Clay and David discuss how to conduct better arguments, and also speak with author Joseph Ellis to talk about his new book American Dialogue, which will be released this fall. Professor Joseph Ellis is the author of a great number of books about the founding fathers, including some of our favorites.
There's talk of violence against journalists; how can we ratchet down our national discourse rather than continue to ratchet it up? Jefferson's mantra was, 'We disagree, but if we do, we disagree as rational friends,' and Dr. Ellis is saying, disagreement is the beginning of wisdom and harmony.
- American Dialogue: The Founders and Us Book by Joseph J. Ellis
- The Better Arguments Project
- The Atlantic: "Five Features of Better Arguments" by Conor Friedersdorf
- The Irish Times: "Coping: How to argue with civility, the Thomas Jefferson way"
Read this week's Jefferson Watch essay, "The Digital Revolution."
What Would Jefferson Do?
The following is a rush transcript.
DS: 00:02 Good day, Thomas Jefferson Hour podcast listeners, and thank you for listening. Without you, we are nothing.
CSJ: 00:10 We are nothing. David Swenson, the semipermanent guest host of the Thomas Jefferson Hour, we're in studio this week, we have a special conversation
DS: 00:18 It was a fun show. I just — I really enjoyed myself this week.
CSJ: 00:23 Our old friend Joe Ellis, Dr Joseph — Mount Holyoke — called us from Vermont, called you and said he's got a new book coming in, would we like to talk a little bit about it?
DS: 00:32 And I said, yeah, of course, but why don't you come on early before the book's out and we can just kinda talk about what's coming. And he said, really do you think anybody would be interested? I said, yes.
CSJ: 00:44 You know, I expected this to be kind of friendly proforma. And then we got into this conversation and it got deep fast.
DS: 00:50 Yeah.
CSJ: 00:50 I was surprised at a couple of things. First of all, he's using his, his lifelong study of the founding fathers in American history to talk about the current troubled situation and not just about the presidents.
DS: 01:03 He was troubled too. He is troubled, and then listening to the two of you, I kind of wanted to jump in and say, now, wait a minute, guys, you know, this is just one little piece of history in a long, a long period of our nation. It's going to come and go. As alarming as it is —
CSJ: 01:21 Two steps forward. One step back.
DS: 01:23 Yep.
CSJ: 01:24 But I think a lot of his liberal friends think two steps forward, seven steps back. Some people think we're heading towards the dark ages here. He's, he's a relative optimist, but he is concerned and he wanted to see what you always do. So when I get worked up on the show, as I do sometimes, you say, wait a minute, this is not the first time we've had this, the founding of this, we've done this before.
DS: 01:45 Excuse me, but you know who taught me that.
CSJ: 01:47 I know, but, but the point is we do that for each other —
DS: 01:49 Jefferson, yeah —
CSJ: 01:50 But I wanted to hear him say what in our history is parallel or analogous or helps us think about this in context. And he does, he's great about this. He says, look, this is not our first rodeo. We've been here before, but he did say that the lack of civility and deportment and respect for our basic norms by the current president is unprecedented. He said there'd been other populists, even demagogic presidents, but this was the first one that's made a kind of a hobby out of just nihilistic, shattering all the norms. And so I think that's why he's alarmed.
DS: 02:28 Well, you know, and it's, I think people on both sides of the arguments are alarmed — before we get away from it again, the name of his book and it's coming out in October.
CSJ: 02:38 Knopf, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us.
DS: 02:42 And rumor has it this may become a Jefferson Hour book club entry.
CSJ: 02:46 It is going to be. He's agreed to come on. He sending us the proofs to read the book in advance.
DS: 02:50 Terrific.
CSJ: 02:51 I'm very excited about it. He said that — He said, interestingly, he said to me, Clay, you and I are not going to agree on my treatment of Jefferson, but I'm very eager to have the conversation about it, and I thought —
DS: 03:01 What a great —
CSJ: 03:04 I can't wait, now I'm intrigued.
DS: 03:04 So we do talk about the five features of better arguments in the show and a couple of other things, but mostly we talked to professor Ellis in the second segment, so hope you enjoy this.
CSJ: 03:13 So I'm going to ask our listeners, our podcast listeners to write to us. Here's what I want them to say. There are people who think that we are on the edge of madness, darkness and national collapse and there are people who think, thank God Almighty, we are going to be saved because of Donald Trump. Finally, someone's standing up to the, to the establishment. On a scale of one to 10, I want to ask our listeners, how concerned are you? If 10 means the house is on fire and we may not survive this, and one is, no, this is, this is good even, this is good, good, healthy, shaking up of our system. Where are you? I'd like to have people say from their own point of view, not trying to please anybody, but just speak the truth, where you are on the concern scale. Are you jubilant that Donald Trump is shaking the world or are you as alarmed as it's possible to be or somewhere in the middle and people write to us we'll — and they can put in little sentence, we'll quote some of them.
