Salvo 05.14.2019

Joseph Ellis’ Founding Figments


Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis spent years trying to make the Founders relevant. Now, he’s trying to make them woke.

In a new essay, Ellis defends the Green New Deal (GND), the omnibus environmental legislation championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But Ellis doesn’t just offer his own support of the bill; he claims it’s “what the Founding Fathers wanted.”

He attempts to bolster this almost laughable assertion with a radical misreading of the Founders’ political theory unbecoming of even a popular historian.

Ellis begins by dismissing the widely-held notion that the GND is socialist. “Socialism,” he writes, “is a political theory based on the principle of government ownership of the means of production,” and claims the politicians behind the GND “are not proposing anything of that sort.” We’ll come back to that.

Instead, Ellis asserts that the GND is a “collective response to our common problems,” indicative of the very republicanism this country was built on, further noting that the word “republic” comes from the Latin “res publica,” which means “public things.”

In Ellis’ view, the Founders’ republicanism “located sovereignty in the people…so power flowed upward from below.” With the power vested in us, “We the people” set out to take care of the “public things.”

According to Ellis, “From the very beginning” of this country, there have been people who opposed this “We the people” republicanism, choosing instead to view politics as a battle of “us” versus “them.” In addition to opponents of the GND, Ellis lists the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South.

These groups not only have a “deep-seated reluctance to share resources” with marginalized groups like the poor, women, and minorities, but due to their various prejudices, they “fail to realize that pursuit of a collective good is the very essence of the Founding Fathers’ vision for America.”

That’s a lot to unpack.

Let’s start with Ellis’ definition of republicanism. Care of the “public things” is certainly central to republicanism. It’s also central to environmentalism, Communism, and various other ideologies. Besides a notion of the common good, republicanism is built on ideas about government – what Publius called the “science of politics.”

Ellis’ account completely excludes the most essential components of republican government. For instance, he glosses over the centrality of institutions to the Founders’ plan, seeming to imply that the GND is good simply because it has popular support and a sponsor in the House of Representatives.

But that’s not how our government is designed. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 63: “There are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion…or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.”

In other words, the Senate exists precisely to prevent policies like the GND from taking off.

But even if the GND did pass, it would be impossible to reconcile the legislation with the Founders’ vision. Successfully implementing this plan of monstrous scope (and waste) would require granting awesome power to unelected bureaucrats, steamrolling state governments with federal mandates, and curtailing individual liberty in ways that stand contrary to the founding generation’s constitutional understanding.

We may grant Ellis that the GND is not technically a socialist policy. But that doesn’t mean the Founders would look upon it as a paragon of republicanism. They’d have another word for it: tyranny. And we all know how they felt about tyranny.

Ultimately, Ellis is engaged in a kind of historical revisionism typical of progressives. They can’t square their own principles with the Founders, which leaves them with two options: they can either write them off as racists and relics, or bend them to suit their purposes.

For years, Ellis managed to play the part of neutral historian. But today’s cultural elites won’t abide neutrality, so poor Ellis, I suspect, feels constrained to choose. Simply writing off the Founders would be incompatible with his life’s work. Instead, Ellis has opted to force them into his liberal tableau. The result of these intellectual gymnastics is a historical revisionism as incoherent as it is absurd.

Nevertheless, Ellis’ follies help us recall an important lesson. Not even the most learned scholar can successfully twist the Founding to support ideas to which it is diametrically opposed. We must strive to understand the Founders as they understood themselves, and order our politics in accordance with the vision they espoused.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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