tv Learning from the Founding Fathers CSPAN August 28, 2021 10:00am-11:01am EDT
if you review his book for which he won the pulitzer prize, the founding brothers, or his most recent book which we are going to talk about today, the american dialogue:the founders and us which is a conversation about what would the founding fathers have thought about the actions going on today and the issues of today is that it is clear that what was so much a part of the founding of our country was political discussion, political dialogue, political debate, we were founded by a group of people, any one of whom would have taken us in a different direction than all of them together took us and so we are honored to have a conversation
today with joseph ellis talking about what does the pursuit of happiness mean? what does we the people mean? what did it mean then? what does it mean now and how do we look at race, economic inequality, jurisprudence and foreign policy with an eye to what might our founding fathers have said? i could give you joseph ellis's bio but wouldn't have time to hear his talk. let me give you a quick perspective. he won the pulitzer prize for the founding brothers, the revolutionary generation, the national book award for america speaks, biography of thomas jefferson. and his "in depth" chronicle of the life of our first president, his excellency, george washington, was a new
york times bestseller. what doctor ellis has been able to do his master the craft of history with all the documentation necessary but to present it as a story. it comes alive and captures our imagination. that is why we are so honored to have him with us today. one of the most interesting and exciting things about today's joseph ellis said he wants this to be a conversation with you, readers and listeners hopefully readers of his book but if you aren't now you will be at the end. why don't you tell us, why write a book, the american dialogue, the founders and us,
what were you trying to say to us as we come upon the independence day of our country? >> thank you for that gracious introduction. what i was trying to do is use the dialogue between adam and jefferson, correspondence between 1812-1826 as a model, a model we needed to have before us because in my judgment when i started writing this book in -- excuse me, 2015. i'm historian keeps going back to the eighteenth century. seems to me we have been for many years a deeply divided people and became more so over the years i was writing this book, 2016-2017 and we lost the
capacity to argue. the constitution isn't a collection of timeless truths but a framework in which we argue about those truths are. i came to the task believing that -- here's a couple things i believed. that the founding generation in the united states was the greatest collection of political talent that we ever had and have had since, the british historian and philosopher north whitehead said only two occasions in western history where the political elite of an emerging nation behaved as well as anyone could reasonably expect. one was rome under caesar augustus, the other was the united states under this group of people we call the founders. that is true.
the second thing i believe is the founders are not and should never be regarded as demigods. they were in perfect human beings. it seems nations need to create mythological heroes, rome has romulus and remus, britain has king arthur, but the heroes of america's founding are all real people and we need to put away childish things and think they were inspired by tongues of fire when they said in philadelphia for the constitutional convention were before that, the declaration of independence in 1776, not so. ralph waldo emerson coming
after the founders said they saw god face to face, we can only see him secondhand. nobody sees god face to face including the founding generation. i also assumed based on a lot of reading that when we talk about the founders we presume they are a single political ideological the collective and they are not. they are diverse. they thought differently. if left to his own jefferson might have carried us towards anarchy. left to his own hamilton towards some more autocratic form of government. we are familiar with the doctrine of balance of powers inside the constitution itself and i am saying there's an equivalent balance of power within the generations and that is the reason dialogue and
argument becomes important and crucial. it is that capacity that we have lost. third and final assumption, and i promise to hush up soon so we can go to the dialogue itself. the third assumption is troubling to a lot of people but i will share it with you. that the founders were brilliant and gifted but they were flawed. they succeeded triumphantly in many respects. they could imagine and successfully bring off a war against the dominant military power of the moment, great britain. how many wars did great britain lose from 1750-1950, one. they could imagination size republic that never existed before.
they could imagine the separation of church and state, the creation of a secular society. that had never happened before either and a principle that political scientists think is crucial, the doctrine of federalism meaning there is no single source of sovereignty in the american republic which everyone thought you have to have. those were great triumphs and in the midst of triumphs are two enormous tragedies. what is the failure to reach a just accommodation with native americans and the other is the failure to end slavery. in that sense the great achievements of the founding are built on two enormous
crimes. the founders could imagine all the things i mentioned earlier but they could not imagine a biracial society or multiracial society. they are part of a lost world in that regard. you need to recognize willingness to listen, not to make the mistake of an anthropologist to goes to samoa and told the dennis people child-rearing guidelines of doctor spock, not going to be able to do that. and yet in my view there's much to learn from them especially in our own divided times, founders went back to the greek and roman classics.
