In many ways, Ellis has managed to create a detailed and carefully illustrated history of the American Revolution and the people and events that surrounded it in the parameters of a series of stories that few have ever heard. Depictions of the duel between Hamilton and Burr that changed the strictly passive coping mechanism of the revolutionary generation give a helpful insight into the minds of those who contributed to the creation of such a young nation. Earlier, in 1790, a great deal was struck in the home of Thomas Jefferson, and it was decided by Hamilton and Madison that the future of the capital of the United States was to be near the Potomac, and the fiscal plan was soon to be labeled assumption. Constantly changing and improving from previous British government, the deal showcased America and the revolutionary generation’s ability to adapt to quickly changing tides. Another issue that baffled many a member of Congress and the Constitutional commission was slavery and how to approach it, and the compromise between Madison and the House in 1790 proved how loyal the “Founding Fathers” were to their Constitutional roots.
Another event that shook the foundation of the revolutionary generation was the retirement of the most important and one of the only figures in American history in 1796, George Washington. The overwhelming sadness that resonated in the political as well as the local and residential atmosphere was soon outweighed by the desire to continue improving the country and bettering it for future generations, which helps us to understand exactly how strong the willpower of the revolutionary era was. A sporadic friendship, the collaboration between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams is another example of how the relationships between the “fathers of the country” endured throughout controversy and confrontation and prevailed until the end of life itself. Ellis writes a beautiful rendition of a series of events that sculpted the revolutionary era and ultimately the foundation of which we live upon today, and the stories that seem to have no further effect in such a time like ours are closer in our hearts than one would ever imagine.
Preface: The Generation
Although many believe the popularized idea that the revolutionary leaders of the late 18th century brought about a god-like persona that enabled the creation of a perfect government and a thriving economy, the truth behind the thoughts of many is that those who led the Revolution had more than a tough time in creating a government that accommodated the populace, as well as stabilizing such a young nation that had just found its footing. After breaking away from the British regime, the members of the revolutionary generation had many a discussion about how to structure a government in such a newly free nation. In the long run, as Washington believed, if America could survive its infancy, it would go on to be a great nation cable of many things, but if a stable government could not be attained, the dreams of a thriving nation would be shattered.
In this chapter, Ellis creates a historical base for a series of stories that define the American Revolution in all aspects, and he begins with the facts of how the nation succeeded, how there were barely any scenes of blood shedding and slaughter, and how the emerging imperial leadership performed so well. His personal explanation encompasses the diversity of the revolutionary era, of Abigail and John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. He also answers with their close personal relationships, and their collaboration in public as well as private affairs, and finally, how they managed to defer the slavery question to salvage their newly formed political position. The chapter ends as another begins, the story of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, as both are traveling up the Hudson River to the plains of Weehawken, eager to arrive on time for their appointments.
Chapter One: The Duel
The duel between the dark-haired, black eyed Aaron Burr and the light, auburn-haired, violet-blue eyed Alexander Hamilton has a much deeper meaning than that of a simple insult and a refusal to make amends; it symbolizes the fatal event that disrupted the nonviolent atmosphere of the American revolutionary generation. Unlike many other national movements, such as the French, the Chinese, and the Russian Revolution, the Americans remained peaceful and complacent while handling passionate affairs without the shedding of blood. The duel at Weehawken on July 11th, 1804 that fatally wounded Hamilton will be forever known as the event that changed the American Revolution’s nonviolent approach, and as characterized by Henry Adams, the “moral gloom, double treason, and political despair” behind a beautiful summer morning, “the most dramatic moment in the early politics of the Union.” Some of the many unanswered questions about the duel and who was actually responsible still linger in the curious minds of many modern day Americans, but of what we do know, the truth is up to you to determine.
The night before the mortal “appointment,” Hamilton drafted a personal statement telling of how he was not to fire at Burr, but to “reserve” his first fire, maybe even his second, only to hope that Burr would pause and reflect on his choice. On the day of the duel, both men’s assistants collaborated in a joint statement regarding what exactly went on, and it was written that there was two shots fired, separated by a long pause. On the Hamiltonian side of the argument, when Burr had fired the first shot, it caused an involuntary jerk that resulted in Hamilton pulling the trigger by accident. The Burr version of the story is that Hamilton had actually fired the first shot of the duel, missing by a great margin and breaking a branch in the distance, and forcing Burr to shoot him in both self-defense and for fear of losing his shot. In any event, the most logical explanation is that Hamilton first aimed and fired at the branch in the distance, not meaning to shoot Burr but to scare him, and Burr was completely justified in shooting himself. However, there are still insignificant details that still, to this day, are a mystery, and in the end, the truth is all yours to determine.