DS: 04:12 We could do a whole show on that.
CSJ: 04:13 I'd like to hear what people have to say because, I'll tell you what, I meet people every day who say this is the end of civilization as we know it, but I also meet people everyday who say, this is fantastic. We needed this. We did. The system was broken. We were. We need to shake it up. We need draining.
DS: 04:31 I like to think the system was written for times like this in order to change. Correct. Listen. You know, it's who's paying attention and who's making them a squeaky wheel.
CSJ: 04:41 Well we'll see, but I would very much be interested in getting a kind of a barometric reading of our listenership about where you think this is and how alarmed you are, if you are alarmed or how jubilant you are, if that's your response. And so the more people that we get to respond to this, the more of a real survey we'll have. I don't presume anything. I think Jefferson is a crossover figure. I was thinking about him today. David, you know, he's really a radical libertarian and so he's a tea party guy. He's a Pat Buchanan guy in certain moods, but he also is a progressive. He's a man of the enlightenment. It would be almost impossible to say what Jefferson would actually think if he popped into the world in 2018. I think that it's a mistake to presume that we know what he would be by now since of course he died on July 4th, 1826 on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the declaration — of the writing of the declaration of independence.
DS: 05:37 So let's go to the show. And I didn't really credit this fellow as much as maybe I should have during it. But the beginning of our first segment of the, of the show is, is about five features of better arguments. I have to credit Eric Lou, a former speech writer and policy advisor in the Clinton administration. And this comes from a presentation he did at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Atlantic magazine and the Aspen Institute.
CSJ: 06:04 I want to go to that festival. I also want to say to people, I just came off my 17th trip up the Wendover death march on the Lewis and Clark cultural tour. I was not drowned. I did not have a heart attack. I did cough up a lung a couple of times, but I want to invite people —
DS: 06:18 What a wonderful image.
CSJ: 06:19 I want to invite people to come to the humanities retreats this winter, January 13th through 18th, Water and the West. It's the book club you always wanted. January 19th through 24th, Shakespeare Without Tears. And then our cultural tour in March, March second through eighth, John Steinbeck's California. So go toJeffersonhour.com to get details on these. These are filling up fast. I want people to just come and have the book discussions they have always dreamed of having in a beautiful serene, retro kind of resort just west of Missoula. So look for all of that. Steinbeck's, California, Shakespeare Without Tears, and Water and the West. Let's listen now to this out of character edition, with the great Dr Joseph Ellis, of the Thomas Jefferson Hour.
DS: 07:13 Good day citizens, and welcome to the Thomas Jefferson Hour, your weekly conversation with or about President Thomas Jefferson. Seated across from me this week is the creator of the Thomas Jefferson Hour, Mr Clay Jenkinson. I'm your host, David Swenson, and it's good to see you Clay.
CSJ: 07:31 Back from the annual Lewis and Clark cultural tour in Montana and Idaho. Not drowned. I didn't die on the Wendover death march and I just want to say before we go on, these trips, these cultural tours are so much fun. The next to our winter retreats at Lochsa lodge west to Missoula, one on water in the west and one on Shakespeare without tears. And then there's the John Steinbeck tour of Monterey and the Central Valley of California. I just love these tours, David and people can find out more about them at Jeffersonhour.com
DS: 08:01 And I'm glad to see you back. Safe and sound.
CSJ: 08:06 Tan, rested.
DS: 08:06 In one piece. Not drowned
CSJ: 08:06 Not drowned.
DS: 08:07 And at peace with Becky. She didn't get after you this time.
CSJ: 08:13 Well, the thing is she see she continued with her daughter Jessie and so I don't know if Jesse's even alive, but I know that I was in a kayak and I very much —
DS: 08:22 I hope she heard that almost love letter that you read to her.
CSJ: 08:26 I read the letter aloud at lochsa lodge on the final night and I was crying because I love Becky and the people realize that this is — we've had what, 20 years of working together. We're kind of moving in slightly different directions now, but they saw like we're brother, sister love.
DS: 08:45 She was able to take your abuse for 20 years and you were able to take hers.
CSJ: 08:49 Ditto honey.
DS: 08:51 No, no. There was a time. So, um, we live in some pretty, what's the correct word?
CSJ: 08:57 Volitle, let's call it volatile.
