Vanessa's Reviews > Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis
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Sep 05, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: nonfiction, books-you-should-read

FOUNDING BROTHERS is a historian’s account of six events after the Revolutionary War that shaped the future of the United States. The first founding moment was the Declaration of Independence, but the “constitutional settlement” that followed was as important in declaring American nationhood (9); and it’s during this constitutional settlement that the six events occurred.

Ellis claims that the “central players in the drama were not the marginal or peripheral figures…but rather the political leaders at the center of the national story who wielded power” (13). They are Abigail and John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. And because of the “diversity of personalities and ideologies present in the mix” (17) they succeeded in creating a government that was neither tyrannical nor the pure independence of anarchy. Neither side “completely triumphed” (15), which surprisingly appears to be reason this bid for nationhood succeeded, because the framers of the Constitution and founders of this new nation were forced to find a middle ground.

Ellis writes about these characters and the events they participated in with a sophisticated, yet accessible prose. He draws the characters without apology, yet simultaneously his affection for these long-dead public figures is plain in his descriptions. For example, chapter one recounts the famous duel between Hamilton and Burr. He draws a portrait of Hamilton’s origins that any fiction writer would covet: “Hamilton had been born on the West Indian island of Nevis, the illegitimate son of a down-on-her-luck beauty of French extraction and a hard-drinking Scottish merchant with a flair for bankruptcy” (22). It’s from these tidbits of each person’s background, from descriptions of their personalities and keen insights into their motivations, that makes these men (and woman) who lived over 200 years ago accessible to the readers of today.

For example, I knew of James Madison, but he never struck me as much of a key figure as, say, Thomas Jefferson--until I read chapter two of FOUNDING BROTHERS. Ellis says that Madison “not only [looked] like the epitome of insignificance--diminutive, colorless, sickly--he was also paralyzingly shy, the kind of guest at a party who instinctively searched out the corners of the room” (53). He was someone who “seemed to lack a personality” (53), but his unassuming nature concealed a keen mind, organizational ability, and a persuasive knack that often bowled over his political competition. This is when Madison finally became real to me, when I could see how his specific traits affected events.

Ellis continues on this vein with the remaining four chapters, painting portraits of the political leaders and the events they instigated that shaped the history of our nation. These are the very people essential in the survival of a fledgling union, a loose conglomeration of states still so fragile that if not for the contributions of these key players, the nation would have floundered before it ever took breath. Read FOUNDING BROTHERS not only for its sense of history, but also for the prose and Ellis’s ability to illustrate the characters as real people who lived and breathed--and loved this country.

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