Michael Finocchiaro's Reviews > Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis
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it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction, pulitzer-history, american-21st-c

Founding Brothers, Joseph Ellis' Pulitzer Prize for History from 2001, is an amazing read. I remember learning about the American Revolutionary War in high school and finding it and most of American history pretty boring (I preferred European history class much more), and so until recently, I kind of avoided the subject in my reading. Well, I have come around on that opinion. In an effort to read about real presidents (in my disarray about Drumpf and a sort of delayed reaction to Dubya before that), I read Dallek's FDF biography and then Ellis' His Excellency about George Washington and now plan to read more presidential biographies. While not a biography per se, Founding Brothers is a fascinating look at several of the major players during the period immediately following George Washington's presidency (so between about 1795 to about 1805 roughly) built around several themes. This form of narration draws the readers in and makes them want to know more about these titanic actors on the world stage. Now, that sounds awfully pompous, but when you think about what they were doing in creating the world's first elected republic and the fact that it did not devolve as in all previous cases and sadly many, many future situations, into am autocracy (which is what many of us fear is happening now as I write).

The first story is about the fatal dual between economist and patriot Alexander Hamilton and one of his arch rivals Vice President Aaron Burr. Having read the Washington biography, I knew a little about how much Washington trusted Hamilton who was on hand during the military campaign and the two terms as president. I did not know how far out of normalcy he had gotten by 1804 in terms of extreme Federalist ideals and even creating (at considerable cost) a sort of private, but publicly funded, militia. Without going into the details (because that would spoil your enjoyment of the book), the chapter describes Hamilton's verbal and later literal physical duel with Burr which draws a sort of telling parallel to the ideas and principles that made up each of the actors in this drama.

The next chapter talks about a fateful dinner at Thomas Jefferson's house several years earlier where a major compromise was struck between the advocates of the federal government assuming the states' accumulated debt versus those that wanted the capital of the newly United States to be located on the Potomac River near George Washington's property at Mount Vernon. These issues on the surface appear unrelated, but Ellis does a great job explaining in fact how the issues of states rights on the Republican side (ominously including slavery) and the idea of a strong federal government (the Federalist side) were actually far more divisive and could easily have led to a major outbreak of hostilities between the northern and southern colonies at this critical start of the country. At stake also was the legacy of the omnipresent American hero and demigod, George Washington, who some felt was too monarchal despite his having voluntarily retired after the war and only reluctantly having become the first president.

There is a chapter about slavery that is extremely enlightening as well. There was an unspoken agreement to not talk about slavery lest, as I mentioned above, the situation degenerate into a civil war. There was even an agreement to put off any discussions of the slave trade in Congress until 1808. However, in 1798, some Quakers put forward motions about emancipation and nullification of slavery which were debated in the House before being suppressed and forgotten in the Senate. During these debates however, the spectre of white supremacy reared its ugly head quite publicly as South Carolina and Georgia expressed their fears of a dying white race due to miscegenation (yes, the same argument that Hitler used against Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and handicapped people to justify the Holocaust and the argument still used by the alt-right today to justify White Lives Matter and incidents such as Charlottesville in late 2017). The issues of payment for loss of property to slave owners (which would have been the equivalent of 10-20x the GNP at the time) and the relocation of the slaves (who constituted nearly 30-40% of the population of most of the slave-holding southern states) were too divisive for any sane debate to take place. The real tragedy here is that, since many of the Framers (Washington, Jefferson and Madison among others) were slave-holders themselves, the issue was muddled despite any moral compunctions that it might raise. The real missed opportunity here according to the author was having someone as revered and infallible as Washington not jumping in to take the moral high ground and abolish slavery forthwith. He could conceivably have done this just with the force of his personality (and he did in fact free his slaves...but posthumously), but he decided not to act. It is interesting to note that ALL of the actors knew that they were just postponing the eventual Civil War by refusing to debate it in the Senate.

The other chapters deal with the relationships between the various men and in particular, the last two chapters talk about the interesting and stormy relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. This was another massive reveal for me that makes me want to read more biographies to understand these men, their lives, and their impact on American history. There is also a lot here about the touchy issues of isolationism vs global trade that had major effects on history and were ever-changing as the French Revolution became the Directory and later the Empire and as England evolved from American enemy to American trading partner.

I think this is a deceptively thin book that actually requires lots of time to fully appreciate as it is stocked full of anecdotes and contextual information that really makes the Revolutionary Age stand out and feel real and relevant. I found it incredible that many of the issues that cleaved the nation in two and threatened to tear it asunder continue in today's USA particularly in the Drumpf era when, not unlike towards 1800 when the Federalists and Republicans could not stand to be in the same room together.
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Reading Progress

January 28, 2018 – Shelved
January 28, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
January 31, 2018 – Started Reading
January 31, 2018 –
page 14
January 31, 2018 –
page 14
January 31, 2018 –
page 26
February 1, 2018 –
page 53
February 3, 2018 –
page 123
February 5, 2018 – Finished Reading
February 6, 2018 – Shelved as: non-fiction
February 6, 2018 – Shelved as: pulitzer-history
February 6, 2018 – Shelved as: american-21st-c

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