DS: 08:59 And a couple of things I've run into that I wanted to talk to you about, one I can't credit, um, because I can't remember what it — It was, uh, you know, it was how to, how to better argue points with different political thoughts. And the statement of the article was, it's not a good place to start a political conversation with, who did you vote for? It's much better to start from a point of what do you believe in, what do you stand for? I thought that was good advice. I mean, pretty simplistic, but good advice.
CSJ: 09:37 Jeffersonian too. Look for the common ground. So when he would write a letter to somebody that he was at odds with, he was a master at this, and he would do everything in his power on the first page to show common ground. They understood each other's children —
DS: 09:52 Artificial good humor.
CSJ: 09:53 And he would — so then there'll be as establishment of harmony and a common understanding of what it is to be an American and a common goal. We all want peace or we all want a balanced budget or we all want a mix between states' rights and federal authority, and once he had done everything in his power to find as much common ground as possible, then he would say, 'now my friend, we may disagree, but if we do, we disagree as rational friends, I have a different view of the alien and sedition laws than you do and I'm going to play it out. I might be wrong, I probably am wrong, but these are my own convictions. They're honest convictions. There's no posturing in them,' so you see what Jefferson was doing. He was constantly putting in disclaimers. He was saying that he might not be righteous, he might not know everything. He might need to be better informed, and he also wanted to make sure that he didn't break with people he cared about just because they had serious, sometimes really serious policy disagreements.
DS: 10:51 Well, I know it's really difficult sometimes in, using your word, the volatile times that we live in to understand those who you disagree with and disagreements are pretty severe. I mean, if they're turning into violence, so as I say at Jefferson Hour, I'm very proud when people say, well, what's the show about? And it's — what it is, is it's about civil discourse. We can disagree without flying into some rage or passion. So I thought, okay, well what can we do to help people with that?
CSJ: 11:23 You know, I've been trying to self restrain myself, David, because we do live in a very interesting moment here and we're all stirred up. I think there's a national, chaotic energy that's floating around. Everyone's worried, everyone's angry, everyone's upset, frustrated, suspicious. There's a whole anxiety that's really deeply woven into everything now that happens. I think it's having a really erosive effect on our national fabric, and so I feel like it's my duty to the extent that I can as a humanities scholar who spent a lot of time studying the past to try to ratchet things down, to place them in a historical context to make sure I check my own politics and my own opinions as much as possible to be aware that, I mean, I think the key Jeffersonian insight is that the other guy has a point. Boy, that's hard to remember. So if you take someone like Michael Savage or Sean Hannity and you're watching, I mean this to be centrist, whoever it is that you're watching or listening to. You need to think, 'that person has a point. I may disagree. There may even be some serious disputes about facts on the ground, but that person has a legitimate point of view and why do I think that my point of view is so much more legitimate than hers,' that way madness lies, and so legitimizing with respect, with real respect, points of view that are not your own, is almost the key to being a mature human being and all of us fail. I know I do. This just happens, but we have to check it. We have to — at no point in my lifetime has it been more necessary, I think, to self restrain when you think you're right.
DS: 13:11 Agreed.
CSJ: 13:12 It's hard though.
DS: 13:13 Really hard.
CSJ: 13:13 Really, really hard.
DS: 13:14 In that spirit — I came across an article that was published in the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf. He was at an Aspen Institute and a gentleman by the name of Eric Lou, who used to be part of the Clinton administration, presented five features of better arguments.
CSJ: 13:33 So there are five things we can do to make our arguments — and you don't mean an argument in the sense of shouting at each other about our, our disputes are our conversations more civil —
DS: 13:42 And it's a little, it's a little simplistic, but I thought I would go through it and maybe have you comment and see what you think — or give Jefferson —
CSJ: 13:49 I'll provide a Jeffersonian comment.
DS: 13:50 Okay, so number one, take winning off the table. Rather than seeking victory, the goal should be truth-seeking with a reinstitution of civility in service of achieving it. Participants are charged with arguing in order to better understand.
CSJ: 14:08 That's one hundred percent Jeffersonian — is try to find in the other point of view that what you think is legitimate. Bend over backwards to try to see what doesn't really ring true to you. But above all to say we're friends here. We're both Americans here. We need to get through this together.
DS: 14:28 Funny you should say we're both Americans here because I think that sort of our — in our nature as Americans as we go into, we are right. We're going to convince the other guy you are wrong. I mean it takes a certain vulnerability to go in and say, well, maybe I am wrong. Maybe the point of this is not to win, but that single approach I think would really further things. It's difficult to do.
CSJ: 14:55 So Franklin said, and Jefferson quoted him in his letter to his grandson in 1808. Franklin would say, instead of arguing, ask, followup questions to tease out that person's thought. 'Why do you feel that immigration is destroying America? Why do you feel that the trillion dollar deficit is going to lead to the death of American civilization? Why do you believe that Obamacare is the worst thing that was ever passed by the Congress of the United States?' Ask follow up questions and ask them with respect. You're not trying to trap somebody in some sort of a Socratic way. You're saying, 'what's the basis of your view of that?' And that will then maybe lead to some sort of a common ground.
