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Ellis says current political system would shock founding fathers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 12, 2011 - Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author Joseph Ellis, who has specialized in chronicling the lives and times of the nation's founding fathers, says that they would be shocked and dismayed by the power of money and the combative atmosphere that permeates the nation's political process.

Ellis told students and history buffs gathered at Maryville University Tuesday afternoon that the nation's early leaders viewed active politicking as unseemly and conducted only by those who were unqualified. The hefty role of money in the process also would have concerned them, he said.

But what would have most upset them, Ellis added, is that "the public interest doesn't have a role" in driving the current direction of the United States.

Ellis is the lead-off speaker for this season's St. Louis Speakers Series, which is sponsored by the university and got underway Tuesday evening at Powell Hall.

Ellis has written eight prize-winning bestsellers about the nation's early leaders, including "His Excellency: George Washington," "American Sphinx" about Thomas Jefferson, and most recently, "American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies of the Founding of the Republic."

He offered a sampling of his expected evening comments during a question-answer session Tuesday afternoon in the university auditorium.

Ellis emphasized that some of the founding fathers -- notably James Madison, John Adams and Jefferson -- lived long enough to see unwanted political changes in the early 1800s, which eventually propelled populist Andrew Jackson to the White House in 1829.

For Madison and Jefferson, Ellis said, "Democracy is not what they intended, the elevation of the common man." Rather, they had envisioned a republic where the most gifted and qualified governed, he said.

Ellis said it's also remarkable that such a small group of men -- including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton -- came to prominence within a short span of time and from such a small colonial population.

Washington, Jefferson and Madison, for example, all hailed from Virginia, which Ellis said in the 1700s had a total population on par with present-day Wilkes-Barre, Pa. -- less than 42,000 people.

The rise of so many stellar figures at the same time, asserted Ellis, was prompted largely by the demands of the Revolutionary War.

Without the long quest for independence, he said, Franklin likely would have remained a book seller, Adams would have been "a country lawyer," and Washington would likely have ended up as an officer in the British Army (his quest for such a post was turned down by the British in the 1750s).

The biggest failing of the founding fathers, Ellis said, was not to confront and resolve the matter of slavery. They sought to avoid the issue out of fear that the Southern states -- notably Virginia -- wouldn't remain part of the original revolutionary effort and become one of the original 13 states. At the time, many of those Southern states were wealthier than most of their Northern counterparts.

Madison, arguably the most influential figure in Congress until he became president, successfully sought to prevent legislators from dealing with the issue.

Madison, Jefferson and Washington owned slaves. Washington freed his slaves in his will. 

Despite their flaws, Ellis said the founding fathers -- who had an age range of more than 40 years between the oldest (Franklin) and the youngest (Hamilton) -- reflected "the greatest generation of political creativity that we've ever seen."

With that observation as a backdrop, Ellis said that it is often the times that generate great leaders. The Civil War created Abraham Lincoln, he argued, while the Depression spawned Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But our current dire straits have yet to produce a similar stellar figure, he contended. For example, Ellis characterized the current crop of Republicans running for president as "a bunch of clowns."

But he also repeated an earlier observation -- that the present combative atmosphere may not be conducive to encouraging great leadership. Regarding a modern-day presidential bid, Ellis observed: "What sane human being would ever do that? Your whole life is destroyed."

Speaking broadly, the author said that many of the United States' current challenges -- economic and otherwise -- stem, in part, from a dilemma that has faced many great nations over the centuries: "It's hard to be Athens and Sparta at the same time."

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