The Forgotten Ron DeSantis Book

The Florida governor’s long-ignored 2011 work, Dreams From Our Founding Fathers, reveals a distinct vision of American history and how it should influence the present.

Ron DeSantis's face refracted
Octavio Jones / Getty; The Atlantic

History works for Ron DeSantis as an argument. It would be a mistake, though, to think he doesn’t care about it deeply or hasn’t devoted serious deliberation to his own understanding of the American past. In fact, his biography indicates a great respect for the discipline. DeSantis reportedly received special praise for his performance in an Advanced Placement U.S. history course at Florida’s Dunedin High School before he graduated in 1997. He majored in history at Yale during some of the years I taught there. He instructed high-school students in history for a year at the Darlington School, in Georgia, before attending Harvard Law School and joining the U.S. Navy. And get this: Two of his children are named Madison and Mason presumably after James Madison and George Mason, the most intellectually interesting of the Virginians who helped fashion the Constitution.

Former President Donald Trump reveled in his own ignorance and preference not to read at all, much less read history. In his four years in office, most of his statements about the Constitution were bluster about how it allowed him to do anything he wanted. By contrast, DeSantis has an intellectual pedigree and a book from 2011, his first, to prove it. Dreams From Our Founding Fathers is a revealing treatise, lively and polemical. While clearly a direct rebuke to Barack Obama’s 1995 coming-of-age memoir, Dreams From My Father, it is also filled with ample quotation from 18th-century writings, footnotes to a smattering of scholarly works, and highly selective use of then-current reportage, tacking back and forth over 26 thematic chapters from Madison and Alexander Hamilton to Obama and the Democrats, the apparent betrayers of the Founders’ dreams. The book clarifies how DeSantis’s view of history has shaped his politics and explains his fierce reaction to any attempt to discuss the role of racism in America’s past.

Published by a very small (some would say vanity) press in Jacksonville, total sales of the book languished in the low hundreds. It clearly got lost in the generic haze of anti-Obama screeds. Shockingly, for a book by a man who is likely running for president, the only way to acquire a physical copy is to buy a used one, which can sell for over $1,000. But Dreams From Our Founding Fathers is actually a remarkably cogent and well-written attempt to undo exactly what Barack Obama had done: write himself into the national imagination as an emblem of historic, yet distinctly American, change. It’s because Obama had incorporated American history into his presidential campaign, giving his famous speech on race at the National Constitution Center, that DeSantis has to deny at such length that Obama’s Americanism amounted to anything more than a shell game.

DeSantis of 2011 praises the Tea Party movement and the backlash it inspired, which cost Democrats the House in 2010. He thinks the movement was absolutely right to identify itself with the American Revolution, fighting against un-American tyrannies of the Obama Democrats. But he argued it should go deeper than symbolic acts like dressing up in 18th-century garb or brandishing rifles at rallies. The book is intended firstly as a wholesale indictment and a game plan, pointing out the ways Republicans should attack “progressives” for the “transformational change” they are attempting—by which DeSantis meant federally mandated health care, corporate and mortgage bailouts, and increased regulation.

Against this “redistributive agenda” DeSantis positions himself as an originalist’s originalist, though he rarely uses the term, leaning on an “ethic of constitutionalism” that he attributes to the Founders. His favorites are Madison and Hamilton, whom he presents as deeply conservative men whose intent was firstly to protect freedom—especially property—and wise, representative government. Their eventual differences, epitomized by the partisan battles of the 1790s, don’t matter next to what they shared. They fashioned a constitution to check excessive legislation—what they called too much democracy in less guarded moments—in the new states. Constitutionalism, then, is conservative means to conservative ends.

DeSantis repeatedly skewers Democratic legislators for not knowing their constitutional clauses and, worse, for misconstruing an admirably clear set of guidelines the Founders laid out for limits on government. Like the demagogues of the 1780s that Federalists such as Madison and Hamilton saved us from, he writes, Democrats always want to “vote themselves the property of others.” Hamilton, by contrast, pushed for true “national greatness, not redistributive change.”

But the most revealing and consequential element of his book is not so much his drawing of a straight line from the founding precedents to the Tea Party movement’s dissent over big government. It’s rather how his entire reading of American history is enveloped in both unquestioning fealty to the Founders and an insistence that the role of slavery, and race more broadly, in that history does not seriously change anything about how we should understand the birth and development of our country. For Obama and his teachers, the problem of slavery exemplified the need to adapt and improve the Constitution. For DeSantis, would-be reformers who misunderstand the role of slavery in our history are themselves the root of the problem in our politics.

While DeSantis admits grudgingly that Obama embodied a major advance in “breaking the presidential color barrier,” he insists that even past leaders who promoted necessary change—such as emancipation and civil rights—embraced “conservative change … often explicitly invoking the Founding Fathers.” He then selectively quotes Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech about cashing the “promissory note” of the Declaration of Independence, contrasting MLK’s words with those of Obama and Thurgood Marshall in their critiques of the Founders’ exclusions and imperfections.

