With a voice and a record of great authority, Joseph J. Ellis (his Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation won the Pulitzer Prize and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson won the National Book Award) delves into the divisive issues of American history past and present:

"We inhabit a backlash moment in American history of uncertain duration. Our creedal convictions as Americans, all of which had their origin in the founding era, are bumping up against four unforeseen and unprecedented obstacles: the emergence of a truly multiracial society; the inherent inequalities of a globalized economy; the sclerotic blockages of an aging political architecture; and the impossible obligations facing any world power once the moral certainties provided by the Cold War vanished."

Ellis sets out to draw parallels between the issues faced by the founders and similar concerns in our own time. One interesting debate took place in a series of letters between Thomas Jefferson and James Adams during the last 14 years of their lives (1812 - 1826). (In a rather weird turn of fate, both these formidable leaders and philosophical adversaries died on the same day, July 4, 50 years after declaring America's independence.)

Jefferson believed that the country would evolve naturally into an egalitarian society while Adams saw on the horizon something on the order of a Gilded Age where the rich and the powerful oligarchs would do whatever they wanted. Our current age has dashed the dream of egalitarianism and put in its place an ever-expanding economic inequality.

Ellis has some hash words for Jefferson whom he calls "our most dedicated racist." In his discussions of James Madison and law and George Washington and foreign relations, he shows how many of the ideological clashes among the Founders fueled the fires of slavery. He writes:

"Slavery is the original sin of American history, and if it is made the ultimate test of leadership for the revolutionary generation, then the founders failed the test. This is not just a tragedy but America's defining tragedy."