The book Founding Brothers is of historical nature written by Joseph J. Ellis. The book focuses on the period of post-revolutionary America and how the lives the founding fathers contributed to the development of America. History as we know it, was the work of others i.e. it is the people who lived at that particular time who were responsible for creating and influencing activities in that particular time. Ellis, in Founding Brothers, has explained the relationships of the founding fathers, how they contributed to the history and how their lives were like during their time. The book also explains the perspective of history on these people. Ellis argues that the formation of the new nation depended on six crucial moments. He organizes these events in order and explains what they are responsible for creating in this new nation.
Ellis starts the book with explaining the revolutionary generation in the preface titled “The Generation”. He prepares the reader of what he intends to reveal in the book which is mainly how the major players, Bounding Brothers or Fathers if you like, played their part during the American Revolution to form the present day country. He believes that the stories should be examined from two points of view i.e. what actually transpired and what has been explained in the recent years in an attempt to understand what happened. The choice of headings I must admit is an astonishing work, for example, “The Generation” which he uses to inform the reader that he is going to focus mainly on the contribution of the founding brothers during the Revolutionary generation. Some of the members he talks about in this generation are Adams, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton and Washington just to mention a few.
In the first chapter of the book titled “The Duel”, Ellis introduces the most popular duel in American history taking place on the 11th day of July 1804 between the vice president of the United States at that time Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Ellis starts the book with an interesting and very captivating story. He first identifies the most common versions of the story and argues that it is not satisfactory due to its short nature. He insists that for someone to truly understand the events that transpired then they ought to understand the assailants. Ellis gives a thorough description of the true events that took place and the reasons behind them. He also gives a vivid description of the two men in a very detailed manner. According to his description, the reader clearly understands what was bound to happen. For example, he describes Burr in a way that the reader could see the confidence he had as compared to Hamilton.
Ellis in chapter two, “The Dinner”, starts by narrating the famous story known of how Thomas Jefferson hosted James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to help solve the differences which were troubling them. The dinner, held on 20th June 1790, in New York City, was to convince Madison not to manipulate his party members by convincing them not to vote for the bill proposed by Hamilton and in return, Hamilton was to use his influential power to help locate the new national capital in the South an area represented by Madison. Jefferson later wrote to his associate by the name James Monroe who was from Virginia voicing his thoughts concerning the idea of assumption and fear for the infant nation whose response was a warning about such deals held behind closed doors. Ellis examines the history of each of the three man to understand their fear over why they thought the new government would fail. In the second chapter, he still continues with his investigative nature to reveal the real truth and explain why Jefferson’s version was persistent.
He titles the next chapter “The Silence” and revolves around the issue of slavery. Ellis tries to explain how the issue of slavery posed a major problem since the inception of the country. A Quaker delegation and Benjamin Franklin in 1790, encouraged the House of Representatives to find a means of getting rid of the African slave trade. Ellis gives a detailed account of this debate which led to a divided opinion between the southern representatives who wanted the issue dropped and the Northern representatives who made an attempt to broach the issue without giving a thought for emancipation. Ellis also brings out the theme of compromise in this chapter. Here the reader can see how post-revolutionary America was in constant conflict with itself: The North and South, Jefferson and Hamilton, and Republicans and Federalists. Ellis also presents two models to which America was identified i.e. the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The topic silence comes in this chapter as what Madison wanted; making sure that the slavery problem was not solved.
In the chapter “Farewell”, Ellis talks about George Washington who was elected to office in the year 1798. Ellis in this chapter, just like the previous ones, employs hindsight and foresight to evaluate Washington who was considered a legend of his time. Washington was a pillar of hope for the people of U.S.A and considered him a hero even before the nation existed as Ellis explains. Ellis again evaluates the power of the myth by analyzing Washington as a man and as the legend the people believed him to be. History described Washington as not a handsome man and Ellis does an incredible job just like in the other chapters of vivid description. He describes Washington as having huge feet and hands. Washington, according to John Adams, was always elected into leadership positions because of his tall appearance. Ellis also brings out the role of the press in this chapter as one of antagonist nature to Washington. Washington retired early and his Farewell Address was to ensure continuity of unity of the people. The chapter brings about the theme of legacy and prosperity.
The fifth chapter is titled “The Collaborators”. The collaboration in this chapter highlights the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The two have been described as patriotic and shared idealism which outweighed their different views on politics and life in general. Ellis talks about the friendship between the two and how they were interested in a common good just had different viewpoints. Their friendship has been used as a symbol of its deterioration and then reconciliation. Jefferson became the president and Adams became the vice even though this union was compromised by Adams jealousy brought about the fact that Jefferson got much attention than he did. Ellis also spends much time on the union between John and Abigail which was interesting because of Johns introvert nature.
The final chapter of the book is titled “Friendship”. This chapter is dominated by the idea of letters. Ellis talks about the different writing between Jefferson and Adams. Jefferson is brought out to be an excellent writer compared to Adams who Ellis depicts as interesting in his writing. Ellis also says that age made this two realize their friendship despite having been silent to each other for over a decade ever since Jefferson became the president. They, however, began their habit of writing each other discussing the country’s future and trends. Their friendship ended on the 50th independence day 4/7/1826 the day they both died.
This book is very interesting as well as informing. Ellis has done a terrific job by the use of hindsight and foresight to bring about facts and explain the reasons for what people just believe or of accounts recorded but not explained. The book provides an in-depth explanation of the roles played by the Founding Brothers and how they helped shape the America known to as today during the revolution period. I would give the book a rating of 8/10 and recommend it to history students as well as researchers who wish to understand America at a deeper level. It is also handy for political leaders as it highlights the mistakes made in the past, what led to those mistakes and the available solutions.
Ellis, Joseph J. Founding brothers: The revolutionary generation. Vintage, 2003.
Price, William S., and Joseph J. Ellis. “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.” (2001): 390-391.