DS: 15:35 I think that's, that's the trick, is finding a common ground to start from — take winning off the table.
CSJ: 15:44 Take winning off the table even though we all want to win.
DS: 15:46 Yup. "Number two, prioritize relationships and listen passionately. As one audience member put it, the most constructive and rewarding arguments they've ever had have involved people with whom maintaining a good relationship afterward was a high priority [an impetus] for speaking and listening carefully." Prioritize relationships and listen passionately.
CSJ: 16:10 I agree 100 percent. That's very Jeffersonian also. I mean, all these five points are straight out of the Jefferson playbook. You know, the usual example of this that we always hear is that Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy would argue in the Senate. Then they'd go out for a beer afterwards or that people can really be friends and say, 'look, when I get in the Senate, I'm going to really go after you and I'm going to say that you're dangerous. But afterwards you get it. We can go out for dinner and we care about each other and I understand that this is not personal,' and Jefferson's always saying this and he's always saying the friendship is more important than the dispute. Can we maintain the friendship because the friendship is about a whole range of things and the dispute is about tariffs or taxation or about policy, vis-a-vis France or Great Britain, and so Jefferson practiced this. Now I have to say some of his enemies thought that Jefferson was duplicitous, that he was very harmonious at a dinner party or in a conversation or over a glass of Bordeaux, and then he would go away and he and Madison would write vicious things later and so that they didn't see a one to one relationship between Jefferson's civility and then whatever he was doing behind the scenes. I think that's a fair criticism of a few moments in Jefferson's life, but his general attitude was friendship is more important than politics.
DS: 17:34 I'll give you the third and fourth points together. Three, pay attention to context, and four, embrace vulnerability. Says that most of these arguments are ageless American arguments. Things we've been talking about forever.
CSJ: 17:47 The whole basis of the Jefferson Hour is the agelessness of our national discourse. These questions have been racking American life from the time of Jefferson and Hamilton, from the time of Abraham Lincoln,, from the time of Andrew Jackson from the time of Theodore Roosevelt. This is the nature of it.
DS: 18:03 Embrace vulnerability. Extend the olive branch. Hard to do. And then finally the fifth point was, be open. You cannot possibly change another person's mind if you're not willing to have your own mind change.
CSJ: 18:17 Read that again, that's so important.
DS: 18:18 You cannot possibly change another person's mind if you're not willing to have your own mind change.
CSJ: 18:24 So I want to ask everyone who's listening, David, when is the last time that your opinion, your mind on an important subject was changed by a conversation? Because that's essential — we each — put it in more simplistic terms. We each have to give a little. Everyone has to compromise a little in order to make this work, but I'd like to be convinced of something that I think is wrong. I'm always eager for an argument that will enlighten me or remind me of something I didn't think of or show me that my thinking was simplistic or shallow. That's what I look for in friendship and in argument.
DS: 19:00 A good place to end. Right now, we need to take a short break, Clay, but in our next segment we're going to be joined in conversation by professor Joseph Ellis, and here's how Mr Ellis feels about America today.
JJE: 19:12 We're facing conditions and circumstances which in some ways are unprecedented, and how we handle this is to be determined, but the end of Tocqueville's Democracy in America has a line that I like. When he looked at America in the 1830s, he said, 'I am full of apprehension and hope,' and that pretty well describes me.
DS: 19:36 We'll be back in just a moment. You're listening to the Thomas Jefferson Hour.
DS: 19:43 Welcome back to the Thomas Jefferson Hour, your weekly conversation with or about President Thomas Jefferson. Seated across from me is the creator of the Thomas Jefferson, our Mr Clay Jenkinson. And we are so pleased this week to be joined in conversation by one of the good friends of the Thomas Jefferson Hour, the author, Mr Joseph Ellis. He says, call me Joe.
CSJ: 20:05 He is an amazing man, a him to my mind, he's the best scholar of the early national period that we have. His insights have had an enormous influence on American culture. Just profound influence on my own thinking. Two books that I just adore. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and Passionate Sage about John Adams. But his newest book, which will be out in October, is called American Dialogue: The Founders and Us, and we wanted — he's going to come on for a full hour, but in the short term we asked him if he would agree to come on and at least tease out a few of the thoughts that will be in the larger book. But what surprised me, because he's a historian, in other words looking back at the past, is he kind of wanted to talk about the current moment.
DS: 20:51 He did.
