Historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Ellis this week kicked off Maryville University’s 2011-2012 St. Louis Speaker Series. A graduate of The College of William and Mary and Yale University, Ellis has written nine books, eight of which focus on America’s founding fathers.
LN: What is it about the late 18th century and the founding fathers that interests you? What can we learn from this period of time?
JE: America is not founded on an idea—it’s founded on an argument. And when you consider the words that Thomas Jefferson uttered and what the language of the Constitution means, we can find out how the framework of the republic was created, allowing us to understand how to continue the argument now. We shouldn’t go back looking for heroes. I think we’re past that triumphal stage in terms of our history in the late 18th Century. Their faces are on Mount Rushmore, they’re on the National Mall, on the Tidal Basin, on our money. We should see them as great but as flawed figures. If they were perfect, what would we have to learn from them? John Adams is a classic example. He was a vain, ambitious, and often irritable guy who was one of the most candid of all. But he was certainly one the most intellectually impressive, as well, and his relationship with his beloved Abigail was very instructive. He forged an almost 60-year relationship with one woman, with their definition of love changing over time.
LN: And that’s the topic of your most recent book, First Family: Abigail and John Adams.
JE: It’s a book about the relationship between Abigail and John Adams, and it’s two stories bound in one. It’s a historical story: the history of their living the winning of independence, securing the republic, as well as the diplomatic stories, and the negotiations to end the war. But more important, it’s a love story lived across this significant and historical landscape. It’s a story about what it means to fall in love during the 18th century and the childrearing, aging and staying together over a lifetime.
LN: How did you become so passionate about our country’s history?
JE: I didn’t even major in history when I was in college—I majored in philosophy, with the thought of going to law school. I took some courses in early American history that sort of got me interested. Then I found that I could get fellowships to go to graduate school and study history. I also knew that I wanted to write in a way that was accessible to ordinary people, as well as to scholars. History gave me the opportunity to do that more than any of the other academic disciplines, and Yale had advisers that let me do it. So, I ambled into the profession, and here I am 40-some years later.
LN: Tell us about West Point.
JE: I taught at West Point for three years, and I wrote a book (in conjunction with another officer there named Robert Moore) called School for Soldiers: West Point and the Profession of Arms. It was an attempt to analyze the Academy at that moment, which was a throbbing moment because the war in Vietnam was just ending and lots of things were going on like cheating scandals. It was an attempt to talk about how difficult to be both Athens and Sparta at the same time.
LN: You’ve been a professor at Mount Holyoke College since 1972. What do you enjoy about it and what are some of the classes that you teach?
JE: I’m a believer in the liberal arts college, and I’d rather teach at a place that’s primarily focused on undergraduates rather than graduate students. Mount Holyoke students are very good students, and it’s an absolutely gorgeous campus that was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. The school allows me to teach a broad range of courses, and that’s a glorious kind of thing. I live in Amherst, and I love the area. And I teach mostly courses in American history—I teach a course on Jefferson and the Adams family based on my book. I teach a course called Back to the Future: The History of Prophecy and another titled Reading the American Revolution, which is a freshman writing course where they read the documents of the American Revolution and write about them.
LN: Do you have any connections to St. Louis?
JE: I have a surprisingly large number of friends and former students who live there, and once it was announced that I would be talking there, they all emailed me! So it’s a great way to get in contact with so many who I’ve lost touch with.