No event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution.
Joseph J. Ellis. Founding Brothers
Joseph J. Ellis, the author of the nonfiction history of the revolutionary generation, is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College. He got his education at the College of William and Mary and Yale University. Afterwards he served as a captain in the army and taught at West Point before coming to Mount Holyoke in 1972. Ellis was dean of the faculty there for ten years. Among his previous books are ‘Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams’ and ‘American Sphinx’, which won the 1997 National Book Award. Currently Ellis lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, Ellen, and their three sons.
Thorough his whole life Ellis studied the phenomenon of American history and its major phases. He is not a writer but a historian in the first place. Ellis’ choice of exactly this historical event, the American revolution, was dictated by its meaning for the foundation of the American state. As he states: “After all, before 1776 there had never been a successful war for independence by a colony of a European power, had never been a nation organized around republican principles, to include the principle of popular sovereignty. So all the great achievements of the revolutionary generation were, in fact, unprecedented” .
While working at his last two books mentioned above Ellis had to read quite a lot of correspondence of the founding generation and it turned out itself that the book appeared. Throughout those letters Ellis studied that the great men kept referring to each other as a “band of brothers” while we all tend to think of them as Founding Fathers, but they saw themselves as a fraternity. Choosing his a way of narration about historic events Ellis believed that “readers prefer to get their history through stories. Each chapter is a self-contained story about a propitious moment when big things got decided (i.e., the location of the nation’s capital; the decision to take slavery off the national agenda)” . So Ellis formed this founding generation into a sort of repertoire company, then put them into dramatic scenes which actually let us witness that historic production called the founding of the United States.
Ellis tells us six discrete events that greatly laid the early foundation of America after the Revolutionary War. He discusses how these events were monumental in the forming of America.
The Duel describes the deadly duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It discusses possible reasons and causes that led to the duel. Ellis also contemplates what may have happened that fateful morning as stories differ from the few eyewitnesses.
The Dinner is a story about a secret dinner meeting between Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, during which the permanent capital was exchanged for the passage of Hamilton’s financial plan for the heavily in debt colonies.
Benjamin Franklin’s petition to end slavery, his last public effort, is discussed in The Silence. It reveals the cold response to Franklin’s effort, especially from James Madison, and the major reasons why slavery was not abolished at this time and why the Founding Fathers were reluctant to do anything about it.
The Farewell is a story about George Washington’s farewell address, in which he gives the country some advices, and dissects the meaning of his words.
The Collaborators shows how difficult it was for John Adams as Washington’s successor and all the backstabbing this man endured during his term. It tells about collaborators that worked together behind the scenes, forming strong political alliances and enemies soon after the days of Washington’s presidency.
The Friendship tells us about the rekindling of a damaged friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson through years of correspondence. After being great friends and instrumental in the fight for independence from Britain, their friendship exploded during Adams’ term as President, in which Jefferson was his Vice President. But through letters discussing various topics, the men were able to become friends again later in life.
Ellis chooses to concentrate on specific events and topics which led to the founding of America. In doing so, he allows for an in-depth, refreshing look at a few pivotal events and important personalities. These men all knew each other quite well. In a time when travel was slow and difficult (and legislators didn’t go home for the weekend), they spent countless hours together both in public and private meetings. Politics was very much a face-to-face affair, where personal emotions and trust allowed for compromise at crucial moments.
In a quite lively and engaging narrative, the author describes a number of interactions between these men and shows to the readers the private characters behind the public personas: Adams, the martial iconoclast, whose closest political supporter was his own wife, Abigail; Burr, perfidious, smooth, and one of the most abhorred public figures of his time; Hamilton, whose bold manner and deep economic savvy masked his humble origins; Jefferson, renowned for his eloquence, but so solitary and taciturn that he rarely spoke more than a few sentences in public; Madison, small, sickly, and shy, yet one of the most effective debaters of his generation; and finally the stiffly formal Washington, the ultimate realist, larger-than-life, and America’s only truly indispensable figure. We see these great men with the eyes of Ellis like normal men, human-beings with their merits and demerits, their scares and successes, their values and ideas. But no matter which flaws they made they will always be heroes and their accomplishments will always be seen as extraordinary.
Ellis reveals to those, who thought these first leaders had the whole world in front of them. that the signers of the Declaration of Independence felt some doubt about their chances of surviving their revolutionary act. Ellis points out, if the British commanders had been more aggressive, “The signers of the Declaration would . . . have been hunted down, tried, and executed for treason, and American history would have flowed forward in a wholly different direction” [Ellis, p. 5]. Ellis deliberately names these heroes ‘Brothers’ although they are clearly seen as Founding Fathers. But in order we, children, could understand their deeds better he chose this name, just like these men named themselves. “We have no mental pictures that make the revolutionary generation fully human in ways that link up with our own time… These great patriarchs have become Founding Fathers, and it is psychologically quite difficult for children to reach a realistic understanding of their parents, who always loom larger-than-life as icons we either love or hate”. Not everything was done by these Fathers as intended. And the author doesn’t hide it. They refused to press for abolition and so the slavery question was bequeathed to Abraham Lincoln to solve, and the Civil War illustrated just how divisive the issue was.
Ellis names these public figures on which he focuses “America’s first and, in many respects, its only natural aristocracy” [Ellis, p. 13]. These were the first and may be the last truly patriotic citizens of their country who at least tried to unite the interests of different parties He also says that the founders were always self-conscious about how posterity would view their decisions and their behavior. For instance, Adams’s efforts on behalf of a “more realistic, non-mythologized version of the American Revolution” were partly motivated by his wounded vanity, his effort to get rid of versions of the story that “failed to provide him with a starring role in the drama” [Ellis, p. 217]. Modern leaders are may be even more self-conscious but to their regret their behavior as well as decisions won’t be viewed with the same admiration and respect as of Founding Brothers.
In recent years historians have tended to avoid focusing on such issues as leadership and character, and more is being written about popular movements and working people whose lives exemplify a sort of democratic norm. Ellis clearly goes against this trend in offering Founding Brothers as “a polite argument against the scholarly grain” [Ellis, p. 12]. And these men, although having all the human strains, are not just ordinary people but those who let United States live. The ‘band of brothers’ were not overwhelmed with brotherly love. They fought literally and figuratively with one another, even when they were on the same side. But their ‘wrestling’ resulted in a Constitution that manages to somehow preserve the idea of individual rights with the demands of a coordinated and unified governance.
This book is not only informative, but it is written in an entertaining style that is easy to understand. Too often, authors of such material tend to write in a complicated and dry manner making the reading almost unbearable. While he calls the eight chapters “stories”, one might suspect that he chose this word to avoid calling them ‘essays’ and thus scaring off most of those who don’t want to read boring expositions of historical views. Indeed this book describes with charm, insight, clarity and sympathy the ‘how’ after the Revolutionary War is done, and the only weapons were wit, ideals, ideas and politics. Much of what Ellis writes is not in history books. Anybody interested in our early period of history and the workings of our Founding Fathers will cherish this latest work by an author whose research is complete. This book makes understand what was going on in the minds of the individuals involved. History comes alive in this narrative. But one must remember that Ellis is a biased historian as well. If one wants to learn about the aftermath of the American Revolution and the relationships of its leaders, on should read this book but read it critically and with an awareness that Ellis is guiding one not to where the evidence leads, but where he directs it to lead.
1. Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Knopf; 1st edition. October 17, 2000.
2. A Conversation with Joseph Ellis author of Founding Brothers. Retrieved from the Web July 18, 2004. http://www.bookbrowse.com/index.cfm?page=author&authorID=541&view=Interview