Chapter Two: The Dinner
On Sunday, June 20th, 1790, the great concession between Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson that settled the great deal of the permanent residence of the national capital and the fiscal proposition of assumption showcased the essential quality of partnership and compromise that the budding America surely needed. When Hamilton confided to Jefferson that if his financial plan for credit recovery did not fly well with Congress he would have no choice but to resign, Jefferson called out to James Madison, leader of the campaign against Hamilton’s bill, to see if he would somehow concede. When finally confronted, Madison agreed to lessen up on his harsh stand and agreed to not approve the bill, but not be so strenuous. To compensate, Hamilton settled to back up Madison’s suggestion that the national capital be developed by the Potomac River. Although Jefferson later regretted bringing them together, his dinner plan proved to be a beneficial idea both politically and economically. The dinner, although not the only place where discussions were made, represents the changing values of revolutionary America, and a step of progress both away from the former British rule and towards a better future.
At first, the Assumption Bill turned many heads at the fact that the state’s debt would be passed along to each colonies federal government, one of which being Virginia, and when the great duo of Madison and Hamilton separated and Madison advocated against the bill they helped to put together, Hamilton was utterly shocked. After many back and forth conversations between the two, the dinner arranged by Jefferson brought them together, face to face, and Madison agreed to lighten up but to not wholly support it. Also, the ongoing discussion of where the nation’s capital would be placed was nearly accomplished with the decision of a site not far from Georgetown on the Potomac River, but the meeting with Hamilton secured enough votes to get the location approved. The dinner, along with many other historical meetings, helps us to see how America was not only a nascent country with a promising future, but a nation backed by a strong willed team of revolutionary “brothers.”
Chapter Three: The Silence
One of the most crucial moments in the history of the union had begun with a mere petition by a Quaker delegate to end the African slave trade, and had ended with a deadlocked decision of whether to defy the Constitutional laws and interfere with the issue on slaves, or to leave it be and disregard both the Northern colonists and the Quaker petitioners altogether. The first challenges came from a James Jackson from Georgia, and a William Loughton Smith of South Carolina, representatives of the known proslavery advocating “Deep South.” They were quick to both bash the reputation of the Quakers and remind them of the Constitutional passage saying that government intervention in the affair of slavery was prohibited until 1808. Thus began a proverbial war of words between the North and the South, and Congress watched from the sidelines, trying to work out a situation that would somehow benefit both parties.
The many issues at hand concerning the abolishing of slavery seemed to linger in a silence for years upon end, for the pros of ending the slave trade were greatly outweighed by the cons that haunted the consciences of Congress. As said by Elbridge Gerry, slavery was brought upon us by our first settlers, and if it were to be eradicated, there would have to be a compensation for the owners who bought their slaves at market value, and Gerry figured it would be around 10 million. Another question that puzzled Congress was where to send the freed Africans after slavery had been abolished.
They were to either incorporate them with the general population or they must be colonized elsewhere, but as said by Jefferson himself: “The two races cannot live together on equal terms because of the deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites.” As noticed in the 1790 census, the window of opportunity to act upon slavery was not opening, but closing, for the numbers of slaves in places such as Virginia was clearly unmanageable, and the will of the revolutionary era was quickly perishing. In the spring of 1790, with help from a resolution by Madison, the House agreed to prohibit the talk of ending the slave trade until the Constitutionally right 1808, and as said by George Washington, “the slave business has at last been put to rest and will scarce awake.”
Chapter Four: The Farewell
On September 19, 1796, the article, which we know better as the Farewell Address, that appeared in the American Daily Advertiser signaled the end to a great reign of a president who saved the young, fragile nation and nurtured it into a stable realm that would hold for many generations to come. George Washington, more fittingly “the Father of the Country,” was a household “celebrity” known by all, and whose stature and omnipotence lingered in all who had the pleasure of meeting him. During his last year or so in office, he faced much opposition in the affairs of American neutrality, for he vehemently advocated for Jay’s Treaty allowing trade with England, while his main competitors, Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans, saw that an alliance with France was the best option for America.
Many of those closest to Washington, such as Jefferson and Monroe, proved to be nothing less than traitors, for their so called loyalty to their president quickly turned into betrayal and opposition. Although the Farewell Address was a collaboration of the writing of Washington, Hamilton, and Madison, it is clearly seen that every idea had come from the mind of one of the best things to happen to America, and despite the support for Washington, he chose to decline a third term and to retire peacefully, having known that he would be remembered for centuries to come.
Chapter Five: The Collaborators
After the deeply saddening departure of the great George Washington from his position as President of the United States, there was a lingering curiosity and wonder as to who would ever follow in the lead of such a commanding power. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams knew that running for the premier position would place both the pressure of succeeding the “father” of America and the issue of the foreign policy and what to say about the French Revolution at hand. An odd pair, Jefferson and Adams became rather close as committee members of the Continental Congress, and became even closer when they reunited in Paris around 1784 and could address each other as no less than family. As expected, Adams took the commanding lead and eventually came to be known as the President of the United States, and he felt utterly confident that he would have Jefferson in his cabinet as a member of the Republican Party, while Adams was a Federalist.