in washington. madison, those are the big names. the book i wrote tries to identify issues on which they share wisdom that might help us. when his race. major figure is going to be jefferson who speaks to both sides of the racial divide, income inequality, they invented the middle-class society in the 1930s.
anything under the sun, a crystal ball for the world. a society where wealth was distributed from the middle out. we no longer are a middle-class society. it is a second yielded age we are living in where wealth is unevenly distributed. the third areas the law. here i am talking primarily about the failure of government to do all that it should do, or to be harnessed in ways that it should be harnessed. i bring a discussion of the doctrine of originalism and have some things to say about the tradition of the weight has been used. foreign policies, washington is my lodestar here, the farewell address that have meanings now it didn't have through most of its history.
those are the four areas i focus on. when i started writing the book, and another area that i knew we should learn about his climate change. i thought i could use franklin, who was a scientist, the leading american scientist of the day, the equivalent of a nobel prize winning scientist, to talk about climate change, we are failing to address the x essential threat to our society and to the world. i found i couldn't do it in a way that was historically responsible much as i want to do. i dropped it after trying to make it work. the book i have written has been out there for a while and the reactions to it are divided but when this conversation that
we can continue the dialogue i tried to start, argument itself is healthy. john adams thought argument was the highest form of conversation and i would like to have us try to re-create that dialogue in the time that remains to us on this zoom session right now so back to you. >> there we go. you have given us a lot to think about. before we get into questions from the panel, from our distinguished listeners, there is one thing we were talking about as we were getting ready and that is the painting that we all see at the capitol. we are coming up on the fourth of july and people go that is
end the supreme court rules, you go along with the supreme court. >> host: a listener said he has not been previously aware of your work and is looking forward to it and the question is this. there were two failures at the country's founding, not acknowledging ththe rights of e native people and not abolishing slavery. you have been writing fo50 years about the founding of this countryry.
as what point did you come to that conclusion that there were those critical elements? was that something early on? how did you come to that and how do you think history teachers should share that information today? >> guest: if you are teaching grade school, high school, college is different, anyway, it came to me early on as a teacher. if you teach this material one of the reactions from students is wait a minute. if in fact these men endorsed slavery and refused to provide justice for the native americans, why should i read anything about them? why should i take them seriously? that is a moral failure. once that is noticed or
acknowledged that all else, and one of my tasks as a teacher was to say there's a path that exists before you were born. is an obligation to unundersta as best in its own terms. trying to have a discussion about the founders and not calling them the whitest males in american history was a challenge. as a teacher i had to take on. they were politically talented people and in effect they created the liberal state that has come to dominate the world or until recently dominated the world, they are responsible for overthrowing the monarchies of
the nineteenth century and saving western civilization from the autocracy of stalin, hitler and mussolini in the twentieth century but get ready for iron he can time to grow up, face facts, good and evil can coexist. thing i found interesting, most of them agree because as they understood it, they were incompatible with slavery. they knew they were living a lie. washington put it eloquently, let me see if i can read it here. it was the most unavoidable failure of his whole life that
the kind of argument you get for slavery in the nineteenth century from southern defenders of slavery you don't get from the founding generation. a lot of them thought slavery was going to die a natural death. jefferson himself believed slavery was incompatible with the modern world. this was a basic enlightenment and you don't have to do anything, it's going to happen naturally because slave labor is incompatible with freedom and free labor. it doesn't work that way. in the end jefferson is going to let you down because jefferson believed african-americans were inherently inferior. if you want to look through the prism of race jefferson is not going to look very good. if you look through the prism of freedom of speech, religious
toleration, belief in the ordinary human mind he will look very good indeed but you have to develop an affinity for paradox and irony and that is something that comes later in life. >> host: one of our listeners wants to know was there any way the founders could have adopted the slavery issue given the timemes? >> guest: she's asking the question i keep asking myself every day. the succinct summary of where i am, those who share the concern. these are two tragedies, the failure to resolve the native american question with justice and failure to end slavery. in one sense american history is morally resolved but on the
other hand, where they greek tragedies or shakespearean tragedies. greek -- the will of the gods, it is embedded, unavoidable, no amount of leadership could have changed it or is it a shakespearean tragedy. my judgment, each person needs to think of him or herself. i think the native american dilemma is a greek tragedy. it was driven by the desire of ordinary white americans to get their land and pursue their happiness and even by disease, mostly smallpox and fatality rates of native american tribes, don't see how it could
have gone the other way. slavery could have gone the other way. in the 90s things have gone, if opportunities had been taken. virginia is the key state, virginia, what is now west virginia and kentucky, the largest state with a larger number of founders. if it had gone the other way, the tension about facing slavery and forcing the issue and in the process risking -- because that was the issue.
