I am really excited about Joseph Ellis’ newest book, American Dialogue.
Like his previous histories, “American Dialogue” follows particular founders into (and not always out of) hard-fought and consequential disputes. But in one key respect this book is a departure: Ellis’s subject is not only the founding era, but also our own, and the “ongoing conversation between past and present.” In chapters labeled “then,” Ellis considers Jefferson’s contemptible views on race, Adams’s premonitions about the rise of an American aristocracy and the emergence of a grossly unequal society, Madison’s belief in the Constitution as a “living document” and Washington’s brand of foreign policy realism. In chapters labeled “now,” he listens for echoes of these ideas in 21st-century America. This, it turns out, is a dispiriting exercise: Mostly what Ellis hears is noise. Our civic dialogue has broken down, Ellis observes, and our “divided America,” contentious in all the wrong ways, is “currently incapable of sustained argument” on any subject — the kind of argument that goes somewhere other than round and round, the kind that yields understanding and possibly, over time, solutions.