WHY: “A discerning, richly detailed inquiry into America’s complex political and philosophical legacy.
“A lucid and authoritative examination of America’s tumultuous beginnings, when the Founding Fathers grappled with issues of race, income inequality, law, and foreign policy — all issues that still vex the nation.
“Believing that history is ‘an ongoing conversation between past and present,’ the author asks what Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and Adams can teach us today. ‘What did “all men are created equal” mean then and now? Did the “pursuit of happiness” imply the right to some semblance of economic equality? Does it now?’
“These and other salient questions inform Ellis’ vivid depiction of the controversies swirling as the Constitution was drafted and ratified. The Founders were men of deep contradictions and evolving political views. As a young man, for example, Jefferson ‘insisted that the central principles of the American Revolution were inherently incompatible with slavery.’ The older Jefferson, who owned hundreds of slaves and fathered many children with his slave Sally Hemings, fervently believed that races should not mix. Slaves should be freed, he conceded, and then sent to the unpopulated West, Santo Domingo, or Liberia.
“As to equality, the Founders ‘were a self-conscious elite’ who did not value ‘the innate wisdom of the common man.’ John Adams’ ‘prognosis for the American future was a plutocratic aristocracy.’ Freedom to pursue wealth, he asserted, ‘essentially ensured the triumph of inequality.’
“Ellis places Washington’s famous warning against foreign entanglements in the context of westward expansion, Native American removal, and postwar negotiations. Most fascinating is the author’s cogent critique of constitutional originalists, intent on recovering ‘the mentality and language of the framers on their own terms in their own time.'” –KIRKUS, a starred review
“An incisive study…The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian probes the writings of four Revolutionary War leaders on issues of ideology and governance that still roil America.
“Ellis’s colorful, nuanced portraits of these outsized but very human personalities and shrewd analyses of their philospophies make for a compelling case for the troubled but vital legacy of the founding generation.” –PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, a starred review
“Ellis is provocative and interesting and reminds us that our present controversies are not unique or new.” –Jay Freeman, BOOKLIST
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FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE BOOK:
Self-evident truths are especially alluring because, by definition, no one needs to explain why they are true. The most famous example of this lovely paradox, which gave the term its name, is the second paragraph in the Declaration of Independence (i.e., “We hold these truths to be self-evident”), where Thomas Jefferson surreptitiously embedded the creedal statement of the American promise. The ironies abound, since Jefferson almost certainly did not know he was drafting the American Creed, and subsequent generations worshipped his words for reasons different than he intended. Moreover, his initial draft described the truths as “sacred and undeniable,” and it was probably Benjamin Franklin who suggested the change to “self-evident.” But in the end, such nettlesome details have proven powerless against the sweeping influence of Jefferson’s message, which defined the terms of the liberal tradition in American history.