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Pulitzer Prize Winner: Joseph Ellis

April 18, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: The winner in history is Joseph Ellis, for his book, “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.” It’s a literary group portrait of seven revolutionary-era men: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. All were key figures in the American Revolution and the building of the new nation that followed. Joseph Ellis is professor of history at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. His 1997 book, “American Sphinx,” won the National Book Award. Welcome, Mr. Ellis, and congratulations; you must be elated.

JOSEPH ELLIS: Thank you very much, Margaret. They’ve got me lashed down in this chair so that I don’t levitate out.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, of course, traditional biographies usually focus on one figure. What inspired you to write this group portrait?

JOSEPH ELLIS: Well, when I wrote the Jefferson book I would go on a kind of book tour and speak to large audiences and they would often ask met question, you know, why was Jefferson greater, who was the greatest in the kind of Mohammed Ali question, who was the greatest – and I found myself answering them to say, it’s not any one of them that’s the greatest. If you had to pick one you would probably have to pick George Washington – he’s probably the most indispensable of the founders — but that it’s the collective achievement of the founding generation that really made it distinctive and so successful — that it’s the fact that there are a diverse group of personalities, ideologies, and temperaments that are colliding and colluding in the late 18th century and setting up a kind of version of checks and balances within the revolutionary generation. I mean, unlike France or Russia or China where a single person emerges as the leader, what we have got here is a real gallery of greats and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so distinctive.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, of course, the gallery was bigger how did you choose these particular seven?

JOSEPH ELLIS: It’s tough and you can argue with the set of choices that I made. But I had two criteria. You had to be present at the two moments of creation: The moment that America achieves its independence in 1776 or during the Revolutionary War or you had to be — and — excuse me — you had to be present when America defines or creates its nationhood in 1787 and into the 1790s when the first federal government comes into place. You had to be present at the two great creative moments and there are a lot of folks who were present at one — say Patrick Henry and Sam Adams were present at the first but not at the second. In some sense you had to be capable of a radical act and of a conservative act, you had to be able to risk this war against the most powerful nation in the world, Great Britain, and then secure the revolution with a consolidated federal government.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you called this — you say you consider this the greatest generation with apologies to Tom Brokaw, why?

JOSEPH ELLIS: Well I know that Mr. Brokaw is talking about the World War II generation, and that’s my father’s generation. I sometimes hope that someone would write a review – one can’t write one’s own reviews — and say if you liked “Saving Private Ryan” you’ll love “Founding Brothers” because I’m attempting to offer an equivalently realistic, unsentimental blood on the water — warts and all — depiction of this group of folk that in the end still leaves you or is intended to leave you feeling an enormous sense of admiration. I mean, I think that this is the greatest group of political talent in American history. It’s probably unfair to compare contemporary political leaders to them because they really weren’t present at the creation. As I think Ralph Waldo Emerson said this is the generation that saw God face-to-face. We can only see him secondhand. There is a real advantage to coming first.

MARGARET WARNER: You point out of course — and we know this — that they had really violent disagreements about what kind of nation they should create out of the revolution. What kept them working together to try to find something that would embrace all of contradictions rather as so many revolutions end in yet another bloody battle to let one faction triumph over the other; what kept them together?

JOSEPH ELLIS: You’re absolutely right; that’s the normal pattern. A revolutionary group comes together, wins the revolution and then ends up killing each other off and putting each other at the wall for execution. That’s not what happened in this revolution. Instead of killing each other, they end up arguing with each other. What they have in common, that’s important to understand for us, they didn’t have to go through any primaries; they didn’t have to run against each either for election in the kind of modern electoral system. They were themselves people who successfully took the right position in the American Revolution. They wagered their lives and fortunes and their sacred honor in a cause that at the time had very little prospects of success — beating the largest military and naval power in the world, Great Britain — and it was that common experience that really bonded them. Then after that the, divisions that occur within them and you’re absolutely right — these are really acrimonious debates that go on in the late 18th century; this is not a serene, kind of quiet, and a wonderfully just passive time. It’s very, very acrimonious. But what they do is they set up — they frame an argument. Jefferson said, excuse me — Lincoln said that the American Revolution was founded on a proposition and Jefferson wrote it. It was really founded on an argument about what the proposition meant and these men are engaged in that kind of argument and in some sense they framed argument and we’re still having the long term argument that they started.

MARGARET WARNER: You also point out their personal relationships had a lot to do why they could still work together.

JOSEPH ELLIS: Yes; they knew each other personally; they broke bread together; they had to sleep in the same bed together on several occasions; they knew each other in a way that was direct and personal and intimate, and on several occasions, it seems to me, and the most dramatic is the Jefferson-Adams relationship — they were able to forge alliances and to keep peace with each other despite huge political differences. I mean, Adams and Jefferson ran each other against for the presidency twice in 1796 and 1800, and at the end of their careers they write these letters to each other between 1812 and 1826 — probably the greatest political correspondence in American history — and they are still engaged in an argument about what they each think the American Revolution meant.

MARGARET WARNER: You also point out that they did agree to set aside the most divisive issue.

JOSEPH ELLIS: Yes; that’s slavery. I think that you can condemn them for that and I think that some people have and it’s a plausible position — namely that slavery is the great issue that they failed to resolve. Slavery is the one issue I think it’s fair to charge them with for not resolving. I don’t think it’s fair to accuse them of not being feminists or multiculturalists, but I think that slavery was an issue they all knew violated the essential principles of the American Revolution but it also was an issue so embedded in the character of American colonial society that to end it would put the nation itself at risk, and they in the end decided to take it off the agenda for fear of killing the union itself.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, very briefly, your book – you’ve not only won this prize, but your book has been on the New York Times best seller list since it came out and it still is. Do you have any theory why the book is appealing to readers of today?

JOSEPH ELLIS: Well, I think that it was lucky to come out at the same time of the election in November and the Florida imbroglio but also suggests there is an at appetite and hunger out there for serious history accessible to a larger audience and there’s also a recognition that whatever the quality of our current political leaders there was once a time when the elite political leaders of the United States were without question the most distinguished — among the most distinguished in world history.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thanks, Mr. Ellis, and again and congratulations.

JOSEPH ELLIS: Thank you so much.