Barack Obama, Historian Joseph J. Ellis and The Founding Fathers

Historian Joseph J. Ellis has recently published a piece in the Los Angeles Times (‘The better angels’ side with Obama, 19 January 2008) which seeks to defend Democratic candidate Barack Obama (Senator from Illinois) from critics of his message to independents and Republicans to unite behind his candidacy. According to Ellis, a very respected academic historian who teaches at Mount Holyoke and has published two very acclaimed popular works on the founding fathers (2000′s winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Founding Brothers, and 2007′s American Creation), Obama is not “a weird historical aberration.” The Senator’s message, which seems to fly in the face of modern two-party zero-sum politics, has “roots in our deepest political traditions,” says Ellis. Even more hyperbolic, Ellis claims that Obama’s appeal across party lines “is in accord with the most heartfelt and cherished version of our original intentions as a people and a nation.” Unfortunately, this argument is just a latest example of the pitfalls and problems one witnesses when good historians venture into modern political fights in which they, and this is certainly no sin, have a favorite to defend.

The only way this comparison, and Ellis singles out the first four presidents of the republic — George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison — between the founding fathers and Barack Obama makes any historical sense is if we drop the vital context of issues and ideas. Ellis is correct on the simple level of political hope, the founders dreaded the idea of factions (self-serving groups of people working against the public good) dividing and ruining the republic and thought the creation of political parties were the beginning of a dangerous slippery slope into a state of competing and destructive factions. However, this desire for unity did not — emphatically did not — prevent divisions and the rise of the first party system of Federalists (George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton et al.) and Republicans/Democratic-Republicans/Jeffersonians (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Albert Gallatin et al.).

Important in understanding this split is that both sides viewed it as a temporary expedient to defeat a dangerous combination of demagogues or monocrats depending on which side you were. Even more crucial is that this party divide centered on very real differences in ideas which could not be (easily) compromised. One side supported the French Revolution, the other opposed it, one side favored the creation of a federal financial system, the other opposed it, one side thought war with France likely in the late 1790s and passed legislation in anticipation of it, the other did not see war as likely at all and opposed preparatory measures. These differences were real and important, forgetting them may allow for nifty modern comparisons, but such comparisons are disanalogous in the extreme.

But beyond that, Ellis curiously quotes Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural to support his comparison. The obvious line he pulls out of context is Jefferson’s soothing words to the elections losers “we are all Federalists, we are all Republicans.” But one needs to know what Jefferson meant here to understand that line. He was not just saying that party distinctions did not matter. He was saying that most Republicans and Federalists actually had agreed on a specific vision of government that I am positive would not actually be “kosher” to any currently running presidential candidate, let alone Barack Obama. Quoting Jefferson’s First Inaugural: “Still one thing more, fellow citizen–a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, an this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.” In other words, to unify the country the government had to keep out of the affairs of the people (for the time period this was a clear attack on the Federalist Alien and Sedition Acts) and not drain the resources created and earned by the honest work of honest citizens. Is Obama advocating this vision of government to avoid dividing the people among “haves” and “have-nots”? To avoid creating a situation where some people hope to cash-in on the stolen wealth of others? To avoid creating a government which does anything but leave the people “free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement”? I think not.

So when people get eager or excited over candidates and want to defend them against charges of “novelty” by appealing to the authority of the ages, let alone America’s founding fathers, beware such comparisons as, at best, superficial and shallow. Ellis is a very able historian and a very gifted writer, but he’s not doing any service to the profession, the founding fathers, or even Obama but making simplistic and ultimately useless comparisons. If the ideas on politics that the founding fathers advocated, like individual rights, limited government, etc., were of any real importance to the American voting public, Obama’s candidacy would have much much much more to worry about than simply the naivete of his call for unity.