if you raise this question, south carolina, georgia, north carolina into maybe virginia are going to leave the union and at that early stage that would have been fatal to the american republic as we know it. nevertheheless, that is the bo i want to write next by the way. why they failed. and help us understand that. >> host: will you answer the question do you believe the 13 colonies would have approved the constitution, you asserted several would not. >> by 1787 the colonies had become states. and the constitutional convention the representatives from south carolina, georgia goes along with them. virginia is questionable.
south carolina pinckney and others, rutledge, basically say if you do not assure us that our form of labor, slavery is never mentioned in the constitution. it is not kosher to do that but they say if you don't give us what you're asking for, some protection of our labor source we are going to leave and i don't think they were bluffing. then play the tape and see what happens if they decided to present them with that issue. .. the word slavery was never mentioned in the constitution, it isot kosher to do that.
they say if you don't give us what you are giving us, but we are asking for some protection of our labor source, we are going to leave you. and i don't think they were bluffing. and then you have to play the tape and you say what would happen if they had decided to present with that issue. i think franklin wanted to make a proposal. and he was persuaded not to do it because it was considered it to politically risky. in the proposal was to say, for the time being, we recognize that the states in t deep south who were dependent upon slave labor, and they were, georgia and south carolina especially, 60 percent of the population of south carolina work african-american, 60 percent. we will temporarily recognize your right as long as you recognize that in principle,
slavery is incompatible with the values of the market revolution in overtime, really great needs to go away. and for now, we will end the slave trade at the principal itself needs to establish it and he was persuaded not to do that pretty and is brought up in the first congress and have big debate about this but the original question, what would happen and i think that south carolina and georgia and maybe virginia would have decided not to join the union that was created in 1797. >> let's turn to two related questions and ty really are about the fact that to reach a consensus the promised the declaration of independence, there was a significant compromise between the founding vetted brothers when many things in which they disagreed that
they compromised to create the nation. how do you see that kind of deliberation, compromise, what is happened to it today and what can be done to bring honor to compromise and collaboration. jose: we are putting together the two things that are different here, one of 1776, when they come together to declare their independence and the other in 1787, where they come together to declare their nation and the first sentence of the most famous beach and a mark in history by abraham lincoln, as historically incorrect. four score and seven years ago, and 76 our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, no they didn't. they brought for the confederation of sovereign
states provisionally united to win the war against great britain and then go their separate ways. which is what they did in the articles of confederation, the form of government which is not much of a government at all is really kind of a lead of nation sovereignty resides in the states. in fact, the founders, not all of them believed that if you create a federal government that has power over the state, you will replicating that tyrannical power of the existence that exercised and therere repudiation in the revolution read others, washington included, hamilton included, believed that nation was implicit in the american revolution than we did not become a nation, we would eventually fall apart. so you have this big argument at the gate of the revolutionary and early work in the constitutional convention, the
issusue raised is really salien, that is to what extent is the compromise reached to assure the union and thereby permit slavery to exist in the deep south especially into what extent is it a covenant with death and that is what later abolitionists oakland and some historians still call it. it is a covenant with death. the problem is becoming compromise, are you a union that will exist at all. an answer that is probably not. i think there is no comparable choice as we face is nation now that's morally - is that. in that compromise as a principal, can be an
extraordinarily helpful and absolutely essential factor as we scene doubtlessly on the infrastructure bill, and on the other hand if it is a comprprome based on a principle that leads to something truly tyrannical, or morally reprehensible that i was in the denial of the book to black citizens is morally reprehensible. then it is not acceptable. this what we need to argue about. jane: let us take an argument in a slightly different direction where you talk about the issue of law and the doctrine of original listen. can you explain what the argument is between the founders and out of that effect today.
