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Part Two - Jan 19:
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Joseph J. Ellis is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College. Among his previous books are Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993) and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1997), which won the National Book Award. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author, most recently, of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996).
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Atlantic Unbound | January 17, 2001
Dialogues with James Fallows
To: James Fallows
From: Joseph Ellis
Subject: Re: Our Committee of Correspondence
Dear Jim (if I may):
Yep, you've got me right as an Adams fan. Part of it is probably perversity on my part, though I would like to believe it's enlightened perversity. Adams is the most fully revealed member of my little repertoire company. He tells you, in no uncertain terms, what he's thinking. And what he's feeling. He provides the clearest window into the vanities, ambitions, and competitive juices that propelled them all. I also think he is the most underappreciated great man in American history, and I'm out to correct that situation. As I see it, Jefferson tells us what we want to hear. Adams tells us what we need to know.
But my major argument in Founding Brothers is that individual assessments of the "who was the greatest?" sort miss the big point. (Franklin, as I see it, was the wisest; Washington the hedgehog among the foxes; Madison the sharpest political tactician; Jefferson the most visionary, though his vision is most elusive; Hamilton would have scored highest on the SAT.) The big point is that they were a collective, an incredible collection of talent and energy that succeeded so brilliantly—to use a modern term in its more traditional meaning—because of their diversity. We know about the checks and balances in the Constitution. I'm suggesting that the leadership class of the revolutionary generation embodied off-setting and complimentary talents, that they collided and colluded with each other to create a dynamic whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.
On the question of scholarly writing, I am trying to have it both ways. I want to be taken seriously within the academy as a scholar, and I want to craft language that is accessible and appealing to a larger non-scholarly audience. Most of the writing in the best scholarly journals is loaded down with highly specialized and horribly portentous language. The conversation within the academy is deliberately obscure, designed to be intelligible only to the initiated within the groves of academe. My task is to translate this scholarly work into words that do justice to the ideas themselves, while also respecting the intelligence of ordinary readers as well as the rhythms and cadences of the English language. It seems to me that there is a deep craving out there for first-rate historical writing, an almost bottomless appetite for American history rendered in accessible prose. The vast bulk of the historical profession has simply abdicated its responsibility to address that audience. For the life of me, I don't understand why. Rather than try to figure out the answer to that question, my instinct is to keep struggling to put words on paper and try to make them sing.
Let me respond to your second and third questions in one gulp. On the matter of stature, comparisons between then and now are inherently mischievous. As Henry Adams once put it, anyone making a panoramic assessment of political leadership from the beginning to now would have to conclude that Darwin got it exactly backward. We can be pretty sure that neither Bush nor Gore will ever be enshrined on Mount Rushmore or memorialized in marble on the Tidal Basin. There are important historical reasons why the founding generation, those "present at the creation," constituted the greatest collection of political talent in our national history. Founding Brothers tries to explain why this is so. It's not that there was something in the water back then. Or that God shone a special light on them. They were not demi-gods. The overly succinct answer is that they oversaw the American Republic through the greatest crisis in its lifespan, and the crisis generated pressures that, like the nineteenth-century frontier or twentieth-century marketplace, propelled talent to the top. If that had not happened, we would not be here to speculate on the question, because there would not be a United States. But we shall not see their like again.
On the matter of continuity between then and now, let me offer two different but, I hope, overlapping answers. The revolutionary era is, as they say, a foreign country. Any straightforward comparison between that world and ours is destined to fail, like trying to plant cut flowers. Neither Jefferson nor Adams, for example, would understand or submit themselves to our modern campaign culture. If you dropped Adams into a modern suburban mall, he would become wholly disoriented, then deliver a jeremiad on the theme of American corruption. Jefferson actually said that once America became urbanized and industrialized his own most cherished agrarian values would become irrelevant. And this is not to mention the inconceivable impact of modern technology, nuclear weapons, and instant communication on their innocent souls. (Though I do think that Washington would have nodded knowingly at American hegemony in the world and Jefferson would have found cyberspace comfortable.) In short, the historical muses are not like migratory birds that can take off in the eighteenth century and then land intact in the twenty-first.
That said, one of my points in Founding Brothers is that American political history is an ongoing argument without end that was first framed by the revolutionary generation. Lincoln once said that America was founded on a proposition. It was actually founded on an argument about what that proposition means. At the philosophical level, it is an argument about the relative primacy of freedom and equality. At the political level, it is an argument about the proper role of the federal government, whether it should be regarded, if you will, as "us" or "them." At the foreign-policy level, it is an argument between idealists and realists. Echoes of all those seminal arguments could be heard in the recent presidential debates between Gore and Bush. And so, while the party labels have changed several times over, and the connection between then and now requires an act of translation in order to preserve the integrity of the past, the core arguments abide. As Lord Acton once put it, "the higher history is the history of the abiding." As I see it, those historians who refuse to struggle with this linkage, who claim that the past is "lost" and "untranslatable," are not behaving as historians so much as antiquarians.
Perhaps the most difficult and controversial issue to translate is the race issue. I've gone on too long in this initial exchange, but maybe we can pick up the conversation in the next one with this sensitive subject.
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