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Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation Paperback – 1 Feb 2002
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"Founding Brothers is a wonderful book, one of the best . . . on the Founders ever written. . . . Ellis has established himself as the Founders' historian for our time." --Gordon S. Wood, The New York Review of Books
"Vivid and unforgettable . . . [an] enduring achievement." --The Boston Globe
"A splendid book--humane, learned, written with flair and radiant with a calm intelligence and wit." --The New York Times Book Review
"Learned, exceedingly well-written, and perceptive." --The Oregonian
"Lucid. . . . Ellis has such command of the subject matter that it feels fresh, particularly as he segues from psychological to political, even to physical analysis. . . . Ellis's storytelling helps us more fully hear the Brothers' voices." --Business Week "Splendid. . . . Revealing. . . . An extraordinary book. Its insightful conclusions rest on extensive research, and its author's writing is vigorous and lucid." --St. Louis Post-Dispatch
From the Inside Flap
In this landmark work of history, the National Book Award--winning author of "American Sphinx explores how a group of greatly gifted but deeply flawed individuals-Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Madison-confronted the overwhelming challenges before them to set the course for our nation.
The United States was more a fragile hope than a reality in 1790. During the decade that followed, the Founding Fathers-re-examined here as Founding Brothers-combined the ideals of the Declaration of Independence with the content of the Constitution to create the practical workings of our government. Through an analysis of six fascinating episodes-Hamilton and Burr's deadly duel, Washington's precedent-setting Farewell Address, Adams' administration and political partnership with his wife, the debate about where to place the capital, Franklin's attempt to force Congress to confront the issue of slavery and Madison's attempts to block him, and Jefferson and Adams' famous correspondence-Founding Brothers brings to life the vital issues and personalities from the most important decade in our nation's history."
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As someone who knew very little about these figures, I was very surprised to learn about the depth and duration of some of the antagonisms between them. Everyday political discourse tends to conceal them behind a nimbus of reverence, and the rather stiff group portraits don't help. As a foreigner and an amateur student of US history, it was fascinating to read about the Adams-Jefferson split and subsequent reconciliation, or the power wielded by Abigail Adams during her husband's presidency, or the way that pretty much everyone seems to have hated Alexander Hamilton. The tenuous and uncertain nature of the first presidency, the way that most precedents had not yet been set, also comes across very clearly.
Having said that, I suppose I wanted this to be something that it's not - a comprehensive account of who all these men were, where they came from and how they came to believe what they believed. This reads more like a book written for people who already know the basic story. Ellis is a bit sniffy in his foreword with some of the more radical interpretations of early US history, and presents his book as a kind of return to the mainstream; given that the American intellectual mainstream is currently well to the right, I was expecting him to be more hero-worshipping than he actually is. In fact he's fairly level-headed about the failure of the men of '76 to tackle the problem of slavery, and while he shows the reasons why they couldn't build anti-slavery resolutions into the Constitution (because the crucial southern states wouldn't have gone for it), he's sharp about the way even the more enlightened amongst them were uncomfortable even thinking about the idea. (Except Benjamin Franklin, who came out as a tough-minded abolitionist only weeks before his death - cheers, Ben, bit late though.)
I'm not totally convinced that it's really Pulitzer material; aren't they meant to go to bigger, more magisterial works, not book-length essays? There's no original research here and not much in the way of fascinating reinterpretation, more like a confident and elegant restatement of conventional opinion. But maybe that in itself was a good idea.
The concept in Founding Brothers is quite original as American history from two perspectives. First, Professor Ellis focuses on how the American revolution was different from colonial revolts before and after, and other attempts to establish republics. Second, he encapsulates his points around six themed incidents and relationships, built on Lytton's Strachey's example in Eminent Victorians.
The book's primary thesis is that it is the political leaders of the American revolution who were the essential difference in the creating the new nation's initial, and unprecedented, success. Professor Ellis focuses attention in the book primarily on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Abigail Adams. ....
In each of six vignettes, you get a new perspective on what happened from afar in space and time, and a refined view of what happened in detail by examining the situation from many perspectives.
The book opens with the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel.
Washington and Franklin come across the best in the book, particularly in acting in ways that were principled, disinterested and competent. For example, both of them realized that slavery was inconsistent with the revolutionary principles.
I came away convinced by Professor Ellis's point that the self-awareness of playing a historical mission was critical.
After you finish enjoying the "what if" considerations in Founding Brothers concerning the American revolution, I suggest that you think about where a principled and supportive role could make a difference in what you do and care about.
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Instead of trying to tell a sweeping account of the American Revolution and the early days of our Republic, Joseph Ellis took a different...Read more