Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 36

WORTH READING

OUR FOUNDERS

THROUGH TODAY'S PRISM
Review by Ronald Goldfarb

I

n American Dialogue: The Founders and Us, his 12th
book on American constitutional history, professor
Joseph J. Ellis examines the views of four Founding
Fathers to explore as many current themes: Thomas
Jefferson on racism, John Adams on economic
opportunity, James Madison on constitutional law,
and George Washington on foreign policy. Ellis'
writing is accessible and authoritative. He adds a
modern perspective to his analysis of these historic
characters and themes as evidence that history is
"an ongoing conversation between past and
present from which we all have much to learn."
Ellis demonstrates that our history is relevant to
our essential national principles: "all men are created
equal," "pursuit of happiness," "We the people," and
"an exceptional nation."
Ellis begins with Thomas Jefferson and America's
"twin dilemmas of slavery and racism." As modern
literature has shown, our eloquent founder was "our
greatest Saint and greatest sinner . . . [an] apostle
of freedom . . . our most dedicated racist." Jefferson
was inconsistent in his writings and practices. He and
his wife owned hundreds of slaves. One bore him
children. He even segregated field slaves and house
workers. Jefferson lived a life incompatible with his
words "all men are created equal." He sought to block
the expansion of slavery and feared racial "amalgamation" while living a life that was a "veritable laboratory
of racial mixing he purportedly dreaded."

"History is always
unfinished . . .
History is what
we choose to
remember."

Ellis distills this literature and asks how our impression of Jefferson as a visionary is not "shattered
beyond recognition." Do we tear down his
gorgeous memorial in Washington? Take a sledgehammer to his Mount Rushmore visage? Ellis
suggests that Jefferson be remembered as the personification of our centuries-long struggle for racial
equality. Like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum,
Jefferson's memorial should be modified as a
teaching vehicle in the ongoing battles against
racism, our Constitution's original sin.
Ellis' chapter on John Adams makes clear how politicians then, in stark contrast to most of their counterparts now, were learned intellectuals focused on
history, debating the social issues of mankind.

Book cover, courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf

36 WASHINGTON LAWYER

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MARCH 2019

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Adams corresponded exhaustively with the
Founding Fathers - 158 letters with Jefferson,
more with Washington. Adams was a contrarian,
a realist to Jefferson's idealist. Adams viewed
inequality as "the natural condition of mankind,"
and our then merchant class and planter society
best proved his argument. Adams presciently envisioned that "wealth would become the distinguishing characteristic of the American aristocracy,"
and its political institutions would "serve its own
interests and agenda." Ellis concludes that the rising
tide has lifted only yachts, as modern tax and regulatory policies to date have demonstrated.
James Madison, our chief constitutional scholar,
engineered the Bill of Rights, the codicil and
epilogue of the Constitution. Outlined in the Virginia
Plan, his theories became the foundation of our
entire system: a federal government that replaced
the confederation of early states, an elected bicameral legislature (representation by population in
the House and by state in the Senate), and our
appointed - for life - judiciary. Ellis calls it "the
most consequential political deliberation in
American history."
George Washington was our architect of foreign
affairs, Ellis concludes. His history of our treatment
of Native Americans as we expanded westward is
another example of the cruel steps the country took
for the "good" of our nation. As Washington confessed, the country walked on untrodden ground
and with only historic precedents.
Being reminded of these men and their wisdom
and flaws is a contribution that resonates today.
Ellis' story of the living nature of the Constitution
obliterates the current arguments about originalism
(Plessy and Brown being examples). Ellis' position is
that "equality is the exception, not the rule," and that
public interest is "beyond the reach of markets and
majorities of the moment." We still endure the
effects of slavery and Native American genocide.
Ellis' book explains how that happened.
Ronald Goldfarb is a lawyer, author, and literary
agent in Washington, D.C. Read more of his work
at ronaldgoldfarb.com.


http://www.ronaldgoldfarb.com http://www.dcbar.org/

Washington Lawyer - March 2019

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Washington Lawyer - March 2019

Digital Extras
Your Voice
From Our President
Practice Management
Calendar of Events
Government & Gavel
The Women's Wave & Its Effects on Politics
Features: #Me Too & A Time Of Reckoning for the Law
Feature: Righting The Gender Imbalance In Big Law
Feature: A Day in The Life of Two Women Lawyers
Global & Domestic Outlook
Worth Reading
Media Bytes
Attorney Briefs
Ask The Ethics Experts
Disciplinary Summaries
The Pro Bono Efect
Community & Connections
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Cover1
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Cover2
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 1
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 2
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 3
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Digital Extras
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Your Voice
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - From Our President
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 7
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Practice Management
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 9
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Calendar of Events
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 11
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Government & Gavel
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 13
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - The Women's Wave & Its Effects on Politics
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 15
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 16
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 17
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Features: #Me Too & A Time Of Reckoning for the Law
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 19
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 20
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 21
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Feature: Righting The Gender Imbalance In Big Law
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 23
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 24
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 25
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Feature: A Day in The Life of Two Women Lawyers
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 27
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Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Global & Domestic Outlook
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 35
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Worth Reading
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Media Bytes
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Attorney Briefs
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Ask The Ethics Experts
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Disciplinary Summaries
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 41
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Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - The Pro Bono Efect
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - 45
Washington Lawyer - March 2019 - Community & Connections
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