Joseph Ellis: 'The better angels' side with Obama

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Historian Joseph J. Ellis' latest book is "American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic."]

A lively debate has developed in these pages and in the blogosphere about the viability of Barack Obama's politics of hope. Critics of Obama's promise to bring us together -- blue states and red, young and old, women and men, blacks and whites -- have described his vision as a naive pipe dream that would be dead on arrival if he were elected president.

Central to the critique is the claim that Obama's message flies in the face of U.S. history, that partisanship is, as one critic put it, "the natural condition of politics." Zero-sum, "I'm right, you're wrong" battles are fundamental to the republic. From the beginning of our history, so the argument goes, an Obama-like message has been a rhetorical veneer designed to obscure the less-attractive reality of irreconcilable division and an inherently adversarial party system.

While you can certainly marshal evidence to support this interpretation, very few of the so-called founding fathers (save perhaps Aaron Burr) would agree with it. And the first four presidents -- George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison -- would regard it as a perversion of all that they wished the American republic to become.

The watchword for all the founders was not "the people" but "the public," which they understood to mean the collective interest of the citizenry, more enduring than the popular opinion of fleeting majorities. The great evil, they all agreed, was "faction," which meant narrow-minded interest groups that abandoned the public in favor of their own sectarian agendas, or played demagogue politics with issues in order to confuse the electorate.

Take, for example, two of the classic texts of the founding era. Here is how Madison begins Federalist No. 10: "Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control faction," which he goes on to describe as "this dangerous vice."

And here is how Washington put it in his Farewell Address: The spirit of party "agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection." Sound familiar?

Jefferson is somewhat tricky on this score, because he, along with Madison, did create the first political party, known initially as Republicans but -- this is tricky too -- soon to morph into Democrats. But Jefferson could never admit, even to himself, that he was a political partisan because it violated the core definition of republicanism (i.e. res publica, public things) and the central political legacy of the American founding.

In fact, Jefferson made two of the most eloquent statements against party politics. "If I must go to heaven in a party," he claimed, "I prefer not to go at all." And in his first inaugural address, he stunned his partisan supporters by observing that "we are all Federalists, we are all Republicans."

Indeed, all the prominent founders regarded the bipartisan ideal as the essence of political virtue. Adams carried the ideal to such a length that he regarded his defeat in the presidential election of 1800 as evidence that he had so eschewed partisanship that he never abandoned the public interest for his own political gain....
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More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 1/30/2008

Sick and tired of the continious references to the Founding Fathers "divine" views and statements...
A large part of the Founding Fathers
heritage along with approximately the same percentage of the US constitution is obsolete nowadays.
Most of American historians don't even "justify" the name of their profession by looking at the history from completely ahistorical (partisan or nationalistic) point of view.

E. Simon - 1/29/2008

The above question assumes that factionalism and strident attacks on other politicians are one and the same. There are other possibilities. In fact, Bill and Hillary's recent, underhanded attacks on Obama prove that party affiliation is no barrier to being "attacked". But imagine that in the era in question, these criticisms might have been made with a much clearer focus on the larger interests of the country and its nascent political system than on political gain. Just because people tend to confuse the two so often nowadays doesn't mean that they were always prone to doing so. And I think that's why Obama's candidacy is appreciated by so many.

Michael Green - 1/25/2008

Far be it for me to question Joseph Ellis on the subject of the Founding Fathers! But granting the point about political parties striking them as evil, if my memory of reading Richard Hofstadter's The Idea of a Party System and The Age of Federalism by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick is correct, the differences between the Jeffersonians and the Federalists suggest to me that they might well consider today's attack politics tame in comparison with what they and their supporters had to say about their opponents. I hope that Professor Ellis might comment on that in the future, as I think all of us would benefit from his analysis.