David O. Stewart is the author of “The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution,” and “Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America.”

A portrait of George Washington looms over President Trump at the White House. Joseph J. Ellis writes that today’s leaders have abandoned Washington’s cautious foreign policy. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The greatest legacy of America’s founding generation, Joseph J. Ellis announces at the beginning of “American Dialogue,” is “argument itself.” Whether or not that assertion is true — Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both disliked arguments — the distinguished Ellis wrote this volume in a contentious mood.

Our troubled times have driven other leading writers of history, notably Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham, to scour the past for wisdom, or maybe consolation. Ellis is not concerned with quiet insights or reassurance. He means to mark out where we have strayed from, and how we have betrayed, America’s founding ideals.


The book poses an argument between past and present on four huge topics: race, economic inequality, the role of law and war. For each topic, Ellis highlights one of the founders. The treatments of each subject can be uneven; it’s very likely that different readers will find different sections uneven, depending on where they agree with Ellis. So be it, answers Ellis. Such is the nature of argument.

On race, Ellis offers a scalding examination of Jefferson, whom he calls “our most dedicated racist.” Though the description startles, Ellis backs it up with Jefferson’s words, then uses it to dissect the contradiction within the author of the bedrock American principle that all are created equal. That same contradiction infected America’s launch as a slavery-based republic. Indeed, Ellis offers the provocative idea that it prevented Jefferson from barring slavery in the Louisiana Territory, acquired in 1803, a move that Ellis suggests could have begun the slow strangulation of slavery.

The book offers less on current race relations, a topic that confounds most commentators, though its focus on a “biracial” America can feel dated in the midst of our multiracial reality.

On economic equality, Ellis turns to John Adams, who always enjoyed a quarrel, citing the New Englander’s view that in every society, a few people will accumulate wealth and use that wealth to claim power. Those insights are even better documented now than in the 18th century. Applying them to today, Ellis insists that America’s wealthy have relentlessly won reduced regulation, shrinking the middle class and stifling the national conversation about the role of government.

In discussing law, and spotlighting James Madison, Ellis is less surefooted, overstating judicial rulings he dislikes while pronouncing that the Supreme Court has become “the dominant branch of the federal government” on domestic policy.

The tone grows bitter, dismissing Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion on the Second Amendment as “a prolonged exercise in legalistic legerdemain, or perhaps a tortured display of verbal ingenuity by an overly assiduous Scrabble player.” This is argument uninterested in the other side, reminiscent of some of Scalia’s writings.

The final section, concerning foreign affairs and war, features George Washington’s failed efforts to preserve some Native American lands from white settlers, as well as the first president’s hardheaded mistrust of foreign nations and connections.

In contrast, Ellis sees a current political culture that slides easily into foreign conflicts, having abandoned Washington’s cautious, pragmatic policy. He notes that Congress no longer bothers to declare wars and that a volunteer military means that children of the wealthy need not fight them. Ellis’s powerful epigram captures why we now have so much war: “It is not declared, few have to fight, and no one has to pay.”

Or maybe you would argue the point. Ellis will oblige you.

American Dialogue
The Founders and Us

By Joseph J. Ellis

Knopf. 283 pp. $27.95