cover image American Dialogue: The Founding Fathers and Us

American Dialogue: The Founding Fathers and Us

Joseph J. Ellis. Knopf, $27.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-385-35342-7

The founders have much to tell us about current problems, none of it simple, according to this incisive study of American political creeds. Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Ellis (American Sphinx) probes the writings of four Revolutionary War leaders on issues of ideology and governance that still roil America. Thomas Jefferson’s hypocritical racial attitudes—he both deplored slavery (while owning dozens of slaves, some of them his own children) and believed that blacks could not live with whites as equals—frame Ellis’s discussion of the menace of modern racism; John Adams’s doubts about the feasibility of achieving true social equality underpin a look at rising economic inequality since the Reagan administration; James Madison’s attempts to convert the early U.S. from a federation to a nation-state spark a critique of Supreme Court conservatives’ originalist philosophy of jurisprudence; and George Washington’s weary realism about popular passions, human fallibility, and the difficulty of spreading republican values to foreign lands prompts a dissection of the failures of recent American military adventures. Ellis’s passions sometimes show, as in his criticism of Justice Antonin Scalia’s writings on the Second Amendment. Still, his colorful, nuanced portraits of these outsized but very human personalities and shrewd analyses of their philosophies make for a compelling case for the troubled but vital legacy of the founding generation. [em](Oct.) [/em]