We welcome back Professor Joseph Ellis — the eminent historian, author and friend of the Jefferson Hour — to speak about his new book, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us, which is out now.
No historian of the early national period of American life has done more than Joseph Ellis to give us a sense of what it was like then: what were the challenges, what were the opportunities, the different types of personalities that went into the mix. It was not a monolith. Ellis is maybe the most spirited prose stylist of all of the historians of that period, and he's interested in four of our national figures from that era, particularly Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and the first president of the United States, George Washington. Ellis uses the founders as a springboard to wrestle with eternal problems of American life.
American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis
What Would Jefferson Do?
The following is a rush transcript.
David Swenson: 00:00 Good Day, Thomas Jefferson Hour podcast listeners, and welcome to this week's show. We're, we're pretty excited about it
Clay S. Jenkinson: 00:07 Because we have, um, one of my oldest friends and now your dear friend, Dr Joseph Ellis, formerly of Mount Holyoke, one of the supreme historians of the early national period in American life.
DS: 00:18 You know, I talked to him early a couple of days ago before the show, you know what he told me?
CSJ: 00:22 No
DS: 00:22 I talked to him about, uh, about Adams and you occasionally accusing me of being an Adamsite, which I think he even wondered if that word existed as a descriptor and told him about Crisler's portrait. And he said, David, you should wear that like a badge of honor.
CSJ: 00:42 He's becoming an Adamsite, Joseph Ellis. He always has been in a certain sense
DS: 00:45 No, he's an eminent historian
CSJ: 00:49 He's so interesting. He's back by popular demand. We get a ton of mail when he's on and people say, we like that scholar.
DS: 00:57 Plus he's got a new book.
CSJ: 00:58 He's got a new book. And he wrote this book because - it's kind of a summing up in a certain way. He is is toward the end of a very, very distinguished career. He probably has some more books in him, but he also, you could hear it in his voice is deeply, deeply troubled by what's happening to this country and he thinks maybe the founding fathers can help illuminate this. Maybe they can help us find a path. And I think that he wrote this out of a sense of urgency and he says in the interview today that we cannot recover as a nation without a fundamental crisis. And that again breaks my heart to think that crisis is going to be required to pull us out of the morass that we're in. That's not Jeffersonian. Jeffersonian is we wake up one morning and say, let's solve these problems.
DS: 01:47 Yeah, you know, I, I go back to this line I pulled out of his introduction, which is, "Indeed, if I read the founders right, their greatest legacy is the recognition that argument itself is the answer. Democracy is messy."
CSJ: 02:03 So there are all these dialogues. There's, there's a Jefferson-Washington dialogue about you want to be a provincial Virginia and, or do you want to be an American? There was a Jefferson-Hamilton dialogue about do you want to be a rural backwater kind of fifth rank nation, or do you want to be America the great and powerful; there's a Jefferson-Adams dialogue about can we really be a republic? If so, what safeguards do we need to put into our constitutional basis so that it can actually work. So it's not just something like a student council, um, exercise that we're engaged in and there's a Jefferson, um, dialogue with James Madison, maybe the most important of them all in a certain sense because Madison is like, I'm with you, I'm with you. I'm with you. You're right. This is beautiful but - We need to think about the real world here. Not everyone is a Jeffersonian, so he's not as - Madison's not as pessimistic as Hamilton and Adams, but he's a realist and he's saying to Jefferson, I love you man, but you know, you're kind of out there. You're kind of run drinking the Koolaid of Utopia here. And my job is to bring you down off the ledge and see how much we can save of your beautiful vision, but make it work in a real world. And so all these dialogues are essential. And here's this book in which he goes through chapter by chapter, each of these major founders and then the next chapter projects their concerns about America into our time. And he says, you know what? Jefferson said, there's going to be permanent race tension. He is right. Here's where we are. Jefferson said that equality is going to be something we need to strive for, but it'll be elusive. They were right. It is elusive. And so the book tries to look at the founders and, and measure the fracture lines in American life. And then to say, and here's how it seems to be playing out at the beginning of the 21st century. It's a brilliant book.
DS: 03:57 And it's, uh, again, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J Ellis. If you go to Jeffersonhour.com, you can find out more about where the book is available. It's just out. We can't thank him enough
CSJ: 04:11 And his dogs. And Lucy and Lucy and Phoebe has, what are they called? Labradoodles. Go now to the interview with Joseph Ellis here on the Thomas Jefferson Hour
DS: 04:23 Thanks for listening.
DS: 04:26 Good day citizens. And welcome to the Thomas Jefferson Hour, your weekly conversation with or about President Thomas Jefferson. I'm your host, David Swenson. And seated across from me is the creator of the Thomas Jefferson Hour, Mr Clay Jenkinson. Good to see you, sir.
CSJ: 04:43 Good to see you, my friend. I bring you greetings from our friends at Monticello. And today I don't want to spend very long at this piece. We want to get to an interview with my favorite historian and I know yours too, Joseph J Ellis, formerly of Mount Holyoke, author of many books, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the winner of the National Book Award. And now the author of a new book just out called American Dialogue of the Founding Fathers and Us. And it's a rich and wonderful conversation. We don't want to get in its way.
DS: 05:09 Do need to hear about Monticello. I know you were just there. And uh, I would, I would like a report, sir.