CSJ: 20:51 I was a little surprised, weren't you?
DS: 20:53 Well, yes and no because I think the book is, how did he —
CSJ: 20:59 How does the past informed this situation or this set of situations.
DS: 21:01 How he spent his life, in the past, writing about the past.
CSJ: 21:06 David, I'm so interested in our listeners hearing Joe Ellis' insights. Let's go to that. Let's pick up the conversation in midstream.
JJE: 21:13 I'm coming to you from the far reaches of the Green Mountains in Vermont on a hot August day, but I'm pleased to be with ya.
CSJ: 21:21 How close are you to being done with this book and it out the door.
JJE: 21:27 It's done. It's done. It's been done for months, but you know how it takes a long while, Clay, to the process a book. It's due come out officially in October.
CSJ: 21:35 And the title is, sir,
JJE: 21:36 The title is American Dialogue: The Founders and Us. And as some of you know, I tend to write about the founders and the 18th century and I'm doing this here, but in a different way. I'm trying to establish the notion that there's an ongoing dialogue between us and them. Now, I'm the first person to tell you that the founders are busy being dead. They cannot come back and we can't just ask Jefferson what he really thinks of Donald Trump or what George Washington thinks of our war in Afghanistan, but we can do, of course I've done, is go back and read their papers. And in this particular instance, the book was originally conceived and the research and writing began prior to the election of Donald Trump. So it's not a book about the Trump presidency. It is, however, in some sense a book about the conditions and the political movements that have made Trump possible, and about the fact that we're in a backlash moment in American history. People are dazed and confused and for good reason, and there tend to be people, people tend to occupy very isolated political camps or ... or whatever. And so the title of the book, American Dialogue, is to some extent — you remember the old Joan Rivers line. Can we talk?
CSJ: 23:22 Yes.
JJE: 23:23 Can we talk? Can we try to argue about where we are and where we're going and use the founders as a source of wisdom that might allow us to have a safe place to meet and to talk about this with civility, but with fervor?
CSJ: 23:45 For me, Joe, that's the very definition of the humanities, to be able to talk about us through the lens of the past in a disciplined and rigorous and historically grounded way, taking what insights we can from the past, but freely acknowledging things that we can't turn to the past for clarification on whatsoever. Let me ask you this question: of all the founding fathers, and I'll take you all the way up to say, James Polk, who is the most Trump-like character that we see there.
JJE: 24:15 Probably Andrew Jackson. Though Jackson did have political experience and certainly military experience. He did serve one term in Congress and he was, you know, most famous as a military man, but I think he was a populist, who won election with an electorate that was, like Trump's, upset with the direction of the country under the federalist, under John Quincy Adams. And instead of the wall, Jackson had the bank.
CSJ: 24:49 The Bank of the United States.
JJE: 24:51 He wanted to do away with the bank, the national bank, and that became his major thing. When he eventually killed the bank, it destroyed the economy and went into deep recession, but again, much like Trump, he wasn't really blamed for it. So I don't think there's anybody that's quite identical in anything like to Trump because Trump's sui generis and distinctive and unprecedented. But if you're looking for someone back there who resembles him in any way, it's Jackson. And I think that they've got a — they used to have a picture of Jackson in the back of the Oval Office — they brought one in when he was elected, and I'm not sure it's still there, but they seem themselves to see him as a precedent.
CSJ: 25:40 Subtitle of your book is The Founders and Us. It's always easier for historians to write about them than it is about us. Let's go to Jefferson for a minute.
JJE: 25:48 All right. Let me just say, historians are really, really good at predicting the past. In fact, they are omniscient about that, but they're no better than anybody else at predicting the future. In fact, they know from history that most prophets are wrong. So I realized that my then-and-now thing is — I'm a historian, I know about the 'then' or I think I know about the 'then,' making the connection to the now, I'm a citizen who's historically informed, but I don't claim to be a prophet.
CSJ: 26:21 Of course. Here's my question, Joe. If part of the backlash is about race — Civil Rights, uh, equality, but race. Jefferson would appear to me to be right at the historical center of this national dialogue slash agony.
JJE: 26:44 I think you're right. And that's the reason he's the — in the first chapter in the book, which is race, it's Jefferson, a long essay on Jefferson. And then it was a somewhat shorter essay called abiding backlash. And I think that what I'm trying to suggest here is that if, once you understand what Jefferson really believed and thought, then you would realize that it was very naive to presume that the election of Barack Obama was going to be the opening of post racial America. Instead, it was going to be exactly the opposite. It was going to create a backlash of people who really have never fully believed in the civil rights movement and the belief in racial equality or biracial society and those people and those values are deeply embedded in American history. And that Jefferson is simultaneously the spokesman for the values that led to the civil rights movement and a very articulate spokesman for the belief that blacks and whites can never live together in harmony.