we have quite a conversation about the supreme court reaching under preaching. all of play. joseph: the doctor coverage alone of the originals and trays the founders as a special group of people and in its purest form it seems that the doctrine argues that all these decisions in federal court decisions should be made based on what were they originally said was rebuilt intent of the framers in the founders later said the original meaning of the words of the founders used in 1787 and ratification process in 1788. so this is a doctrine that is originally developed by the university of chicago and then
why a la. and then the basis of the federalist society which is a formal and informal organizational lawyers who share originalist convictions and all of them republican nominee since 1985 have been members of the society and in fact that is become the federal society's nominees i think there are a couple of problems here. the founders did not all great if you say the original ones which ones are you talking about. medicine will not agree which madison the same thing is that he says in 1786 and 87 he does not say in 1796 and 97 and he is different pretty and are you assuming there is five and they will say no to that. and if you want to argue about
what the original intent of a particular period piece of legislation is, you are claiming to be historic's. very few lawyers while they tend to argue on the one hand or on the other hand basis because of their training in the legal system that we developed. your prosecutor or you are a dense attorney. you shape the evidence according to your client and if your client and you suppress the evidence as much as possible and as a historian you cannot do that. therefore, it seems to be the originalist decision that i find most questionable and this will upset many of our listeners, is dc versus heller 2008, is the decision on the second amendment.
in the decision to justice scalia who is himself a lifetime member of a rifle association of five - four decision essentially argues the second amendment provides right to carry a weapon and that right is almost as open-ended as the right of free speech. and that's not what the second amendment saidd and that's not what madison thought he was doing, that's on the congress thought it was doing it when they endorsed it is not with it states that they were doing when they ratified and the term bear arms, does not mean carry a weapon, means carry a weapon in a military unit serving in the army or militia. in the second amendment was written by madison in april in 1789, specific purpose.
it was designed to assure the states that to recently ratify the constitution but it did so with recommended amendments, they wanted certain changes made. six of the statesere worried about what they called the standing army, a national defense would be in the hands of the standing army. in the second was designed to assure them that would not happen that national defense would be in the hands of militia, state -based militia and that is what they thought they were doing. the militia act of 1792, which implements the second amendment, essentially required that all able-bodied white males between the ages of 18 and 49, must purchase a musket and an outfit and the original meaning of the second amendment is not the jew of a right to bear arms, but you have an obligation to serve. so as many has been twisted. and as we experience massacres
and people purchasing arf teens, i'm sure madison is rolling over in his grave. that is language has been twisted into an aa at 15 and we have over 300 million weapons in the united states where they are guns and rifles, we have the highest homicide rate in the world. in my judgment, the supreme court, will i think that if you remember the national rifle association, and are a bright d if you believe this report decision, you have rights and you don't really have second amendment rights pretty. jane: so the question that our listeners are saying, is it regionalism complicates things.
surely the founders could not have envisioned guns that can fire 900 rounds per minute. c1 that's right. jane:the muskets then would fire about every few seconds. joseph: all of the founders commented on this issue said the same thing, for god sake, don't freeze the constitution based on our opinions. none of the founders believed in originalist greed jefferson said, the constitution it should evolve and standing in it its interpretation he said if you go back or try to go back to us would be as if i try to put on the same coat that i wore as a child. so the irony is the founders themselv with the stock and it unacceptable and they would be
surprised. think about this, and great britain let's say, nobody says, what did william pitt think of that. or edmund burke think that meant. in part that is because great britain does not have a written constitution. they state where find british constitution, it does not exist. but my point here is the drop in the doctrine of all judges are running in deciding from a point of view of the present and we can't help but to be that. that is where we are living and we carried those convictions with us pretty if you really want to recover them mentality of ordinary americans and some teens seven in 1778, they believe the indians should be removed and bus were inferior and it women should not get to vote. they believed that you have property to have about.
