Apr 3, 2009

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (Book Review)

In this Pulitzer prize winning book, author Joseph J. Ellis, takes a look at the founding fathers which makes you see them as men who were a collection of men from different backgrounds that never could have existed in an old world country with it’s established aristocracy.

The title ‘Founding Brothers’ reflects the outlook he brings to this book which is to change our perception of manifest destiny to one of intelligent men doing their best to keep a fragile union together creating the largest and longest lasting (and unprecedented) republic.

In school, in any country, we are taught bare facts about our history that has the perspective of ‘it was all inevitable’. It was inevitable that our country would be formed, and after being formed we moved forward growing stronger till today where we are at our most evolved point. The fact that we exist right now is seen as ‘manifest destiny’.

The founding fathers of America disagreed with each other to the point of becoming political enemies, yet they were united by one overriding goal. That America the Republic must stay together. The Greek city states had failed at maintaining their sovereignty and the founding fathers knew what they were doing had never been done before to this extant.

This union was unprecedented in yet another way. This was the first revolution where the revolutionaries didn’t turn upon each other and kill each other. Accept for "the Duel" that killed Hamilton, with extraordinary disagreements between the founding fathers/brothers they did not stoop to animalistic behavior.

The founding brothers came from backgrounds ranging from aristocratic landowners to poor immigrants. In a country with established nobility people like Benjamin Franklin and Hamilton (dirt poor self-made men) would not have been a part of such an elite group.

To the founding brothers, who may have used terms like ‘self-evident’, when saying that America must be independent, they knew it wasn’t necessary that the union of America will last. So the entire time it was a struggle to keep the American Federation together.

Between the political battles of the founding fathers we see outright disrespect towards one another on their differing views yet a determination to succeed through debate and negotiations. Brothers may disagree on what is the best way to achieve a goal, but what the goal was freedom and equality, was never questioned.

Since the American colonies were in part founded by people fleeing religious persecution the state had to guarantee religious freedom. Since people like Hamilton (who was seen as a genius) would never have had an opportunity to be a major player in any other country and be helped allot in the revolution, the brothers had to make sure individual intelligence and freedom of speech did not get squashed as America slowly formed into a nation. In all the chaos and uncertainty they managed to create an independent republic through peaceful means, which is the longest standing republic of all recorded history.

In the words of the author, the challenge of the brothers were facing, "If the infant American republic could survive it’s infancy, if it could manage to endure as a coherent national entity long enough to consolidate it’s natural advantages, it possessed the potential to become a dominant force in the world."

People tend to lump the revolution of 1776 and the constitution (1787-88) together, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The constitution was a compromise between the colonies natural aversion for centralized government (i.e. their sense of liberty) and the need to create the structure needed for a state to grow.

In the words of the author;

"With the American Revolution, as with all revolutions, different factions came together in common cause to overthrow the reigning regime, then discovered in the aftermath of their triumph that they had fundamentally different and politically incompatible notions of what they intended".

"The revolutionary generation found a way to contain the explosive energies of the debate in the form of an ongoing argument or dialogue that was eventually institutionalized and rendered safe by the creation of political parties".

“And the subsequent political history of the United States then became an oscillation between new versions of the old tension, which broke out in violence only on the occasion of the civil war. In its most familiar form, dominant in the nineteenth century, the tension assumes a constitutional appearance as a conflict between state and federal sovereignty. The source of the disagreement goes much deeper, however, involving conflicting attitudes toward government itself, competing versions of citizenship, differing postures towards the twin goals of freedom and equality.

But the key point is that the debate was not resolved so much as built into the fabric on our national identity. If that means the United States is founded on a contradiction, then so be it. With that one bloody exception, we have been living with it successfully for over two hundred years. Lincoln once said that America was founded on a proposition that was written by Jefferson in 1776. We are really founded on an argument on what that proposition means.”

An excellent example is Hamilton’s struggle to rearrange the financial structure of the new republic.