CSJ: 28:05 And that's the question that I have. Trying to read Jefferson without all of the racist baggage. I want to look at him as a prophet. He said several times in the course of his life that it was not clear to him that we could be a biracial republic.
JJE: 28:20 Right. Well, one of — the main reason that Jefferson could never end up arguing the end — how to end slavery, even though he recognized and said very clearly that slavery was incompatible with the values of the revolution as he knew them — that the only way in which slavery could end is for emancipation to be followed immediately by expatriation, by which he meant sending all the freed slaves somewhere else. Somewhere else could've been Africa, could have been the West Indies, initially thought it might be the west. That was early in his thinking, but that didn't work out. And then the end when he had a chance to do that in the Louisiana purchase, he said, no, that's not possible — because he believed that any kind of multiracial society would eventually become a society that corrupted the purity of the Anglo Saxon race. And he believed that. And a lot of people who were abolitionists, like the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, at the end of Uncle Tom's Cabin, has a appendix saying, 'And now after we free them, here's where they should all go, to Liberia.' So that Jefferson is not atypical in believing that slaves, once freed, need to be sent somewhere.
CSJ: 29:49 Even Lincoln flirted with some of these ideas.
JJE: 29:51 Even Lincoln thought that. And during the war in 1862, I believe, he met with a group of prominent Blacks, including Frederick Douglass, and told him that he was establishing a commission to explore the possibility of Panama as a place that they would all be sent. And — but he was killed by, obviously, at the very end of the war, and it's not clear what he would have done. And essentially the Civil War ended slavery in a dramatic way, which no one was prepared for. And there was no effort to try to move them. The people in the north didn't care because as long as they kept them in the south, that was okay. And the actual number of free Blacks in the north was relatively small and they could be kept in segregated neighborhoods. But I guess what I'm going to is that there's a deep pool of racism. It's been present in American society from the beginning, and it's not going away.
CSJ: 31:01 And we saw in the last couple of years when the veil was lifted that it's deeper, wider, and more virulent than we thought.
JJE: 31:08 That's right. And that my, you know, Martin Luther King, liked to say that the arc of the universe moves towards justice. And he got that phrase from Theodore Parker, 19th century theologian. But it's, you know, it was a belief that, you know, the civil rights movement has history at its back, that the winds of the future, were all winds in the direction of a more bipartisan — biracial society. I think he's right. And that's a Jeffersonian idea by the way — that the liberal tradition is a kind of constant improvement and civilization goes forward. But I think the pattern in American history is not a steady movement forward. It's a movement forward and a half a step back, a step forward, another half a step back. And we're in one of the step back moments right now, and a demagogue can play to this with great effectiveness, because the feelings and the unspoken values are very deep and very powerful. And I think the race card up until fairly recently had to be played face down. I think now under Trump, the race card is being played sort of face up.
CSJ: 32:28 Well, that's a great insight. Let me ask you this. We're talking to Dr Joseph Ellis, the author of American Dialogue: The Founders and Us, a book to be published by Knopf in October of 2018. Joe, you've been on this program before. You know, we both have a deep, deep fascination with Thomas Jefferson; it's a two part question. The first part is this. What, what's the truth here? Do you believe, as a historian who's looked at all of this, that we can be a biracial or multiracial republic?
JJE: 33:02 I think we not only can but we have no choice.
CSJ: 33:06 Well, let me ask the question in a different fashion because I know you know that it's not a frivolous question; if the backlash is, to read it in the most high-minded way, is about anxiety over globalization and the backlash is about concern about Islamic terrorism and if the backlash is about the porousness of our borders and the possibility that there is a dilution of what it means to be a citizen, and if the backlash is about a feeling that our leaders are no longer attempting to really listen and harken to us, then that backlash is worth coming to terms with, respecting, entering a dialogue with, reading in the best possible way and trying to re-embrace into the republic. Isn't that what Jefferson would want to say?
JJE: 33:59 Yes. And it's what any sensible person now I think would want to say that the forces that are creating economic inequality, especially out there in the heartland, there's ways to respond to those. Um, sensibly. I mean, if we really were to rebuild the infrastructure of America, that would have an enormous economic advantage. Community colleges need to prepare rising generations with the kind of tools to have the jobs of the future, but technology is going to replace all of those manufacturing jobs and they're never coming back and speaking truthfully to people with coal is never coming back. And instead of looking for somebody to blame, can we come together and look to find out how we can move forward? There aren't too many people in American history who have lasted very long as national leaders who have told us that the answer lies behind us. It's not like again — the answer is in front of us. And Reagan always said — It's always morning in America. It's not night, it's midday. And we got to go forward. And that means coming up with some real solutions that reform the economies of Appalachia and provide the heartland with options that they don't have right now.