CSJ: 05:16 I've been to Monticello maybe 50 times in my life. This time I was invited to come do two things. I gave a long talk, although it was moved indoors because of inclement weather. Um, and then I gave a desert talk at a meal, uh, for special patrons of, of the foundation in the entrance lobby in the entrance hall. At Monticello. And let me just say my dream through my whole adult life has been to go to dinner at Monticello, I went to dinner at Monticello and you're in the entrance hall and it's low light and you just feel like you are in a magical precinct, a kind of sacred space. And frankly, I never thought that this would happen to me because I'm a guy who dresses up and tights and, and so on and so forth. But it was great. And I, I got a chance to talk about the objects in the entrance hall. It's what in the enlightenment was known as a cabinet of curiosities and kind of private museum and Jefferson was greatly fond of displaying to all visitors the things he cared about. In my living room. As you know, in my house as a kind of a cabinet of curiosities, busts of people and paintings and microscopes and so on and so forth. Um, that's what Jefferson was doing. And after Lewis and Clark came back, he called it as Indian Hall and there is one and only one Lewis and Clark artifact at Monticello. And that is a set of elk antlers. And the rest has been dispersed and lost because there was no national museum. And so it was just,
DS: 06:49 Thanks for that Mr Jefferson
CSJ: 06:51 He was a strict constructionist and said, until we pay off the national debt. We cannot have a national museum of the United States. And so for me to go there was just such pure joy, David, and I wish you could've been there to see it because it is, you know, it is a uniquely delightful, droll, whimsical, eccentric place by an eccentric genius. Thomas Jefferson. And I want that to be the preface to what happens today because we're talking about the founding fathers and particularly Jefferson with Dr. Joseph Ellis.
DS: 07:26 Well, before we go there, may I share an email?
CSJ: 07:28 Yeah, do.
DS: 07:28 This came to us last Week from John Blake. He says, this is not a question. This past week my wife and I visited Monticello. We got lucky and the head gardener, Pat Brodowski was out in the garden.
CSJ: 07:43 Hey Pat
DS: 07:43 I mentioned your show. After some small talk she laid into me for not being a supporter
CSJ: 07:49 1776 Club member, yes.
DS: 07:51 I couldn't find the price for the 1776 clubs. So I just pledged $25 a month. From a guy finding his way back to Jefferson's view. So thank you very much John Blake. And I'm so glad to hear that he, uh, took time to meet Pat.
CSJ: 08:06 I asked Pat when I was there, how often do people come up to the garden and introduce themselves and say that they're Jefferson Hour listeners. She said all the time and I said, is it a burden because we can stop mentioning it. She said, no, she loves it and she loves to talk with them about their own gardens, talking about her, her deep abiding fascination in Jefferson, the horticulturist
DS: 08:26 John Blake, thank yoU so much and thanks for supporting this show. You can do that at JeffersonHour.com
CSJ: 08:31 But David, my point is that I want people to remember that Jefferson is a whimsical eccentric and genius and one of the great creative artists of all time as we move into a somewhat bleak assessment of Jefferson on race and our conversation with Joe Ellis.
DS: 08:47 You know, I think you have to take, you have to take the whole man when you talk about Jefferson. I think you have to take the whole man when you look at Ellis' books - this is, this is intended. I, you know, I, I really believe it's constructive. This, American Dialogue is intended to be constructed. Let's hold up the mirror, look at ourselves and, and do it, as he says in the introduction, through the founding fathers, the period of history that he knows the best.
CSJ: 09:13 I loved the book. I urge everyone to read it. He's, he's a great man and a great scholar. And his insights are tremendous. I do, however, think that he's too hard on Jefferson. Um, but that's all right.
DS: 09:26 Well that's kind of your job isn't it, to stick up for Mr. J?
CSJ: 09:29 It isn't - I'm often very hard on Jefferson
DS: 09:31 Yeah, you are
CSJ: 09:33 But I think that Jefferson, he clearly is all the things that Joe Ellis says. He's a hypocrite. He's a racist. He's an apartheidist. I think it's hard for us to imagine what it was like to be caught in this horrible trap. Jefferson said it's like having the wolf by the ears and I think he's right. That slavery and race have been this besetting fundamental issue of American life and it's not over yet. We're still - think of the the race conversations we're all having right now that have nothing to do with Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers or even slavery. These issues are so deeply woven into the fabric of American life and they cause such tension and they cause presidents to say crazy things and tweet crazy things, cause I'm a whole series of black athletes to say we're going to jeopardize our careers because we feel so strongly about structural racism in our police departments. They - the fact that the nfl thing has caused a, an actual national conversation about race. That that is long overdue and so I applaud them for that. That's the nature of protest, but my point is that this is - This is so deeply woven into the very business, the very idea of America. Jefferson is right at the center of it, but it's also a trap that you and I can't get out of that - You're more hopeful than I think Joseph Ellis is in some ways, but. But my point is this thing does not go away. This issue continues to rock American life 200 or more years after all this.