a lot of things that nobody believes that now i would think. the living constitution, that is what you have to do, the meaning of those words has expanded in time. and that we have to recognize that and try to adjust the meaning of those words to our own 31st century c conditions andhat is a tricky thing. but don't claim to be something storically correct when in fact you are doing something more with your own political principles i would say that about the left or the right. jane: what you think, with the constitution being different and jefferson and adams if they had been there. see what they want adams was in
london and jefferson was in paris. and adams was upset and not being there so he spends time writing three volume defense of the constitution of uninited states using his knowledge o of the state constitution is what he think would be a model. and i think that adams later on becomes a strong advocate of executive power and i think that he would've wanted the president seat to be more empowered and if you actually read article two of the concert patients, hard to know what a president can do in the actual hours the president is more shaped by washington's administration than the language of the constitution. in jefferson much trickier subject because the people that oppose the conitution, t the so-called anti- federalist, especially patrick henry in virginia said that if jefferson was here, he would be with us. he would oppose this and madison
it was jefferson's closest friend said no no no, he is my man and i know him and he would've endorsed it. while he did not quite say that. and jefferson was more interested in the bill of rights that he was the constitution itself. i think over time, it's clear that jefferson did not believe that the constitution created their should've created the nation and jefferson went to his grave believing we were still confederation with the power ultimately resided in the states in the domestic policies and the special province of the states, and in terms of the federal government, the federal government was a foreign government and he did believe that. so if he had been present, think he would've kept his mouth shut. over time, jefferson's views
were comparable with the values of the confederacy and adams views were comparable with values of the union. jane: so now we have a couple of questions that we can put together and we are running out of time a we obviously could do this for a day. many historians see themselves in the minds and the times in the study and they're trying to do. how do you get into the mind of the founding brothers and who are the historians that you look at, did you watch hamilton and find that inspiring rated or not inspiring rated give us a sense of how d do you get to where you are going. it. joseph: justin hamilton, i think hamilton was a genius and i'm inspired by him and i would've never imagined that he would been a hero in a broadway play i thought it would been somebody like j jefferson read like moran
is a genius and i am jealous as backup ron because he has been a beneficiary of that. i think that hamilton is wonderful because hamilton is like the harry potter series for kandiss and young people and readers. they have learned more about the 18th century from hamilton and anything else. to answer your question, my daily schedule is to get up in the morning give a copy sit down and read. and try to bring myself back not just as a person by the resident of a foreign country and the founders created a body of information that is almost endless. think about it, why did they do that.
because they knew they were imported and they knew the creation and they knew where they were sure about the hereafter. they were not sure there was a heaven orr effect. but the only way for them to look forever was in her memory read and writings to us and the two posterity. and i have spent my 35ears spinning three or four hours a day and my dogs don't bark at me and drive me away trying to live in that world. and then when i come out of it, i've try bring as much knowledge with me to the citizen alive in the 31st century as well so as a teacher, i think what i conveyed was the recognition until you are prepared to understand the past and this moment in the past when on its own terms, you can't make
judgments. you have to learn how to think differently. and so like you don't go to london and criticized the british are speaking with a foreign accent you learn. and historians are doing epic hepatology through time. and the ability to think in terms in a different cultures likeearning to speak a different language is a very good thing to have experience especially in our own times. jane: i'm going to givive you to questions that are not quite related but you can figure out how to put them together. the founding fathers you assert were dealing with revolutionary ideas for their times, the middle class, elected officials, democracy.
what are the revolutionary issues of our time that we ought to be debating and how to class or their understanding of the revolutionary nature of their work cross when they chose the term, we the people, as opposed we the states. joseph: that is a great question let me grab that one, it is kind of thing that that we should all be arguing abobout every day red the term we the people was written by a gouverneur morris nobody knows who he was he was represented from pennsylvania even though he lived in new york. he was a peg leg and famouous fr his wet and is unfortunate interest in other people's lives. there was a committee on the drafting in the constitution and every state was representative, rhode island was on there
because it was boycotted so 12 states that they have pointeded medicine and hamilton to redo point gouverneur mars to rewrite the document and here's h the document read before he rewrote it. we the people of the state of new hampshire, massachusetts, connecticut, rhode island, and then down the atlantic coast,e the people of those states. he changed it. it is the single most important editorial change in american history. just as we the people of the united states and that is a whole issue a debate throughout the convention between the nationalist and the confederations. what we should think of ourselves as citizens of the united states or particular states. raymond counties within the states.
