August 23, 2005
by Joseph Ellis
It's been a while since I've done a proper book review. My last book review was over a year ago for The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester. Great book. Truthfully, a book review takes a lot of time and thought, two things I haven't had much of ... well I guess for a year. Too many stadium related matters to write about. (ha!) Anyway, here is my review for Ellis's book Founding Brothers.
Founding Brothers is about American Revolution political figures, namely Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, John Adams, George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. The book concisely describes the early days of the American republic and how a series of remarkable events, or moments, defined what kind of nation America would turn into and how America would survive its turbulent beginning. The men (and one woman: Abigal Adams) the book focuses on were very close. They may not have been the best of friends, but they recognized each other as important political figures, yes, and also actors in what they somehow knew would be a drama that would be remembered for years to come. They somehow recognized their own importance, with some of them hamming it up for posterity and others truly epitomizing the grace with which we remember them.
The book is broken up into six chapters, all of which deal with a specific issue or moment that in hindsight can now be demonstrated to have been very important for the success of the Union. The chapers are:
"The Duel" -- I've described this chapter a little bit already, but it, of course, deals with the most famous pistol duel in the history of America between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The focus of this chapter is on how remarkable it is that this is the singular instance of politically based violence during the beginning of American statehood. What makes this unique is that other examples of revolutions in world history almost always result in the revolutionaries turning on themselves in an inevitable bloodbath. Obviously, the French Revolution comes immediately to mind.
"The Dinner" -- An interesting chapter discussing a crucial dinner party hosted by Thomas Jefferson where Alexander Hamilton and James Madison agreed to cut a deal that quite frankly may have saved the Union. To summarize, Hamilton wanted the federal government to assume all state debts from the Revolutionary War. It was his idea that this would strengthen the national government by making the states fiscally tied to it (the states would pay taxes back to the national government). His Federalist Party colleagues, those who wanted a strong national government, agreed with him. On the other side of the issue was James Madison, a Republican, who felt that a strong national government was against the very principles of the Revolution. Obviously, he was against the plan. As a compromise, Hamilton agreed to allow the nation's capital to be built on the Potomac River, as opposed to farther north, if Madison went along with his "assumption" plan. Madison conceded and the rest is history.
"The Silence" -- This chapter was one of the more troubling. Essentially, our founding fathers knew slavery was a big problem. But they also knew that doing the right thing, abolishing slavery, would tear this infant nation apart. This chapter details a debate within Congress where it was bascially decided that as a federal government we would remain silent on this issue until at least 1808. Of course, the battle lines of the Civil War were readily apparent in this debate as the South and its unecessary reliance on slave labor was stressed, while the North expressed their disgust with the institution. However, it was the North's seeming indifference to the plight of the slaves themselves that convinced them that silence on this issue for the time being was more prudent. Whoops. An interesting question could be raised: if our founding fathers had dealt with this issue back in 1787 would America be the country it is today, or would it be separate countries with their own distinct histories, one in the North and one in the South? I lean towards the latter scenario. There is no way the battered Continental Army could have kept this country together after the South started to secede, especially considering many of the soldiers came from Virginia.
"The Farewell" -- One of the most important documents in the history of the republic is Washington's Farewell address. First of all it set the precedent of a two term presidency and it clearly separated American government from a monarchy. This may seem obvious today, but Washington was so huge in his time that he very well could have let his power get to his head. Consider this statement from the author:
Throughout most of his life, Washington's physical vigor had been one of his most priceless assets. A notch below six feet four and slightly above two hundred pounds, he was a full head taller than his male contemporaries. (John Adams claimed that the reason Washington was invariably selected to lead every national effort was that he was always the tallest man in the room.) A detached description of his physical features would have made him sound like an ugly, misshaped oaf: pockmarked face, decayed teeth, oversized eye sockets, massive nose, heavy in the hips, gargantuan hands and feet. But somehow, when put together and set in motion, the full package conveyed sheer majesty. As one of his biographers put it, his body did not just occupy space; it seemed to organize the space around it. He dominated a room not just with his size, but with an almost electric presence. "He has so much martial dignity in his deportment, " observed [a contemporary], "that there is not a king in Europe but would look like a valet de chambre by his side."
The chapter goes on to list his military prowess, his almost uncanny ability to stay out of harm's way, the fact that he was hardly ever sick, etc. He was, and still is, our greatest American hero. If he had wanted, he could have been king.
The chapter also discusses other aspects of his Farewell Address, including his calls for national unity and neutrality in foreign wars. One should wonder what Washington would think of America today. Would he think this is exactly what he warned against? Or would he see the same kind of squabbles and political realities he saw in his own day? Of course, Washington's advice on neutrality has been used to oppose America entering armed conflicts for most of our history. Funny thing is it has hardly ever been heeded. Then again, Washington probably had no idea America would be the world power it is today.
