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: Joseph Ellis
From: James Fallows
Subject: Our Committee of Correspondence - Part Three (Conclusion)
Ellis, my good man!
It has been a pleasure corresponding with you. I already feel a sense of anticipatory loss at not being able to keep asking you how the lessons and events of the early days apply to our modern predicaments.
You're right that it's not worth belaboring one of those connections—the goods and bads of the Electoral College, given that it simply isn't going to change. Indeed, I'll try not to belabor anything this time but instead will pick up several hints you've dropped and ask you to elaborate on two last themes.
1) The nature of "greatness." We've talked about this several times, and in a sense it's the central theme of your book. But I'd like to push you a bit further for perspective on how, exactly, you mean for us to understand the greatness of Washington, Adams, et al.—and what present-day lessons can be drawn from the understanding.
There are two main ways to explain the achievements of the "Founding Brothers," and we've mentioned both in this correspondence. You could think of the two alternatives as Nature and Nurture. Or, a revolutionary-era version of the same distinction: Salvation by Faith and Salvation by Works.
Nature: This was a heaven-sent combination of wise, talented people who—fortunately for all future Americans—were there at just the right time. Great people made a great nation.
Nurture: The serious work of winning a war and inventing a political system raised these people to unusual heights. A great struggle made the strugglers great.
Obviously, I'm oversimplifying for effect. And obviously, in life both Nature and Nurture play their roles—and you've stressed both in your book. But I think it's worth being clear about which mattered more in the revolutionary era. What I understand you to be saying, including in your last message, is that this was principally salvation by works. We put these people in our monuments and on our currency because they faced a great challenge and met it well. It's not so much how talented or principled they were that earns our respect. It's what they did.
The distinction may seem banal, but here's what I'm getting at. There is a certain fatalism in either view of the origin of greatness—but the kinds of fatalism differ. If it's Nature, then we have to sit around and wait for another crop of wise, principled, public-minded leaders to present themselves. And if it's Nurture, we have to wait until there's some new emergency, confident that in this hardship great leaders will be forged. You could think of this as the Morris-Clinton corollary to your book's argument. (Dick Morris supposedly told Bill Clinton that he would never be ranked among the "truly great" Presidents, unless there was a truly great crisis or challenge on his watch.)
As we think about the nature of our political leadership, can you offer any alternative to these two kinds of fatalism? And if I'm right in thinking that you belong to the "Nurture/Works" camp (as I do), what about the implications of that? Is it a kind of Pollyannaism? Are we reduced to saying, "Hey, don't worry, when things get tough, help will arrive." Is it optimism based on too narrow a statistical base? That is, have we been flat-out lucky that during the three greatest crises in our history—the Revolutionary War and early constitutional period, the Civil War, and the Great Depression-World War II decades—we had the Founding Brothers, Lincoln, and FDR in charge? How should we think about times and places where things get really tough and help doesn't arrive? (The South during the Klan era; any Third World country you can name.)
2) Race and Slavery. I was fascinated by your chapter "The Silence." It described the efforts, notably by James Madison, to keep the whole question of slavery out of the Constitution, as a way of making a constitutional agreement possible. Since there was, in Madison's view, simply no way of reconciling sectional views on slavery, it was only by avoiding the topic that the states and sections could come together in a Union.
You talk at length in the book about the difference between perfect retrospective knowledge and what people actually know at the time they're making decisions. Looking back two centuries later, we know (or feel) that an American union was sooner or later "inevitable," and we also know that avoiding the topic of slavery in the Constitution led, less than a century later, to the worst carnage the nation has ever seen. The Founding Brothers couldn't know any of this. But based on what they knew, was any other course open to them? You've several times said that Benjamin Franklin was the "wisest" member of the group. As your book points out, unlike Madison he was pushing for anti-slavery declarations in the Constitution.
Based on what his colleagues knew in 1787, is it conceivable that Franklin could have won the argument? Based on what we know now, once the original sin of slavery was introduced was there really any way to avoid the Civil War and the ongoing struggles over race? I know you don't believe in "what if" history, but I'd be fascinated to hear what you think the escape points might have been.
Again, my congratulations on your book, and my thanks for this exchange.
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