive and destructive attack upon the originalism conservative theory of constitutional interpretation. It is fascinating to see a world-class historian make mincemeat of the purported justifications for this approach, and his dismal of Justice Scalia is devastating.
Most surprising is the essay on Washington. I had no idea he had spent much of his first term focused on trying to establish reasonable agreements as to territory and other considerations with the Indian nations. His fair and equitable approach came to naught, unfortunately, because thousands of settlers just rushed onto the Indian lands and disrupted Washington's best efforts. His second term was consumed more with foreign relations as evidenced by his "Farewell Address" recommendation to avoid entangling foreign alliances. This topic leads nicely into the accompanying essay on American foreign policy and whether we can maintain the role of sole superpower.
So, in short, my judgment of the book is that the historical essays are solid and well worth consideration. The accompanying essay on Jefferson adds nothing new; but those on Adams and especially Madison are quite helpful. The Washington essay is ok, but not Ellis' best work though interesting at points. A mixed verdict, but still a book one can learn from, as is the case with all of Ellis' scholarly efforts.