DS: 11:09 Maybe that's why I think American Dialogue is constructive at its heart because it is also bringing up the conversation that we should point out, too - it is - Yeah, he is pretty tough on Jefferson. It's the first chapter. It's on race, but that's the only part of the book
CSJ: 11:24 That broke my heart to read. I just felt heartbroken because I think he's right
DS: 11:28 But then you get into the next chapter and Adams
CSJ: 11:33 It's much more fun
DS: 11:33 But it's also very thought provoking because he. He, you know, who is more of an expert on the correspondence between Jefferson and Adams is the world's leading expert on the subject. Makes me want to revisit that whole series of programs. We should do that. Yeah. And, and then, uh, you know, we go into Madison who you and I have talked about - really we need to spend a little more time with -
CSJ: 11:54 The underrated founding father
DS: 11:54 yes. Jefferson's best friend, um, at one point and then also with Washington. So
CSJ: 11:59 And then he - Hamilton doesn't really come up in this book
DS: 12:02 He does at the end
CSJ: 12:03 he does at the end
DS: 12:05 And we are so pleased to be rejoined by our friend, professor Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer prize winning author. And Joe, you said call me Joe. So I'm going to do that and congratulate you on this latest effort of yours, American Dialogue, which I just found to be a fascinating read. So welcome to the Thomas Jefferson Hour again, sir
Joseph Ellis: 12:26 and you can call me Joe all the time.
DS: 12:27 Thank you.
JE: 12:29 Thank you for that - those nice comments.
CSJ: 12:32 Oh my, Joe. So I've read your book and I love the book and I hope that every one of our Jefferson Hour listeners, will get an American Dialogue, the Founding Fathers and Us published in october of 2018 by Joseph J Ellis, not only the Pulitzer prize for Founding Brothers, but also the national book award and many other prizes. So Joe, let me get right to the point you on this show on the Jefferson Hour a few weeks ago said that we used to play our race card face down and now we are beginning, especially in the era of Trump to play our race card face up, which you regard as a very dangerous trend for the United States. And when you trace this all back, if you look at the, um, Black Lives Matter movement, of the police shootings, of the nfl debacle, et cetera, when you trace it all back through the course of American history, for you, it appears to sort of center on one enormously important figure. None other than Thomas Jefferson.
DS: 13:37 Yeah, it's a good place to start too because your first chapter in American Dialogue deals with pretty much face up, if I may steal that phrase.
JE: 13:45 Yeah. I mean, I think that if you want to understand the problem of race in America, which - and slavery - and slavery is America's original sin, I don't think any historian would disagree with that. Jefferson is the most resonant and potent figure because he simultaneously wrote the magic words in American history: We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal - and he lived a life as a slave owner and is a dedicated racist.
CSJ: 14:21 So Joe, I'm quoting from your page 39 here. "A younger Jefferson had insisted that the central principles of the American revolution were inherently incompatible with slavery. The aging patriarch now argued that the spirit of '76 precluded any attempt by the federal government to end slavery. It was a sad and pathetic spectacle for he was linking his revolutionary legacy to the most reactionary segment, southern political culture, and in the end to the destruction of the republicans had helped to create." Those are strong words, my friend
JE: 14:56 indeed. Well, by destruction, I meant the civil war. I meant the confederacy - because in his old age, Jefferson became a strong advocate for states' rights and he'd always been that. Jefferson never believed that the constitution created a nation. It created a confederated union in which sovereignty resided in the states. And Jefferson defended that position, not in terms of slavery, but in terms of the principles of 76, which he knew something about, um, namely that we were freeing ourselves from British tyranny by recognizing the parliament had no authority over us and that the sovereignty resided in the individual legislatures of the 13 colonies. When you get to 1861, the south is going to say that Lincoln is George III and the south is defending the principle that the American colonists were defending when they withdrew from the British empire. But I think that, that in that sense, Jefferson's insistence that the federal government could not legislate for domestic policy and domestic policy meant that there could be no legislation for interstate commerce, canals and roads. Because that would be a stocking horse for the federal government's claim that it could rule on slavery, both in the existing slave states and in the territories and the incoming states, and he regarded that as incompatible with the values that he believed were the values of the revolution.
DS: 16:40 Gentlemen, we need you to take a short break. We'll be back in just a moment. We're speaking with professor Joseph Ellis about his new book, American Dialogue. You're listening to the Thomas Jefferson Hour.
CSJ: 16:53 Welcome back to the Thomas Jefferson Hour. We're having a conversation today wIth Dr. Joseph J Ellis, the author of many extraordinary books on the founding generation, including the award winning Founding Brothers this time about his latest book published in October of 2018 American Dialogue, the Founding Fathers and Us. And we have a bunch of questions, David, to ask Joseph Ellis. Let's, let's return to the conversation. So here's the great Joseph Ellis saying it was a sad and pathetic spectacle and then you go on to say that Jefferson wanted so much for us to be a republic, a unique experimental government in which the people were actually sovereign and to an extent unprecedented in human history, govern themselves and that the greatest architect of that vision in the second half of his life and particularly in the last two decades actually gave his mighty energies to the self destruction of that very concept because he was so paralyzed by his racism and by his complicity in slavery. That is such a powerful argument,
JE: 18:06 Jefferson envisioned the civil war in his mind as a possibility. But he believed that it was the north that was causing it potentially to occur by insisting on slavery as an, as an institution that had to be removed. And, um, and Jefferson said, this is the thrust of the chapter, I guess, that 'I too expected slavery to end. And I believe it is incompatible with the values of the American revolution. However, it has to happen a certain way for it to work. And one of the ways that it has to happen is each state needs to decide this on its own, but secondly, we need to have a plan to remove all the freed slaves from the continent of north America or from the United States before we implement any kind of emancipation plan.'