The final two chapters, "The Collaborators" and the "The Friendship" really could stand on their own as an interesting treatise into the nature of political vs. normal friendships. The two chapters detail the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The two were extremely close during the American Revolution and their dealings together in the Continental Congress. Adams was the fiery orator from the North who vociferously demanded independence from Britain. Jefferson was the quiet intellect from Virginia who, at least according to Adams, hardly ever said a word. However, in his leadership position Adams recommended that Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence, a decision that he would humorously come to regret.
Adams became the second president after narrowly defeating Jefferson. During that time, the person who came in second immediately became the vice president (a constitutional decision that thankfully has been ammended). Adams, a Federalist, offered Jefferson, a Republican, a big part in his new government. Adams felt strongly that his old friend Jefferson should be a part of his cabinet and all his decisions on the future of the country. Jefferson considered, but in the end declined and became, as vice president, the leader of the opposition to Adams's administration.
In fact, Jefferson became quite a thorn in Adams's side. At one point, Jefferson even hired a yellow journalist to dig up dirt on Adams and publish it, much to the dismay of his old friend. Adams was so angry that his close friend would do this to him that after some half-hearted attempts to patch things up, Jefferson and Adams would not talk with each other for years (1800 - 1812).
Ah, but when they did start talking again, boy did they ever talk. The Jefferson-Adams correspondence that began on Jan. 1 1812 is one of the most important set of documents we have concerning the early days of American government and political thought. And as I said above, Jefferson and Adams knew the importance of this correspondence as they poured almost everything they had into it. Unfortunately I can't find the exact number of letters each participant wrote, but I do know that Adams wrote almost 3 letters to every one letter of Jefferson.
The reasoning Ellis gives for this disparity is interesting. Adams was desperate to solidify his place in history. It literally pained him that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence because he knew that history would, as a result, remember Jefferson more than Adams. His views on this were remarkably prescient. Adams once wrote, "Was there ever a Coup de Theatre that had so great an effect as Jefferson's Penmanship of the Declaration of Independence."
The correspondence ends in an almost spooky way, with Adams and Jefferson's deaths. What is truly spooky, and quite possibly even more appropriate about their deaths, though, is that they died on the same day: July 4, 1826 and within hours of each other. Adams last words are purported to be "Thomas Jefferson still lives." Ellis points out, much to the likely dismay of Adams and other revolutionaries that may have played a bigger part in our independence, that sentiment is still true today.
So, that is Founding Brothers in a nutshell. A fascinating, and very conscise book, that discusses the early days of our great Republic. Check it out from your local public library if you are interested.
Posted by snackeru at August 23, 2005 12:17 PM | Books
thanks for this. this is a great help for me. i am looking at this book for a class, and i think that i will use it now.
Posted by: chris smith at September 5, 2005 3:01 PM
Thanks Chris! I appreciate your feedback!
Posted by: Shane at September 28, 2005 10:56 AM
I needed a general summary of parts of this book for my AP US History class.
Your input and views were very helpful.
Posted by: Janee. at September 30, 2007 4:24 PM
Thank you for this,this was a very well written and concise review that helps in understanding the book. Cheers.
Posted by: irina at January 22, 2008 1:08 PM
Thank you so much. I have a project in my class and the teacher is asking us to do an anlyses of this book, and this example that I read would help me a lot.
Posted by: Saul Banos at February 26, 2008 6:15 PM
thanks so much! this was a great help for my AP US history class also.
youre the best
Posted by: grace at April 1, 2008 7:31 PM
This helped a bunch for my AP US history class too.
Posted by: anonyous at April 14, 2008 6:09 PM
...and my AP US History class
Posted by: shorts at May 29, 2008 8:16 AM
and mine as well
Posted by: theresa at July 31, 2008 10:44 PM
Ahhh, thank you! :] AP sucks.
Posted by: Julie at August 8, 2008 1:48 AM
bro thanks alot for this review/summary, it really helped me actually comprehend this book amd understand it better for my AP History class!!!
Posted by: shantark at August 13, 2008 1:55 AM
I'm also reading this book for my AP U.S History class and I can't get into it at all.
Posted by: Jessie. at August 13, 2008 11:44 PM
Wow this really helps for My AP US History as well. Great Guys but this about them is as boring as they come.
Posted by: Johnny Macabre at August 21, 2008 5:17 PM
Wow a very perplexing in-depth statement of the book. All that I can say is WOW. You are one hell of a reading genius. My dedication and hard work goes out there to sheena.
Posted by: Sexymamasheena at September 4, 2008 2:13 PM
THANK YOU! i have to read over half this book in two days. this helped a lot :)
Posted by: Kelly at October 20, 2008 3:24 PM