Part One - Jan 17:
Part Two - Jan 19:
Part Three - Jan 20:
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 20, 2001
Dialogues with James Fallows
To: James Fallows
From: Joseph Ellis
Subject: Re: Our Committee of Correspondence - Part Three (Conclusion)
My dear sir,
Your words of praise are, of course, music to an author's ears. What I like best about our conversation is that we both think that American history is relevant to our ongoing political battles here in the present, yet we also recognize that we have an obligation to respect the integrity of the past per se. Some of my scholarly colleagues reject the possibility of any connection between then and now. Others seem to think that the past exists only to provide witnesses for their current political agenda. Or villains to demonize. The latter group commits the sin of "presentism." The former commits the sin of what might be called "pastism." In my view the land of everlasting grace is located between these two sins.
On the matter of "greatness," you have me pegged right. But what historian in his or her right mind would opt for the providential (i.e. God did it) interpretation? Once, when I was teaching a course on Colonial America and we were studying the Great Awakening, I asked the class why the religious revivals swept through New England in the 1740s. After several students talked about the role of Jonathan Edwards and evangelical preachers, one student declared that the revivals happened because Christ happened to show up in Northampton. I observed that the explanation could be correct, but historians are professionally obliged to rule out miracles and supernatural causes. The same principle applies to the revolutionary generation. We simply cannot argue, like the words of the song, that "God shed his grace on thee."
There is what might be called "the Toynbeean explanation," after Arnold Toynbee's claim that great leadership only emerges in times of great crises. (Dick Morris probably did not read Toynbee, but he intuitively grasped the same point.) The American Revolution, like the Civil War and the Great Depression, was a huge crisis—so the argument goes—and Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt are generally regarded as the three greatest presidents in American history, all presumably tossed up by the challenging conditions of those traumatic moments. The problem with this explanation is that it implies that leadership is an ever-present, latent force just waiting for a summons. But we can all think of great historical crises—for example, Europe in 1914—when the summons was not answered.
It seems to me that the most distinctive feature of the revolutionary generation is that it was an assemblage of diverse political talent of the highest order. We are not talking about one great leader à la Napoleon or Lincoln. We are talking about a gallery of greats. The question thus becomes: What were the historical conditions that made it possible for such a talented political elite to ascend to power in the last quarter of the eighteenth century? What, apart from accident and dumb luck, produced such a brilliant constellation of diverse leaders?
My overly-succinct answer is that American society at that propitious moment was post-aristocratic and pre-democratic. By the former I mean that American political culture was open to talent from all segments of society, more open than England, France, or any other European nation. Hamilton and Franklin are the most salient examples on this score, but all the great American statesmen of the revolutionary era would have languished in obscurity if they had lived anywhere in Europe. By the latter I mean that the political elite of the revolutionary generation was a natural aristocracy, what today we would call a meritocracy, which did not have to navigate the full-blooded democratic requirements that developed in the nineteenth century. If you will, talent could rise to the top, and along the way it did not have to campaign for office, appease voters, apologize for being an elite. Fifty years earlier and the opportunity to ascend could not have existed so fully. Fifty years later and the elitist edge would have been dulled by the "common man" ethos. In this transitional moment the best (and not the worst) were full of the passionate intensity generated by the revolutionary crisis, summoned to greatness.
In retrospect, slavery was the one major challenge or summons that the revolutionary generation failed to answer. Though I'm not a zealous proponent of "what if" history, in my chapter entitled "The Silence" I try to sketch a plausible scenario whereby slavery might have been put on the permanent defensive in 1790. All the pieces of a long-term plan for gradual emancipation were discernible to the major players, and Franklin was the one founder who stepped forward to insist that ending slavery was the final legacy of the Revolution itself. Once that opportunity was missed, the steady growth of the slave population rendered any gradual and peaceful emancipation scheme increasingly improbable and the Civil War inevitable.
As I see it, the chief blame for this failure rests with the Virginia dynasty. This is the big test that Jefferson and Madison failed. Ironically, the tobacco economy of Virginia was already in steady decline by 1790, so it made economic sense to transform Virginia into a southern version of Pennsylvania, with a free labor population and a more diverse crop centered on wheat. (Washington understood this.) So abandoning slavery was actually in Virginia's long-term economic interest. But in the end, it was literally impossible for Virginia's planter class, including Jefferson and Madison, to imagine a biracial society of free whites and blacks. Racism is the ultimate culprit in the debate over slavery. For obvious demographic reasons, Franklin and other northern advocates of abolition never had to face the racial implications of emancipation. South of the Potomac the racial stakes were too high to run, or so Jefferson and his followers concluded. Asking for him to assume a leadership position in the anti-slavery movement is asking for a lot, to be sure, but no more than asking for the kind of courage Jefferson displayed in 1776.
Madison is the man most responsible for placing slavery on the back burner, or taking it off the national political agenda. We can bemoan and condemn this decision, knowing as we do that it led inexorably to the bloodiest war in American history. But from Madison's perspective any bold initiative against slavery at the infant phase of the American Republic placed the nation itself at great risk. By delaying the decision until 1860, the prospects of the nation surviving the ordeal increased. In the end, Lincoln's Old Testament sense of justice proved correct. Only a horrible bloodletting could purge the moral stain of slavery. All the might-have-beens that I conjure up in Founding Brothers pale in comparison with Lincoln's realistic sense of how history usually happens.
One final piece of irony to conclude our conversation. If slavery had been put on the road to extinction in the revolutionary era, the vast majority of the emancipated slaves would have been deported to Africa or the Caribbean. (All the plans contained this feature.) If this had occurred, we would not be the racially diverse society we are today. The Ken Burns documentary on jazz would not have a rationale or even a subject. Our multicultural ideal would be a much more theoretical thing. Nor would we as a people be as capable of a true sense of tragedy.
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