CSJ: 19:02 You've been at this for a long time and when I first met you, we were at the American antiquarian society and then we were in Ken Burns' shop in New Hampshire. And at that time you were. I think it's, I hope I'm not mischaracterizing you, but you were less severe about Jefferson than you have since become, so can you tell us a little bit about the trajectory of your historical thinking on this subject?
JE: 19:26 Severe is probably not a wrong word. I don't like it, but I, I, I understand why you use it. Um, at the time I wrote American Sphinx, when you and I got to know each other and we co-consulted with Ken Burns on his documentary, two things have changed. One is that I've become more aware than I was then of the existence and pervasive influence of race in America. I thought we were on a path after the civil rights movement that would gradually and inevitably carious to some form of biracial justice. Ironically, the civil rights movement and the legislation of the early sixties - civil rights acts of 64 and 65 - merely said we're going to actually implement the decisions we made after the civil war in the 14th and 15th amendment. And we just waited 100 years to do it. Um, but that in that sense, I thought that Martin Luther King was right when he said that the arc of the moral universe, uh, moves towards justice. And I still think that's true in some long term sense, but I think that the real pattern in America is backlash. And we're in a backlash moment.
DS: 20:56 You start this book, Joe, in your introduction - It's almost as if you're, I don't want to say making an excuse or apologizing, but you're using history then and now, which is kind of different for you.
JE: 21:08 Yes.
DS: 21:08 And the introduction ends with, 'given the current condition as a deeply divided people, my hope is that the founding era can become a safe place to gather together, not so much to find answers to those questions as to argue them. Indeed, if I read the founders right, their greatest legacy is the recognition that argument itself is the answer.' It sets the book up quite well, sir.
JE: 21:33 Well, that's what I really believe. And I think the first, the preface or whatever we call it in the book, I'm talking to the reader and saying that I'm going to do something here that I haven't done before and that professional historians aren't supposed to say that they're doing. Professional historians, and I am a professional historian, a card carrying PhD, that we're trained to, to say and believe that the past is a foreign country. And we're like anthropologists moving through time. You don't want to go to Samoa and say, how come you guys aren't practicing the child rearing procedures of Dr. Spock. Okay. Um, and similarly, historians are not supposed to bring their convictions and values in the present to bear on the past. We want to go back and recover in its own terms. We're not capable of objectivity because we're not mathematicians or physicists, but we're perhaps capable of detachment, and at least that's a goal we have to get as close to as possible and therefore we should resist writing from the presentistic - and the word presentistic is a bad term in American history - in history, you know, like 'you're presentistic' means you're just imposing. So I got to go back and look at Jefferson and find out whether or not he's an evangelical Christian, let's say, and um, and you cherry pick the evidence to find that. But my view is that - even detachment is a delusion, namely, that we are only capable of looking back at then from now and it is inevitable that we either consciously or unconsciously bring our own values and convictions and troubles to that particular endeavor. So that Charles Beard looks back from the high point of the progressive movement in 1913 at the founders. And what does he discover? Plutocracy and the robber barons. Arthur Sleshinger looks back at 19th - in 1937 at Jackson - The Jacksonian America and what does he discover? FDR and the new deal. Now, those are two great books by the way, but it's emblematic of the way in which it is virtually impossible for any historian to be completely detached and instead of saying, okay, that I'm saying let's make a virtue of that and selfconsciously identify the problems of our present and use that as a prism through which to look at the past and be honest about it and open about it.
DS: 24:16 Honest you are sir. I mean I, I look at the book and I go back to the this, this positive constructive statements that a recognition, that argument itself is the answer and you using this historical period, you know best - now the book, we have chapters on Jefferson, Adams, madison, and Washington and you put some pretty difficult truths out about all of them and then you sort of analyze it at the end of each chapter by going to now. I was left feeling very positive. I thought it was very constructive.
JE: 24:53 That's very Jeffersonian of you. I'm glad you did that. I think that there are other books that have come out recently. There's one by Jon Meacham, another from Doris Kearns Goodwin that are attempting to look back at the past from our world here in Donald Trump's America. And what both of them do is - they do it quite well and I recommend the books. They find an optimistic story to tell. They essentially they say that we faced great crises before.
CSJ: 25:21 We'll get through this
JE: 25:23 And we've always gotten through and, and the, and the phrase that Meacham calls on us - the better angels of our nature. Um, and I know Jon and I and he's not a sentimentalist. I would say to hIm, if he were parked, you know, say Jon, remember he gave that speech in first inaugural in March of 1861 and the next day, South Carolina seceded from the union and we had the bloodiest civil war - the bloodiest war in American history. Hardly the better angels of our nature prevailed. And that. So that in some sense, my take in the end is to say I'm not here to say that if you just hang around long enough, liberal traditions come save us. I'm saying you got to know what we're really up against,
CSJ: 26:07 So let me change the subject. When you and I were growing up - we're roughly the same age - Jefferson was the towering saint of American secular life, almost untouchable as the supreme dreamer of American life and this man of elegance and great civility and so on.