so right now, one of the legacies of the founder is an ongoing argument about whether government is us or government is them. that is an ongoing argument in the central argument he bequeathed us and it i is still with us. ronald reagan used to say, and reagan was crucial in altering the american narrative from the new deal to republican conservative point of view. namely that if someone from the federal government came to you and said, how can i help you start to run away. well supposedly comes to vaccine to give you an inoculation are pposedly comes with $4000 to help you get through the pandemic. what we are facing the biden administration and the disagreements within the
republican senate, is a disagreement about whether the government is us or them and we are also facing a challenge to what we perceive to be an assured goal, a common goal is a biracial society. the founders cannot do it but by the middle of the 20th century, the united states committed itself to becoming a a biracial now multiracial society. we now know after the truck presidency that a much larger percentage of the white population does not want that to happen. regards martin luther king's dream as a nightmare and there are more of them than we realize. and that is what is going on in the various states that are attempting this now. those are the legacies of the
founding that we still need to argue about. and my prejudices are cleared i'm on the side of us and i am on the side of martin luther and king. jane: i have sorted this out so that are very last question goes or comes from our distinguished board member, ron brady and i think he gives us a question that really frames where do we go from here. most of us have presumed for all of our lives and most of our lives that the union as we know it, will continue inhis present form. but t that seems less certain nw than at any time in living memory, can you imagine a future where the current arrangement were to break apart. and what would that mean read.
joseph: the union if you capitalize union, the only time we wou be face to these challenges as t they are threatening to be at they are now is the civil war. and historians are great at prophesying the past. but there no better than anybody else in the fute, were really almost messy and i can tell you it's going to happen the civil war and i can tell you who will win the debate in the constitutional convention and who will win the market revolution but i can't tell you how the senate is going to behave on the infrastructure issue or whether the group of people who invaded the capitol are going to be declared insurrectionist or not, i think they are but - i think the historians look at patterns. in the pattern that i am trying
to read into the president is that we come together in crises. we are going through a political crises now. but i think the crisis that is going to hit us, has already it hahas and is going to force them to some extent the nations of the world to come together. in a way they never have before read is the threat to the existence of the planet. and i think the climate change, global warming, is going to force that. and i think that most of my descendents and maybe yours is going to look back 50 years from now on the coasts are flooded in new york is evacuated in new orleans is underwater in miami is underwater in the middle west is dry. therefore to say, what were they
doing in the beginning of the 31st century. two of first this or make it happen. and to detect action earlier in the same way that we look back at the patterson say what were they doing. when they let the svery stay in place read it will look just as impossible to them that we were delinquent as the founders now look to us with regard to slavery. that is an encouraging note in the sense that we are going to come together because were not going to have any other choice. jane: 12 doctor joseph ellis, your fascinating so the final question is mine. we come back and talk about your next book when it comes out #. joseph: i would love to know really enjoyed this conversation and i hope i didn't absent too many people and i hope that created a framework that looks where people can come together and continue the dialogue.
jane: we will continue for sure this is exactly the kind of dialogue that the united states capitol historical society is dedicated to and when we were created, and next year will be our 60th year. the authorizing legislation charged us with creating an inspired patriotism. an informed patriotism and you have given us information to inspire that debate and to inform us as we move forward because as we celebrate the fourth of july, whether it was really the fourth of the 28th, or august 2nd, the fourth is designated birthday where we the values of this country. and we thank you very much for your time. c1 everybody in the fourth, just read the following words to each other, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and that they are
endowed by their creator certainly a la nibble rights life liberty and the pursuit of happyness. that is what we share together. >> explorer nations pass with american history tv and you can watch lecture and college classrooms and archival film, history botox in our series on the presidency all of our programs are available on the website, cspan.org/history where you can also find our schede of upcoming prorograms. weekend is on "c-span2" are an intellectual feast, every saturday, american history tv documents america's story. and on sundays, booktv brings you the latest in nonfiction books and authors read funding for "c-span2" comes from these television companies and more. including, cast. start of a thousand commu