CSJ: 35:23 I agree so much with what you're saying. I think this is just such an important discussion. I think your book is going to make a real difference — if we want that dialogue, I think you will agree it doesn't do any good to call these people morons, Neanderthals, racist, sexist —
JJE: 35:41 Or what they call deplorables —
CSJ: 35:43 Right. That's no dialogue there.
JJE: 35:46 You know, once we occupy these separate apps — MSNBC versus Fox News and everything, the possibility for honest conversation almost automatically ends, and again, one of the conceits of my book is that it is based on 44 years of teaching in the liberal arts. Well, West Point, Yale, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, mostly Mount Holyoke. That if you didn't believe that there was stuff back there in the past that helps you in your life now then what in heaven's name have I've been doing all these years, and there is stuff back there in the same way that in our old age we can remember things that help us and learn from the experience that we've had along the way. History is a memory bank that extends further back than our own lives. And I think I've found it that if you start a conversation about some controversial issue in the present, it doesn't get very far. But if you can ground it in the past and show that the issues at stake have a history, it's more likely to provide civility and for an honest exchange.
CSJ: 36:56 You've sold a lot of books in the course of your distinguished career ... [American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson], Passionate Sage John Adams, [Revolutionary Summer], etc.
JJE: 37:12 Founding Brothers was my biggest seller. Yeah.
CSJ: 37:14 So what is your dream for this book? American Dialogue: The Founders and Us.
JJE: 37:21 I try not to have dreams about these; each and every book — I have no way of knowing. I mean, someone once said that every author could have titled every one of his or her books Great Expectations. And I don't want to predict that. I do hope that it serves the purpose of starting some productive and constructive arguments.
CSJ: 37:40 Well, I hope that if people are listening to this, they will contact Bill Maher and get you out to LA for his show. I think — I do believe that you being on Bill Maher as his guest to talk in a playful, thoughtful, but somber way about where we are and where we're headed is the best thing that could happen to this country. Joseph Ellis, we look forward to the book. I can't wait to interview you. We'll have you on for a full hour here in the next few weeks and you're always welcome here. Whenever you have anything you want to say to Jefferson Hour listeners, we get a tremendous amount of feedback when you're on the program and people say, more Joe.
JJE: 38:15 Alright, I'm ready for it.
DS: 38:16 Once again, our special thanks to professor Joseph Ellis. His new book, American Dialogue will be released this October. In the writeup, it says, as the title suggests, and the founders knew, argument itself is the answer. We're going to take a short break. We'll be back in just a moment. You're listening to the Thomas Jefferson Hour.
DS: 38:43 Welcome back to the Thomas Jefferson Hour. I so enjoyed listening to that conversation with you and Mr Ellis.
CSJ: 38:48 No dogs this time. Remember the last time you had like seven mastiffs in the background?
DS: 38:52 I don't think it was — but there were a couple of statements he made that we didn't have time for.
CSJ: 38:58 We'll be talking with him at much greater length once we've had a chance to read the book, but we were — we had planned just to sort of hear why he wrote the book and then we got into what I think is a very, very, very interesting and somewhat problematic discussion. And I'll tell you what the most problematic thing for me was David, is that when you talk about what's right and what's wrong with America, Jefferson is in both camps. Almost always.
DS: 39:24 Let me add just one more piece from Professor Ellis that we didn't have time for in the last segment.
JJE: 39:32 Jefferson is the most resonant figure in the founding because he simultaneously wrote the magic words of American history that gave us the foundation for the liberal tradition, and he's, on the other side, he's one of our most prominent racists, but more than just that there's, as you know, I think, that there's a kind of — parallel tracks inside him that never cross. But I think that Jefferson was in favor of replacing the constitution every 21 years.
CSJ: 40:20 That's right. Once per generation. That's what I was kind of pointing to is that there is this kind of loopy side of Jefferson, but he's kind of a Utopian radical democrat in a way.
JJE: 40:34 Yeah, I mean, it's the reason Mao said you need a revolution. To sweep out the collected debris of the arteries of — it's a radical utopian idea that's kind of crazy and anarchistic in its implications, but there's a principle in the middle of it that is interesting and and very revealing about Jefferson, but it is utopian and —
CSJ: 41:03 But he believed it. It's not posturing is it? He believed that we're up to it, he believed that we could —
JJE: 41:08 No, no, he, you know, he and he never, he never apologized for it or rejected it.
CSJ: 41:16 Why did he believe that we're up to it? Because his friend John Adams was saying, have you looked around buddy? Human nature didn't stop at the shore.
