Max's Reviews > Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis
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bookshelves: american-history

Ellis gives us six insightful vignettes of leaders of the early American Republic. The author reminds us that the founders did not know whether their creation would last. They did know that it was historic, that it was fragile and that it was a bold experiment. We have to judge them and their actions in that context, in light of what they knew not what has since come to be true. The underlying theme is the dichotomy between the suspicion of central government and the need for a durable union for survival and prosperity. The Federalists led by northerners Hamilton and Adams were for a strong unified America that would take its place in the world; the Republicans led by Virginians Jefferson and Madison represented southerners who wanted minimal government that would not interfere with the states. That compromise could be reached, that political vitriol could be overcome, and that a document as strong, flexible and enduring as the Constitution could be crafted was a great and not inevitable accomplishment.

Ellis takes us into the minds of the founders to show us how the interplay of ideas and personalities actually worked, how history shaped the men and how in turn the men shaped history. He starts with a story where compromise failed, where political infighting succumbed to the revolutionary era’s code of honor, the duel. Alexander Hamilton, past his prime and with his own reputation sullied, had vilified Aaron Burr for the past fifteen years. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. But rather than apologize Hamilton risked everything and lost his life against the self-serving Burr, Jefferson’s Vice President. Hamilton would not repudiate what he stood for, a strong union. Ellis focuses on trying to determine who shot first and whether they aimed to kill, but I was more fascinated by the strength of Hamilton’s belief.

In the second story we learn where a compromise did work, one vital to the future of America. The assumption of state debts into a national debt pushed by Hamilton and the Federalists was accepted by Republican Virginians Jefferson and Madison in trade for placing the nation’s capital on the Potomac. Each side felt it walked away with a victory. While the Virginians gave in to Hamilton’s vision of a commercially vibrant union despite their disdain for central economic authority, they felt their proximity to the new capital would give them greater influence with the new government. At least this is the impression Jefferson gave. Jefferson also realized as a former foreign minister that lack of a cohesive economic policy rendered America impotent in the eyes of Europe and left the southern plantations at the unbridled mercy of European banks.

The third story deals with the inability to deal with slavery. Seen as an issue so divisive it would disassemble the republic, silence and obfuscation were employed to keep the subject at bay. Madison was the master of doubletalk. He seemed to support northerners’ belief that slavery was an evil that made a mockery of the Declaration of Independence, but Madison was only paying them lip service. He made sure that no action was taken and that even discussion of slavery was considered out of bounds. The Constitution itself was carefully crafted to make no direct mention of slavery. In spite of this it allowed each slave to count as 3/5ths of a person and denied the federal government any right to prevent the importation of slaves for twenty years. Northerners believed the emancipation of the slaves was inevitable thinking ultimately everyone would want to end such evil. But in the south, slavery was seen as an economic necessity and any argument or ambiguity was appropriate to keep it. Thus again a compromise, if only tacitly agreed to, was made to keep the union intact, but at what ultimate cost?

The fourth story is about George Washington’s Farewell Address. With his larger than life persona and reputation he was the one person who could cement the new republic together. But his desire to centralize authority smacked too much of monarchy for many who had just fought against it. With Washington retiring, the country was at risk of scattering into separate states. Not surprisingly then, Washington’s first point in his address was about the importance of national unity and the danger of single issue politics, a warning still relevant.

Washington sought to ensure peace with the Jay treaty aligning US interests with England. While beneficial territorially and economically to America, opponents felt the U.S. had succumbed to British power. Why had we fought the revolution just to give our freedom back? Jefferson was appalled. Jefferson was a Francophile even approving of the French Revolution. Jefferson took Robespierre, The Committee of Public Safety and heads rolling in the streets of Paris in stride. It was Jefferson who later used the phrase “entangling alliances” sometimes mistakenly attributed to Washington.

Jefferson had first turned against Washington when Washington raised a militia to quell the Whiskey Rebellion. Jefferson asked what right the federal government had to make these farmers pay a tax. Jefferson began denigrating Washington behind his back, questioning his judgement and whether senility was setting in. Washington was well aware of Jefferson’s attacks when he with Hamilton’s considerable help wrote the Farewell Address. Washington thus took care to produce a well thought out statement. Worried that future presidents might not be able to hold the country together, he proposed federal programs to strengthen the union: a national university, national military academy, larger navy and even agricultural subsidies. The underlying issue remains contentious to this day: Is the federal government the friend or foe, the problem or the solution.

Nothing better symbolizes the acrimonious political division of the country between supporters of weak government and those of strong, than the split between Jefferson and Adams. Their story is Ellis’s fifth. These friends and collaborators during the revolution became political enemies following Adams election as President. Adams reached out to include Jefferson in his administration, but Jefferson refused, perhaps more from political expediency than policy differences. Jefferson following Madison’s advice saw that any president following Washington was doomed to failure. All the differences Washington’s stature enabled him to keep at bay would now spill out into open hostility. Jefferson with the help of Madison took every opportunity to undermine Adams, spreading rumor and innuendo. Adams didn’t help himself signing the deeply unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts at the urging of his closest advisor, wife Abigail. Adams was also facing an arch enemy in his own party, Alexander Hamilton, who wanted to lead the New Army to take over America. Despite all this, Adams for the most part acted prudently and displaying great fortitude struck a peace treaty with France. Unfortunately, this came too late to help him in the 1800 election which he lost to Jefferson. Adams and Jefferson would not communicate with each other for another 12 years.

The sixth and final story is that of the Jefferson-Adams correspondence that marked the beginning of reconciliation 12 years later. It would continue for 13 years, written as much for posterity as for each other. Adams is more visceral presenting his view of a contingent world subject to chance, good fortune in the case of the revolution but uncertainty for the country’s future. Jefferson is eloquent depicting the young nation’s history as a natural flow of events leading to independence, freedom and a future of prosperity and hope. They worked through their differences with Adams spilling out his frustrations and Jefferson putting them in perspective. The one huge exception was the dispute that the nation had swept under the carpet - slavery. Even the blunt anti- slavery Adams did not bring this up with Jefferson. The smooth spoken slave owning Jefferson felt it a topic to be resolved by the next generation. Of all their disagreements the one they avoided is the one that would tear the republic apart. Incredibly, hundreds of miles apart, both died within hours of each other on the fiftieth anniversary of their signing of the Declaration of Independence. Two disparate spirits tightly intertwined.

Ellis takes us from a period when the nation was singular in purpose, when there were no political parties. Then underneath Washington’s unifying presidency, the first parties, the Federalists and Republicans, were forming. Each party became a vociferous advocate for its view of the proper role of government. As Jefferson wrote Adams, it was this way even before there was an America, “The same political parties which now agitate the U.S. have existed all thro’ time. And in fact the terms of whig and tory belong to natural as well as civil history. They denote the temper and constitution and mind of different individuals.” Today as Jefferson presciently saw, the same divisive politics are still the norm. Exceptionally gifted, thoughtful leaders like Washington, Adams and Jefferson are not.
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Reading Progress

September 12, 2015 – Started Reading
September 12, 2015 – Shelved
September 19, 2015 – Finished Reading
September 21, 2015 – Shelved as: american-history

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