JE: 26:30 Yeah. I grew up in Virginia and I went to college at William and Mary - Which is where he went
CSJ: 26:32 So and John Adams was kind of a miserable footnote in all of this, a failed presidency. One term, this grumpy guy who didn't get the American dream. Since then, it's all reversed. Now. Adams is seen as the authentic one. He's better on human nature. He's better on the nature of distribution of wealth and and possibility. He understands the human rage for distinction. He's, he's not a kind of an artificial character out of a Jane Austen novel the way Jefferson is. He actually says what he means rather than what he thinks we ought to hear. You know what's happened, so, and you're part of that. You're part of the apotheosis of John Adams. And the subsequent denigration of our man Jefferson. Your second chapter well actually third, but your chapter on Adams. It's so delightful. And what you basically seem to be saying is that in the great debate between Thomas Jefferson of Monticello and John Adams of Montizillo, that Adams was right almost every time.
JE: 27:33 Yeah - When I used to teach that material, the Jefferson Adams correspondence, the students would all come to it just as you said, Clay, assuming they were going to love Jefferson and who was this other strange curmudgeonly character called Adams. And then they would all get converted - by reading the letters and that. Um, and uh, I had this one student who went on to become head of showtime later said - Ann Foley was her name. She said, Jefferson is this: And she raised her hand and she made this waving sound above her head. And then she said, Adam says this, and she made a fist and thrust the fist forward. And um, um, they are just fundamentally different temperaments. But remember, Jefferson died bankrupt, the equivalent of almost $10,000,000 in debt. His kids, his daughter and her 11 children were all made wards of the state. Um, Adams died, you know, uh, on the same day, a little bit later. Again, one of those things you couldn't make up. His son was present of the United States and uh, he left a small estate which, um, his, his grandson John Quincy worked up in a nice way so that what you said at the beginning though is more description of the, the reputation of Jefferson and Adams within the academic world and the scholarly community or the intellectual world. Somewhat more broadly defined. There is no monument to Adams on the, the, the mall of the, the tidal basin. Jefferson is still in the public mind, largely defined - Uh, the, you know, the much more. It's Jefferson wHo's on mount rushmore. It's Jefferson who's on the nickel. Adams is only like the $10,000 bill about someday will probably become common, but that, that I think that what you're describing, Clay is a more, a smaller group of Americans who have come - in the end, the primary reason for it is the Adams papers have come out in much greater number, especially those 1200 letters between Abigail and john that's are the most revealing letters between a public couple in all of American district. Adams gives you, as a biographe,r material. Um, Jefferson never kept a diary.
CSJ: 30:10 Not one that we'd want to read.
JE: 30:13 Well, I mean, you know, in, in, uh, he, I think he thought doing that as self indulgent. Um, but, uh, you know, Adams is, and you know, Washington kept a diary and it was about the weather, um, every year until like the last day of Washington's term as president. You wonder what in god's name, he's thinking he's ending his public service. It's a big, big day. You look at his diary, it says 'march, second 1797, a day like all days temperature 37 degrees fahrenheit.' That's it. That's it.
CSJ: 30:44 That's the enlightenment speaking.
JE: 30:44 Well, it's one phase. Adams' diaries are about the weather inside his soul, the demons that are swirling the
CSJ: 30:52 'Why don't people take me Seriously, I've been misunderstood since the day I was born.'
DS: 30:56 You, you talk in the Adams chapter about how he really essentially gave up the presidency by opposing war with France.
JE: 31:04 That's right.
DS: 31:05 You know that that counts for a lot in my estimation
JE: 31:09 Me too, I mean, I'm glad to say that that leadership in the founding was based on service of the public, not the people. The people in any given moment are easily persuaded and fluctuate
DS: 31:25 But he thought about the public. Right.
JE: 31:28 Yeah, that's right. That's right. So from Adams' point of view, he always said that the greatest thing he ever did was lose the election because of 1800 because he lost it because he refused to go to war with France and that that was obviously the right thing to do and that - But it's - nowadays, you know, it's impossible to imagine a modern politician at the national level taking that position. Their highest priority is to be reelected and they assume that that's okay. That's a self evident truth. No, it isn't. We're not - You're not here to be reelected. You're here to serve the interest of, of the, of the people and the longterm interest of the people and talk and to take unpopular votes. That's what leadership is all about.
CSJ: 32:17 So what would an Adams memorial look like in Washington?
JE: 32:20 Oh, that I thought about that and that, that's a, and I've talked about that with David McCullough, who - we testified before congress to in favor of a memorial. Of course nothing has happened, but uh, and you know that I said at some point, I think at the end of a book on Adams, that there ought to be an Adams memorial on the tidal basin that is situated at such a place in that periodically they, depending on the angle of the sun and the time of the day, they take turns casting shadows across each other's facades. And I mean, if, if you said, well, how, what would your design be? I'd say it's a small library with a little tower in it
CSJ: 33:00 Like Montaigne
JE: 33:00 And then you go in and read books. Um,
CSJ: 33:07 And mark them up, too, markup the margins, scribble all over them.
JE: 33:11 Markup the margins. Yeah.
CSJ: 33:11 Argue with each author.
JE: 33:13 The Adams library is kept in the Massachusetts - or the Boston public library in downtown boston. And if you go up there and you read his marginalia in some of the books on some of the pages, he's written more words than the author has, you know, 'thou shalt thou thou flea, tick insect down. Understandeth not.'