JJE: 41:26 And you know, Madison told them, you know, that this is a crazy idea because generations don't come intact and leave intact in some mathematical way and Madison has spent his early career creating this document then now Jefferson said, well, we'll trash this every 25 years. It's a reason that he, Jefferson, speaks to a particular kind of romantic and Utopian set of convictions. It's intended to be almost a principle philosopher and he's doing that and — but if you let him in control, we would have ended up anarchy — if you let Hamilton in control we might've ended up being an autocracy.
CSJ: 42:15 Well, I think Jefferson would say give it a try.
JJE: 42:18 Yeah, what's there to lose?
CSJ: 42:19 You know, it's sort of what Trump said to the Black people of south Chicago. I mean, I think Jefferson's view is, 'well we never had a chance for humans to really try. But if we let them govern themselves, what if we educated them?'
JJE: 42:35 That's a good question. Obviously that's never going to happen.
DS: 42:37 That was a great description of Jefferson.
CSJ: 42:40 He's the answer, but the abolitionists used him. He's about the trajectory of justice and progress. He believes the future will be better than the past. He believes in taking seriously these movements like the Whiskey Rebellion and now the Trump movement, and yet he's also the problem.
DS: 42:55 And he continues to be.
CSJ: 42:56 Jefferson is both the answer to our issues about high mindedness and civility and progress, but he's also kinda stuck in a zone —
DS: 43:06 He's also America's leading racist.
CSJ: 43:08 That's what Joe said, that he is. I was shocked. He said the leading racist in American history. He can't mean that, but you, you take his point.
DS: 43:17 Well, you know.
CSJ: 43:19 I mean, some — Jefferson Davis, you know, Pitchfork Ben Tillman —
DS: 43:25 We can't really rank them.
CSJ: 43:28 But you take his point. A very serious racist.
DS: 43:30 Yes. Yeah. Well before we go to this week's essay, I didn't have time — you know, we were talking about civility and how to do better arguments. And you know, I came across something that I had saved in my notes. It was published in the Irish Times, May 11th, 2016 by Laura Kennedy.
CSJ: 43:49 Laura Kennedy.
DS: 43:51 And the title is "Coping: How to argue with civility, the Thomas Jefferson way."
CSJ: 43:56 Really?
DS: 43:57 Don't you recall this?
CSJ: 43:58 Yes, I do.
DS: 43:59 It was about you.
CSJ: 44:01 Really?
DS: 44:01 Yes. It was about the Thomas Jefferson Hour and uh, uh, she writes at the end of her partner is all upset by an argument and she says, as he is "slumped on to the sofa, I remembered Clay Jenkinson, a respected American academic. He hosts a podcast called The Thomas Jefferson Hour. In it he assumes the persona of the third president of the United States (on whom he is an expert), and in a comfortingly deep and articulate voice he brings Jefferson back into modern relevance, articulating his views on incredibly varied topics, from philosophy and modern politics to gardening." There, I just read that out loud just for you.
CSJ: 44:32 I think I blushed. Let me tell you something else —
DS: 44:32 It's a great article though. She talks about, about how, you know, Jefferson and the artificial good humor and sort of what we talked about today — take winning of the table, embrace vulnerability, pay attention to context, be open and be a purveyor of civil discourse.
CSJ: 44:32 You know how I beg for stuff on this program?
DS: 44:32 Yeah.
CSJ: 44:32 Yeah. So Kevin —
DS: 44:32 You know, I edited that all out —
CSJ: 44:32 Kevin M. has written to me. He is an instrument maker. He heard me begging for a Ukulele and he's making me one. I want to have him on the show. He's a master craftsman.
DS: 44:32 And you received a painting as well?
CSJ: 44:32 I received a painting. I mean, look, begging works.
DS: 44:32 You're spoiled.
CSJ: 44:32 So send stuff is what I'm saying, but also the cultural tours — I had maybe the best time I've ever had on the Lewis & Clark Trail.
DS: 44:32 I don't even think you should bring them up because they're all selling out already.
CSJ: 44:32 The two winter encampments. Water and the West, that's January 13th through 18th. And then Shakespeare without tears, January 19th or 24th at Lochsa lodge west of Missoula and then Steinbeck's California, March second through eighth, 2019. These are unbelievably satisfying.
DS: 46:01 Go to Jeffersonhour.com. You can find out all the details and you can support the show —
CSJ: 46:05 And they all asked for you again. Where's David? Why won't the permanent guest host get in the canoe? And I don't have any answer.
DS: 46:12 We ll just tell them I am terrified of the Wendover march and with that, sir, thank you for a great conversation, but right now it's time for this week's Jefferson Watch.