To turn Thurgood Marshall, the civil-rights lawyer and Supreme Court justice, into an ideological radical in contrast to MLK takes some doing. Not as much, though, as is required by DeSantis’s insistence that Chief Justice Roger Taney’s Dred Scott decision of 1857 is the signal example in American history of an activist judge ignoring fealty to the letter of the law and being guided instead by his own racist beliefs. There is a consensus among historians and legal scholars that Dred Scott v. Sandford, which turned on the question of whether a fugitive slave could sue for his freedom after he crossed into a free state, was wrongly decided, because Taney declared that African Americans could not be considered citizens. They had in fact been voting citizens in numerous states. DeSantis wants to distance himself and the Constitution from Taney’s obvious and decisive hatefulness. So he doesn’t mention that the entire logic of Taney’s willful forgetting of statutory laws rested on his insistence that the Founding Fathers never could have meant for there to be any kind of racial equality. In other words, Taney made a politically conservative, notably partisan decision precisely on his interpretation of the Founders’ intent. It was originalist to the core: the original originalism, where gut feelings about what the Founders thought and wanted trumped actual state laws. DeSantis can’t see, or won’t admit, that it is often originalism that is selective with evidence.

It becomes necessary for DeSantis to cleanse the Founders from any connection to slavery. In his first chapter, he tries to make quick work of those who stress the “personal flaws” of great Founding Fathers (i.e., their enslavement of other humans). First, an explicitly antislavery Constitution couldn’t possibly have been ratified, he writes—we should rather trust the good faith of the “strongly anti-slavery” Founders (Hamilton, Franklin) who supported it anyway. Slavery had been a “fact of life” throughout history. A failure to secure the future of the nation by ratifying the Constitution, DeSantis argues, would have enslaved everyone. Moreover, “the philosophical foundations of the Constitution are incompatible with slavery.” This made slavery “doomed to fail” in the new republic. In the end, “the Constitution was created despite the existence of slavery, not because of slavery.” Most of its provisions had nothing to do with slavery anyway, according to DeSantis.

If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is exactly how the Founders, politicians all, justified what most of them knew was morally wrong, before, during, and after the Constitutional Convention. They were already practiced at defending hypocrisy on the slavery issue: Tories and antislavery activists in England and America had brought it up repeatedly. But by never looking up from the Founding Fathers’ own words, DeSantis doesn’t have to confront what other contemporaries knew and modern scholarship knows. Hereditary racial slavery was a new thing associated with the Americas. It had gotten worse—more all-encompassing, more deadly, with fewer opportunities for emancipation—by the mid-18th century, which was why more and more people publicly criticized it in North America and Europe, beginning in the 1750s, not the 1770s.

Many provisions of the Constitution, including the three-fifths clause, its highly calibrated brand of federalism, and the Electoral College, indeed contributed mightily to slavery’s survival and even expansion in the United States despite allowing the northern states to emancipate enslaved people within their borders. Northerners and southerners alike knew this. No less an authority than John Quincy Adams admitted in his diary as early as 1820 that the constitutional dice were loaded in favor of slavery, and that the resulting compromises had tragically shaped most of the early republic’s political history.

In short, in the book DeSantis has to create a Constitution that is not so much aspirational as imaginary in order to align himself with the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. and others who used the notion of the Founders’ benign original intentions to actually liberate Black people and increase equality. But whereas these figures wanted to talk about the Black past and present, and the impact of racial domination on everyone Black or white, DeSantis insists that a return to first principles means never bringing up slavery except to praise those who ended it.

Even when they didn’t. In the months before he denounced the AP African American Studies curriculum, DeSantis also invoked the American Revolution as the real origin and cause of slavery’s abolition. The eminent historian Gordon Wood has been saying similar things recently, as he has taken issue with the 1619 Project’s emphasis on how Virginians and South Carolinian planters joined the Revolution when their slave property was threatened explicitly by crown officials. Wood, too, lately insists more loudly than his teacher Bernard Bailyn did 50 years ago that antislavery idealism is the main thing we need to know about slavery and the founding. But it is an exaggeration that nobody thought to make until historians in the 1960s began to realize and emphasize how much enslavers won in 1776 and 1787.

For DeSantis, Black people telling a different story about the American past is a threat to his entire worldview. It isn’t an academic disagreement; it’s basic to his politics. To admit a different view of the founding upsets his constitutionalist conservatism, which might be best defined as using the Constitution to oppose anything the other side prefers, while looking the other way when Republicans overstep founding strictures about good government, much less actual, crystal-clear clauses in the Constitution (emoluments and insurrections, anyone?).

The question of whether or how the American Founders were complicit with slavery might seem to be a seemingly minor, even technical, matter compared with other legislative maneuverings in Florida. But for DeSantis, it’s the beginning and the essence of what he opposes. The Florida Commission of Education said that the recently passed Stop WOKE Act targeted “revisionist history” while the Florida House speaker said, “The bill provides assurance for parents that some of the most difficult lessons about our nation’s history and current events are taught accurately while treating everyone as individuals.” A state senator cited it as a move back to “historical facts” instead of “indoctrination.” There’s room for disagreement about how to view and teach the intertwined legacies of the American Revolution, slavery, and the Constitution. But as his own book suggests, it is DeSantis himself who ignores certain facts, is prone to identity-driven circular logic, and dismisses what Black voices, past and present, have to teach.