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Best-Selling Historian Joseph J. Ellis Explains What the Founding Fathers Got Wrong

3 minute read
Lucas Wittmann is an editorial director at TIME. He oversees the Ideas section. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award.

The best-selling historian on what the Founders got wrong, restoring faith in government and the case for national service

American Dialogue examines what George Washington, John Adams, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson might think about issues dividing the country today. Why did you address the present in this book?

I began work on this book two years before Donald Trump was elected President. But the forces that produced Trump, our deeply divided society unsure of its future and deeply distrustful of government, were already visible.

Do you feel like you have some answers now?

Historians are really great at predicting the past. But the future is for prophets, and the track record of most prophets is dismal. Globalization, the Internet, the sheer size of American society presents unprecedented problems. Until we recover some sense of the American dialogue–and we need to recover government as us rather than government as them–we’re going to be paralyzed in this second Gilded Age.

Will the “better angels of our nature” save us?

My view of history is that trusting in the better angels of our nature is a bad bet. The Founders didn’t believe in the better angels. They created a Constitution, which was designed to deal with imperfect human beings.

America has always had people who vehemently disagree. Are we that different now compared with in Jefferson’s time?

It’s a size problem. There’s a difference between 4 million people gathered on the Atlantic Coast and 325 million people across the nation. The single most important difference is that we are attempting to do something that nobody has ever done before: create a fully and genuinely multiracial society in a huge nation.

What is the biggest failing of the Founders that still haunts us today?

When the Founders talked about “we the people,” they were not talking about black people. They weren’t talking about women, and they weren’t talking about Native Americans. Whenever race enters the question, the Founders are going to end up disappointing you.

Can the constitutional system they created solve our problems?

The Founders would want us to recognize that it’s a living Constitution. So the originalists who want us to go back to the original meaning have it dead wrong. We have to make adaptations. The Electoral College has got to go.

In the early 1960s, nearly 80% of Americans said they trusted their government. By the mid-1970s, that number had dropped to around 20%, and it’s never completely recovered. What happened?

The Vietnam War, which undermined the credibility of the government for a whole generation of Americans. The second thing was the civil rights movement. That alienated whites in the Confederacy. The third thing was Roe v. Wade. That alienates all the evangelicals.

What will finally unite Americans?

A great crisis that leaves us no choice but to come together. When the coastal areas have to be evacuated, when the real implications of climate change begin to hit, we’re going to be forced to come together.

In their best moments, the Founders put the public good ahead of the whims of public opinion. Is there any way to recover that sense of virtue?

I would favor mandatory national service. Now, of course, that has no chance. But every American woman and man should serve the public for two years. It doesn’t mean military, but it means some form of service.

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