CSJ: 33:37 Thou liest
JE: 33:37 Yeah. It's really, you know, he's really just, he's, he's a naturally combative conversationalist. He needs, that's the reason it works best with Jefferson in the letters because they're, you know, they're going back and forth and he needs that. He's a dialectical kind of a personality and thinker. And um, and so you envision Jefferson standing there in his stately pose with his arms folded across his chest, as Adams is striding back and forth in front of him talking periodically stopping to grab Jefferson by the lapels. And uh, that's the kind of guy he was and that he is person and his personality is more beguiling. But he's the only under the found all the founders wanted to become roman icons, you know, going to be caesar, going to be cicero. Adams wanted to be sancho panza
CSJ: 34:29 come on.
JE: 34:30 That's what He said, that's what he said. Yeah
DS: 34:32 I love that in that chapter, you go into some detail about the back and forth of their correspondence between Jefferson and Adams. It's really interesting.
JE: 34:39 It is.
CSJ: 34:41 Well, Joe, let me ask you a question because I want to get to the heart of what I take to be your point about Adams. What is it to us? What is all this conversation to us, and I think if you tell me if I'm wrong, but Jefferson thought in some sense we could be an equalitarian society in which there would be no class or only vestigial little fossils of class and we would become the world's first truly remarkable, even utopian culture and Adams' views was, Are you nuts? Have you looked around? Embedded at the very core of human nature is the rage for distinction. You're always gonna have the rich. You're always gonna have the privileged. You're always gonna have the wellborn and there's no way you can wash this out of a life Mr. Jefferson, and if you try to go forward with that kind of utopian vision, you're setting this country up for disaster. We've got to face the fact that this is the nature of humankind and I think you see that playing itself out at a time when we have the disparity between the rich and the poor and the privileged and the unprivileged.
DS: 35:41 Indeed. forgive me gentlemen. Joe, if you could hold your answer to that question for just a moment. We need to take a short break. We'll be rIght back. You're listening to the Thomas Jefferson.
CSJ: 35:53 Hello everyone. It's Clay Jenkinson. Just sneaking in a little announcement between segments of the Jefferson Hour. I want you to join me this winter at Lochsa Lodge west of Missoula for two humanities cultural retreats: the first one, water and the west, January 13th through 18th, and the second, Shakespeare without tears, January 19th through 24th. For more information, go to our website, Jeffersonhour.com/tours. We'll see you in the mountains.
CSJ: 36:26 Welcome back to the Thomas Jefferson Hour. We're talking with Dr. Joseph J Ellis, one of our dearest friends, back by popular demand, and now about to begin a book tour of this country with his new volume, American Dialogue, the Founding Fathers and Us.
DS: 36:40 I must say too, I watched, uh, during, uh, your extensive discussion with professor Ellis about the, uh, Jefferson chapter. There was a bit of pain.
CSJ: 36:53 I do feel pain, you know, because there's a disillusionment. As I've said many times, everyone who knows Jefferson eventually becomes an Adamsite, including you and me, and if you want to look at Jefferson as a racist, an apartheidist, and a nitwit and an intellectual voluptuary and an unrealistic guy who was dreaming about an America that never existed. That's easy to do. And it's true. In some sense, Jefferson is a nuisance because he tried to pitch our, our national experiment in this enlightenment world that doesn't exist and Adams kept saying, come on,
DS: 37:30 Are you nuts.
CSJ: 37:30 Have you looked around lately. That's not how people are. They're greedy, they're selfish. They're rapacious
DS: 37:36 Actually, he was a little bit more eloquent than that
CSJ: 37:39 but you know what I'm saying?
DS: 37:40 I do
CSJ: 37:40 And so, so if you want to look at Jefferson through that lens, he's the easiest mark of all of the founding fathers because he just sets himself up. He said, all men are created equal. He said, you know, uh, given the choice between newspapers and government and all that stuff, he all, he sets himself up as - in our time, our time of profound disillusionment as a kind of a ninny. But we know that's not true. We know that Jefferson is the, is the, is the architect of the very essence of what it is to be an American. That sense of freedom and optimism and possibility and that we're, we're going to set the tone for the whole human project in the world. And that if we get it wrong, we're on the road to getting it right. And education is the answer. And people, if they have their hands in the soil, people will flourish in the world. And we need to subdivide. And then subdivide again our units of government so that we have citizen participation and citizens are up to the challenge - was Jefferson's view that ultimately the people are up to the challenge and I think that either one of two things is true.
DS: 38:42 Really what it boils down to is Jefferson believed people were up to the challenge. Adams said
CSJ: 38:46 Huh uh, have you looked around, but
DS: 38:50 They both have a point.
CSJ: 38:51 Either Jefferson is right and I think he is right and we need more education and so on and so forth to make it happen, or Jefferson is wrong, but we still need to believe that to be America, we still have to have that hope and optimism in that sense that we can master life.
DS: 39:06 One of the questions I so enjoy, that you asked, as you said, if we could bring any of these founders back who would help America the most? We'll save that for the end.
CSJ: 39:15 He gave a surprise answer.
