‘The better angels’ side with Obama

A lively debate has developed in these pages and in the blogosphere about the viability of Barack Obama’s politics of hope. Critics of Obama’s promise to bring us together -- blue states and red, young and old, women and men, blacks and whites -- have described his vision as a naive pipe dream that would be dead on arrival if he were elected president.

Central to the critique is the claim that Obama’s message flies in the face of U.S. history, that partisanship is, as one critic put it, “the natural condition of politics.” Zero-sum, “I’m right, you’re wrong” battles are fundamental to the republic. From the beginning of our history, so the argument goes, an Obama-like message has been a rhetorical veneer designed to obscure the less-attractive reality of irreconcilable division and an inherently adversarial party system.

While you can certainly marshal evidence to support this interpretation, very few of the so-called founding fathers (save perhaps Aaron Burr) would agree with it. And the first four presidents -- George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison -- would regard it as a perversion of all that they wished the American republic to become.

The watchword for all the founders was not “the people” but “the public,” which they understood to mean the collective interest of the citizenry, more enduring than the popular opinion of fleeting majorities. The great evil, they all agreed, was “faction,” which meant narrow-minded interest groups that abandoned the public in favor of their own sectarian agendas, or played demagogue politics with issues in order to confuse the electorate.

Take, for example, two of the classic texts of the founding era. Here is how Madison begins Federalist No. 10: “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control faction,” which he goes on to describe as “this dangerous vice.”

And here is how Washington put it in his Farewell Address: The spirit of party “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” Sound familiar?

Jefferson is somewhat tricky on this score, because he, along with Madison, did create the first political party, known initially as Republicans but -- this is tricky too -- soon to morph into Democrats. But Jefferson could never admit, even to himself, that he was a political partisan because it violated the core definition of republicanism (i.e. res publica, public things) and the central political legacy of the American founding.

In fact, Jefferson made two of the most eloquent statements against party politics. “If I must go to heaven in a party,” he claimed, “I prefer not to go at all.” And in his first inaugural address, he stunned his partisan supporters by observing that “we are all Federalists, we are all Republicans.”

Indeed, all the prominent founders regarded the bipartisan ideal as the essence of political virtue. Adams carried the ideal to such a length that he regarded his defeat in the presidential election of 1800 as evidence that he had so eschewed partisanship that he never abandoned the public interest for his own political gain.

There are several passages in Obama’s memoir, “The Audacity of Hope,” that suggest a familiarity with the founders’ legacy. He recalls teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago and always going back to “the founding documents -- the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers and the Constitution,” which provide “the record of the founders’ intentions” and “the core ideals that motivated their work.”

Still, his stump speeches tend to cite Abraham Lincoln as his favorite political visionary. But then, Lincoln traced the source of his own inspiration back to the founders, who “four score and seven years ago” had called on Americans to embrace “the better angels of our nature.”

Let the argument about the viability and practicality of Obama’s major message go forward. But as it does, even his critics need to acknowledge that he is not a weird historical aberration. His message has roots in our deepest political traditions. Indeed, it is in accord with the most heartfelt and cherished version of our original intentions as a people and a nation.

Historian Joseph J. Ellis’ latest book is “American Creation.”