This past summer I read Joseph Ellis’s American Dialogue, and I was pretty taken by his clarity of thinking, how well and fluidly he knew his material, how widely read he was, and by his ability to both present the information clearly for the reader and to make it interesting. I was also very taken by his refusal to treat his subjects as either hagiography or polemic. I had been suspect because he’s written so much about the constitutional general, and because so much of that writing is deeply flawed and avoids serious criticism.
This book follows in that same vein and when he tells the specific stories about these figures, he does so with both a seriousness and a sense of complexity. The book is structured as a series of stories that act as emblems of certain kinds of debates happening at various moments in the early days of the United States. He discusses not only the details of the Hamilton-Burr duel, spelling out what we know for sure, why we know it, what competing narratives there are and what makes them unlikely/likely based on specific pieces of evidence and what we need to add to that evidence to turn it into a hypothesis. But he also tells this story as a way to shape the debate between federalism and republicanism. His discussion of the congress’s refusal to debate slavery in serious terms both illustrates the moral failing of this decision, but also why it was made when it was made. And the rest of the stories here continue of that path.
Something this book is clearly interested in, is how do we account for the present we have while fully understand the complicated political reality that shaped it. But also, how to avoid a kind of teleological conceitedness about the inevitability of the present we live in by assuming that the choices made were always going to be made or were made without thought. This book is also a reminder, for both good and bad ends, that the political debates that shape our present reality are often new versions of the same debates we’ve always been having. There’s a part in the slavery debate that does happen early on where Ellis basically says that one short speech in 1790 basically laid out every pro-slavery argument point for the next 70 years. Which is at least a little depressing.