However, Adams was shocked when Jefferson refused his proposal and followed the advice of a fellow Republican which he came to have a great bond with, James Madison. The great collaboration between Jefferson and Adams then began to disintegrate even further, as Jefferson arose as his main opposition as the leader of the Republican Party. Adams, as well as his beloved wife Abigail and his majorly Federalist cabinet, believed that France was not a country comparable to that of the United States and that a treaty must be made in order to protect the country from war. Jefferson felt that what was occurring in France was the “American Revolution on European soil” and that the French were America’s greatest ally, but when the Alien and Sedition Act was passed in 1798, Jefferson seemed to revoke his original standing, later become Adam’s successor as president. Known as one of the greatest collaborations in history, the Adams-Jefferson pair—although close knit and oddly powerful—fell victim to the ongoing rivalry of political parties, and show us just how easily revolutionary politics could break apart the tightest bonds.
Chapter Six: The Friendship
After 12 years of what seemed like an eternity of silence, the irreplaceable duo of Jefferson and Adams resumed their life-long friendship and companionship that began with a tense race for presidency. Despite their irreconcilable differences that first split the two apart, Adams realized in his old age what a great friend he had in Jefferson, and that he never lost respect for him even after all those years. Extremely temperamental and overly analytical, Adams spent the majority of his retirement criticizing those who opposed him in the past, including Hamilton and the Republicans, and he remained under scrutiny by the public eye for the rest of his life.
Jefferson, still basking in the glory of his presidential position, had many a quarrel with his friend of countless years, even after they finally reconciled with the help from Benjamin Rush in 1812. They remained stationary in their original positions on subjects such as the issue of the strength of political parties and the everlasting choke-hold they had on those who partook in them, as well as the questionable situation of slavery and the Missouri conflict. In the end, the two died less than 5 hours apart from each other, and the love that they shared echoed throughout the ages and future generations and still persists today, reminding us of how strong the companionship of the American revolutionaries actually was, and, despite battles, arguments, life changing decisions and more, friendship triumphs over all.
Part IIC: Analysis
Founding Brothers is an in-depth book that focuses on the beginnings of the American nation, and pinpoints 6 different events that have shaped the foundation of the country we call our home. With the help of such greats as Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, America was able to adapt to both changing government and altogether changing times, frequently dodging hypothetical bullets that threatened the blossoming republic. A mind changing analysis contrary to what most know today, Ellis creates a beautiful picture of the far from beautiful scene that followed in the decisive period just after the American Revolution, and focuses on the struggles that are frequently overlooked but seriously determining to the nation. Ellis begins his narrative on the thought that America was founded on uncertainty, improvising, and a huge amount of luck, and that the future of the country was not so predetermined, but experimental, and I completely agree.
I feel that with what I now know about the establishment of the United States and the hardships it faced in creating a government suitable to the newly emancipated population and more, I can see that at the time the future of America was certainly undetermined, and that the successes it then saw were purely coincidental. Contrary to what I have read in textbooks and my prior knowledge, the book showcases the true hardships and struggles that America faced in its early stages, and gives very personal views into the minds of those who helped to shape it. I had previously thought that in the beginning of the formation of America, the decisions that were made were both easy and simple and that the founding fathers knew exactly what they were to do every time, but I now learned that that was definitely not the case. On the part of the author, Joseph J. Ellis, the one bias I did detect happened to pertain to George Washington, and the fact that Ellis portrays him as the best revolutionary America has ever seen and frequently places him on a pedestal above everyone else, even though he did have many flaws and was not right on every occasion.
Born in Washington D.C in 1943, Ellis went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary and his masters and Ph.D. from Yale in 1969, later becoming a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College. Ellis faced much controversy in 2001 when it was revealed that he never served in Vietnam in 1965 and never participated in the civil rights and peace movements, contrary to what he previously said, which he attributed to a turbulent past and home life. I believe Ellis wrote this book because his daily lessons revolve around the lives and times of the founders of the United States, and his studies show that he is well educated in American history; he probably had a of information and drawn conclusions he wanted to be known. In my opinion, the book could have been improved if Ellis had just merely shown all sides of every argument and gave every bit of evidence showing all causes of why something could have happened.
Like in the Hamilton and Burr duel, Ellis portrays Burr as a villain-like enigma while really he was just someone whose character was under attack during a tough presidential campaign. In all honesty, I did enjoy reading this book in many aspects because I learned things about the beginning of the country I live in today that I would have never known. I believe that being educated in the history of our country is essential to living in it, and I frequently compare the decisions the founders of America had to make back then and the decisions they have to make now. I am also noticing the effects the Revolution still has on the U.S today, for I frequently hear that laws have been changed or vetoed because they were “unconstitutional,” just as the Quaker petition to end slavery was called when it was introduced in 1790.
I would recommend this book to those who enjoy reading about the American country, and those who like to compare how things were in the past to how they are now. I am still amazed that nearly 230 years after the writing of the Constitution, Americans citizens and politicians still refer back to it and abide by it, which reminds me just how strong the foundation of our country truly is. This book is important to my study of U.S History because it gives me an accurate and in-depth account of the base of America, and provides a great starting point for the rest of the year to come.