DS: 39:17 He did, but let's go back to the question you asked before our break. It was a lengthy question about the differences between Adams and Jefferson
JE: 39:24 Everything you just said is what I think and what I say and my amplification of it is that they are having an argument about whether or not freedom and equality are compatible and whether or not the traditional distinction between the few and the many ... That has dominated most of european history is going to be replicated in the United States. Jefferson believes that once you do away with primogenitor and entail, and once you have a continent that's, it's not unoccupied by the way, but the, it's an extraordinarily fertile
CSJ: 40:02 we'll call it empty
JE: 40:03 We begin with a trust fund that no other new nation ever begins with in terms of the available land and the fertility of the land and the irrigation patterns of the rivers, et cetera, et cetera. I mean, nobody knew it then, but the middle west of the United States is the most fertile ground, fertile land of that size in the world. Um, and no other nation has the river system the United States does. They didn't even know that, you know, Jefferson thought there might be dinosaurs out there, but
CSJ: 40:32 Mastodons
JE: 40:38 Adams is saying now that's all going to end and when it does, I mean when we become more urban and, uh, when the population increases, we're going to find that freedom and inequality are not compatible. And in our terms, in the terms of our present, that if you believe the market should be given complete freedom to function and you can 'pursue your happiness there without restraint,' the net result will be oligarchy and plutocracy because that's what always happens in europe. And that's what's going to happen here. And he turns out to be right in the first gilded age, which starts in the late 19th century and ends officially in 1928. And we're now in a second gilded age which started in 1980. And we now have in 19, excuse me, in 2008, we surpassed high point of inequality that we had reached before and the first gilded age in 1928. And this is incredible, I mean somebody needs to talk about this more about that. The nation that invented the middle class society no longer and now is has the highest level of economic inequality of any advanced society in the world. We are no longer a middle class society - um, now because everybody in America is somehow part of the middle class because we, it's a such a, such a vague term, but that the - what was it? Diamond has become a triangle and the top 10 percent and the further up you go, especially the one percent. And then beyond that to the point one percent, the top 10 hedge fund makers make five times as much money than all the kindergarten teachers in the United States. Um, and that Adams is saying - Adams does not have an answer to that problem. What Adams is saying is that there is a negotiation that has to occur between what we would now call capitalism and now call democracy
CSJ: 42:44 In this book tour you're going to do - You're going to be on lots of media now. Uh, what, what are the questions you really want to be asked about this book? What do you want to be liberated in your own discourse in the next three months?
JE: 42:55 I'm not just being complimentary, but nobody will be as good a questioner as you've just been
CSJ: 43:00 but surely you have this idea that - 'ask me about this America, because I'm ready to say this and grounded in history,'
JE: 43:07 You'd asked me that - the racial questions are very important and I expect to be asked them and I hope I will; the income inequality too, um, in the current debate over the supreme court, I expect some questions about constitutional theory and the originalist position, which is Kavanaugh's position. And I'm prepared to talk about that in ways that will be provocative. I think the originalists are preposterously wrong.
CSJ: 43:35 Me too
JE: 43:36 And in foreign policy, which we haven't talked much about, um, uh, the, the key figure is Washington and - the question I want them to ask me is what is, what did American exceptionalism mean then? And what does it mean now? It's exactly the opposite - now by American exceptionalism, we mean the world is ready for us to sort of decide - rule and America has a privileged position and an obligation to expand its liberal values throughout the world. The founders thought that they didn't use, they said we were a unique, but precisely because we were unique, Washington didn't think that the model of society we had was going to be transportable to the rest of the world and didn't think it was going to work in France, for example, in the French revolution. But the notion that we're going to sound setup a Jeffersonian democracy in the middle of Iraq, that is out of the question, that's never gonna work. And that's the view of exceptionalism they had.
CSJ: 44:33 So let me ask you this kind of last question about this. It goes to Madison because, um, you know, in some ways madison was the greatest of the founders. He's the least entertaining maybe of the founders, but a profound thinker. He was Jefferson's aristotle, keeping Jefferson grounded in some sense in the real world.
JE: 44:52 I agree with that.
CSJ: 44:53 So you're projecting forward from james madison and these other founders. Take a look at us now with our paralyzed congress are politicized courts, our tribalism. So the idea of newtonian checks and balances and the kind of wonderful machine that would go of itself that Madison helped to craft back in 1787. If he looked around at this thing today, a, what would he say and b, what's the remedy?
JE: 45:21 Well, of course he's busy being dead so he can't come out and talk to us. But if you read him and try to figure out. I mean he in 1829, he said, I expect this document that I helped to create the last for at most 100 years. I think that he would say, you know, that we have to rethink this basic structure of the constitution even though he walked away in september - madison did, say we failed and that and - Hamilton tried to say no, we got as much as we could and that the very things that most upset madison initially changed his mind on, in the federalist papers, he now so that the ambiguities of the document as its great strength, because you could never be sure where the line was going to be drawn, say between state and federal power. Um, but that I think that they achieved what they achieved in a society in which there were 4 million people mostly located on the atlantic coast. It's difficult to imagine 325 million people racially divided along many lines doing that again, but that's what he would say.
CSJ: 46:27 And so what's your answer to this, Joe? How do we survive and liberate ourselves from the tribalism that's eating of the bowels of American life?
JE: 46:37 I'm not sure I have an answer, but I would say that we need a crisis
CSJ: 46:41 that the, that the - only a crisis can force us to have the courage to act.
JE: 46:44 That's correct. And I'm in a crisis, a real crisis. I'm talking about something, you know, and I think that the likely crisis is going to be climate change, um, because I think that within the lifetime of our children, they're going to have to begin evacuating cities on the, on the coasts and that, uh, it won't affect North Dakota. Although North Dakota is, might be good because it's going to get warmer out there and um, but there will also be storms and hurricanes and tornadoes and stuff at intensified levels. But climate change is not a hoax and climate doesn't give a damn what you think. It's coming - and scientists can disagree about the, you know, the level of severity, but they can't predict certain - the interaction of the ecology. But the question you put is what's gonna bring us together really, because that's the issue. Government has to become us and we have to be a collective.
