Alex's Reviews > Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis
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May 30, 09

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Read in May, 2009

This is a review of the audiobook--the first of many, I hope, that I read during my hour-long commute to work. Take with a grain of salt, because it's harder to concentrate on audiobooks, and I'm listening to these on an iPod Shuffle, so I never know for sure that I'm getting everything. Also, another note: I'd give this book 3 1/2 stars, out of four, if I had the option.

Emotional poignancy isn't normally what you expect out of a history book. I'm not talking about 4th of July, flag-waving-type poignancy, rather the poignancy of human drama. But that's exactly what I found in "Founding Brothers," and it snuck up on me. Ellis sets out to tell the story of the nation's early days as a human story about the flawed men behind its revolution. They were real people, who were involved in something so difficult that it created strong friendships--but it was also so momentous, it often tore them apart. His chapters on Adams and Jefferson--perhaps the most famous American friendship/rivalry--reveal something new about the USA's early conflicts.

His central thesis--that the creation of the Republic was not inevitable, but shaped by people with vastly different ideas about its purpose, and that the central conflict between Thomas Jefferson's idealized, independent confederation and John Adam's strong-government, centralized nation is still being fought today--doesn't strike me as ground-breaking. But's interesting to see the story told by a talented writer with an eye for detail and story-telling.

In today's political debates, we spend so much time debating what our founding fathers intended. Ellis reveals this as folly, because they themselves could never agree on what they meant--and if you chose any particular founder, his vision for the country would be dramatically and substantially different than the nation you would know or want today. Somehow, all of these competing visions canceled themselves out to create a thriving Republic. But at the time, these conflicts were surprisingly bitter, especially because the political systems to mitigate and resolve differences were new and untested. It's interesting to listen to these conflicts play out, and even though Ellis makes few allusions to today's politics, it's hard not to try to see the connections. (Listen to Thomas Jefferson rail against elite city-dwellers and you'll swear you're listening to Sarah Palin).

Ellis focuses on Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, along with bit players like Aaron Burr. I wonder if it would have worked better just focusing on Adams and Jefferson, since their decades-long love/hate relationship really seems to capture the essence of what Ellis sent out to demonstrate. I also would have liked to have read more about the Alien and Sedition Acts. Those days--what Jefferson called the "Reign of Witches"--showed how violent disagreements in the early republic were, and it makes the current "Reign of Bloggers" seem mild. Early statesmen were simply not equipped to view disagreements as anything else than treason. Ellis blames, of all people, Abigail Adams for the acts.

I'm inherently suspicious of history which focuses on people more than the forces which move under them. But this book makes such history compelling and touching.

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