Hamilton was worried that the fiscal plans he had for America would never be implemented. It was for that reason that he walked into a duel with a man he considered to be a danger to the future of America. This man, Burr (a Vice President), had a tendency to switch political sides whenever it suited his advantage and later he was even involved in a conspiracy to let the British take over a piece of America so he could be Governor. So Hamilton and Jefferson, although political enemies, knew that Burr was a real threat to America’s union and both were against him. Burr was Jefferson’s Vice President so it’s an unusual circumstance to say the least.

As events would play out Hamilton’s unnecessary death made him a martyr and his cause for a federal financial system came true after his death (while he was alive there was so much resistance against his system that it had stalled ). America would not have become the economic powerhouse it is today without it’s credit and financial system that was created by Hamilton.

It may seem America’s wealth was meant to be but the financial structure which has increased everyone’s standard of living was a struggle to attain and NOT inevitable.

This incident of the Duel is considered to be a key story by the author and he has one for the other founding brothers as well. The book is an easy, yet deep and fascinating revelation of the struggle for America.


America is a nation of individuals. The founding brothers were a group of individuals who knew that freedom and equality were the only noble ways to make a nation but each had their ideas of HOW that equality and freedom should be achieved.

Over the decades of their angry but never bloody debates they stood steady giving the republic a chance to gain its footing. They saw that the best way to keep equality and freedom going was to institutionalize the debate, which goes on today in the form of the two part system. It is the debate, the ability to debate and take part in it, that keeps American freedom and equality growing.

It has grown past slavery, it has grown past institutionalized segregation, and racial prejudice, although common, is dissolving more and more with each succeeding generation. America has been the leader for the world, who followed in their footsteps throwing off British colonials everywhere (except Canada). Although there are occasional backswings to more primitive behavior America still has the intellectual and financial resources for turning it’s population into one of the smartest and most successful (and therefore innovative and productive = wealthy) in the world – on a general social level and not just lining the pockets of the already rich. That is the dream of America, combined with the freedom and equality to attain it, which – though under constant attack - is still alive today.

Click here to read another review.

From the Jacket

An illuminating study of the intertwined lives of the founders of the American republic--John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.

During the 1790s, which Ellis calls the most decisive decade in our nation's history, the greatest statesmen of their generation--and perhaps any--came together to define the new republic and direct its course for the coming centuries. Ellis focuses on six discrete moments that exemplify the most crucial issues facing the fragile new nation: Burr and Hamilton's deadly duel, and what may have really happened; Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison's secret dinner, during which the seat of the permanent capital was determined in exchange for passage of Hamilton's financial plan; Franklin's petition to end the "peculiar institution" of slavery--his last public act--and Madison's efforts to quash it; Washington's precedent-setting Farewell Address, announcing his retirement from public office and offering his country some final advice; Adams's difficult term as Washington's successor and his alleged scheme to pass the presidency on to his son; and finally, Adams and Jefferson's renewed correspondence at the end of their lives, in which they compared their different views of the Revolution and its legacy.

In a lively and engaging narrative, Ellis recounts the sometimes collaborative, sometimes archly antagonistic interactions between these men, and shows us the private characters behind the public personas: Adams, the ever-combative iconoclast, whose closest political collaborator was his wife, Abigail; Burr, crafty, smooth, and one of the most despised public figures of his time; Hamilton, whose audacious manner and deep economic savvy masked his humble origins; Jefferson, renowned for his eloquence, but so reclusive and taciturn that he rarely spoke more than a few sentences in public; Madison, small, sickly, and paralyzingly shy, yet one of the most effective debaters of his generation; and the stiffly formal Washington, the ultimate realist, larger-than-life, and America's only truly indispensable figure.

Ellis argues that the checks and balances that permitted the infant American republic to endure were not primarily legal, constitutional, or institutional, but intensely personal, rooted in the dynamic interaction of leaders with quite different visions and values. Revisiting the old-fashioned idea that character matters, Founding Brothers informs our understanding of American politics--then and now--and gives us a new perspective on the unpredictable forces that shape history.

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