CSJ: 47:42 You're being so anti Jeffersonian here and I know that you mean that deliberately but for you to say, and I take you very seriously, my friend, that we can only triumph over this by a whopping maybe unprecedented crisis means that Jefferson was fundamentally wrong, that people can enlighten themselves by popular majorities and do the right thing in the long run. You're saying that that's not going to help us. We - Jefferson can't lead us out.
JE: 48:11 I'm afraid I say you're right, but because of the values Jefferson insisted upon, whatever kind of political creation, whatever we create to respond to this crisis must preserve certain rights and certain moral values, which are - we can't become a totalitarian society and we can't become a socialistic society in the literal sense of that term. We must - there - Jefferson puts those forms of political behavior on the permanent defensive and thank god for it.
CSJ: 48:43 Let me ask you this silly last question. If we could pull any of them, and I'm going to add Hamilton to this mix too, even though I'd rather not. We can pull Washington -
JE: 48:53 Hamilton is the biggest among the younger generation. You go talk to your kids and your grandkids, they all think he's the greatest of all.
CSJ: 48:59 Yeah. They haven't done their reading. If we can pull Washington, madison, Jefferson, or Adams from the past to say, lead us to a future, which one is the most likely to be able to help us now if he reincarnated?
JE: 49:13 Hamilton. I know you don't like that.
DS: 49:21 Yeah, I think he's sorry he asked.
CSJ: 49:25 Why do you say that?
JE: 49:26 That's - because he's not afraid of government power and that's what we're going - I mean, but that we would need - alright - a real answer is that um, we need Adams and Jefferson together
CSJ: 49:42 melded into one person
JE: 49:44 made it. That's where, as a team, as a, as a, as co leaders of the country.
DS: 49:49 Good answer. The color has returned to Clay's face, Joe.
CSJ: 49:54 Thank you
JE: 49:55 forgive me my Hamiltonian moment.
CSJ: 49:56 I'm so sorry to hear you talk this way.
JE: 50:00 I just saw the play again, ... And so, uh, but uh, but Hamilton does, you know, as you've said, you know, and history proves Hamilton right - In terms of what happens with industrialization and urbanization in America and, and, and, and um, but the, the reason that the founders work, and this is the point of founding brothers if it has a point, is that it's a diverse group of people with diverse ideologies and diverse temperaments and so no single one by himself is going to be able to answer all of our questions - it is their interaction and their, their, um, the diversity that produces the best answer. And that's why I'm saying argument is the answer because neither the liberals or conservatives had the answer - the ability to, you know, like, like when some first amendment guy says, you know, I have you know unlimited right to own a music gun. And I say, can we agree? I recognize you have a right to own a gun or carry a gun, if you recognize that I have a right not to be shot. Now where do we go from there? Okay. And that the founders created that kind of dialogue and the future needs to eventually - I mean, there are certain people ... Naomi Klein has written a book called This Changes Everything. It's about what happens when climate change really hits. She envisions a kind of Jeffersonian marxist utopia. If you can understand what that is and a classless society - and that's not gonna happen, um, what, but we are going to have to come together collectively to respond to that in a way that it will - Leadership often comes when there is no choice. You will not have a choice then, um, and uh, and we will be forced into that situation - only that will produce the crisis that will allow us to resolve our problem.
CSJ: 52:02 Professor Joseph Ellis, author of many books, countless awards, one of the great historians of our time, my favorite American historian of the American Dialogue, the Founding Fathers and Us. I hope that you get a tremendous amount of coverage for this and that this book becomes a selection in college courses and that it is part of a national conversation. All I can say is this, Joe, you always bring tremendous joy and humor and insight to all of this. It pains me so deeply to think that Jefferson is a racist and a nitwit or what Hamilton called an intellectual voluptuary and I just want to take two years and write the book that says Jefferson still matters. Jefferson still matters. Jefferson still matters and I know you know he does.
JE: 52:46 I agree with that. I will. I will write a blurb for that book.
CSJ: 52:49 We got to do it because your book I think accurately presents a picture of a such a deeply conflicted, hypocritical, unrealistic man that you want to say he's kind of a nuisance when you try to talk realistically about the history of this country, but you and I both know that that's not the complete story either.
JE: 53:10 No, it's not. We wouldn't have. We wouldn't have the free society we do if it weren't for him
DS: 53:15 and it's not the entire book too. It's just a part of the book that we've sort of centered in on this week.
JE: 53:20 It's The Jefferson Hour for that reason
CSJ: 53:23 It's the chapter I think that's going get the most play in your media tour, but we'll see. We wish you the best. Joe,
DS: 53:29 thank you so much for taking this time to talk to us
CSJ: 53:32 You're always welcome here. Come back and talk further about this book and at the end of your media tour we want to have you on and hear what you learned
JE: 53:38 Hey listen, if I fly over you, I'm gonna wave.
DS: 53:41 We'll look up.
CSJ: 53:43 We'll talk to you soon my friend
JE: 53:45 Thanks again for having me. I really appreciate it.
CSJ: 53:46 Joseph Ellis, the author of American Dialogue: the Founding Fathers and Us, another great book by a great friend and historian, Joseph Ellis and we'll see you all next week for another exciting edition of the Thomas Jefferson Hour