Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and
author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's
discussion of Joseph Ellis's Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.
We hope they will enrich your experience of this Pulitzer Prize-winning 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.
About This Book
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 incredibly 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.
The anecdote that Benjamin Rush liked to repeat about an overheard
conversation between Benjamin Harrison and Elbridge Gerry on July 4, 1776, makes
clear that the signers of the Declaration of Independence felt some doubt about
their chances of surviving their revolutionary act. As Ellis points out, if the
British commanders had been more aggressive, "The signers of the
Declaration would . . . have been hunted down, tried, and executed for treason,
and American history would have flowed forward in a wholly different
direction" [p. 5]. Why is it so difficult to grasp this notion of the new
nation's utter fragility? How successful is Founding Brothers in taking
the reader back in time, in order to witness the contingencies of a historical
gamble in which "sheer chance, pure luck" [p. 5] were instrumental in
determining the outcome?
Ellis has said, "We have no mental pictures that make the
revolutionary generation fully human in ways that link up with our own time. . .
. These great patriarchs have become Founding Fathers, and it is psychologically
quite difficult for children to reach a realistic understanding of their
parents, who always loom larger-than-life as icons we either love or hate."
How does Founding Brothers address this problem, and how does it manage
to humanize our image of the founders? How does the book's title relate to this
What was really at stake in the disagreement and duel between Aaron
Burr and Alexander Hamilton? If Hamilton felt that the disparaging statements he
had made about Burr were true, should he have lied in order to save his life?
Was this merely a war over words? Did words have more significance then than
they do now? What role did newspapers play in the drama, and how is the media's
role different or similar today?
In congressional debates in 1790 about the possible abolition of
slavery, Georgia representative James Jackson attacked the abolitionist Quakers
as "outright lunatics" [p. 97] and went on to say, "If it were a
crime, as some assert but which I deny, the British nation is answerable for it,
and not the present inhabitants, who now hold that species of property in
question" [p. 98]. Does Jackson's refusal to name "that species of
property" point to his own moral discomfort with owning enslaved human
beings? To what degree were the founders complicit in this deliberate refusal to
name and acknowledge the moral problem of slavery?
Because of the founders' refusal to press for abolition, the slavery
question was bequeathed to Abraham Lincoln to solve--and the Civil War
illustrated just how divisive the issue was. How accurate was George
Washington's belief that "slavery was a cancer on the body politic of
America that could not at present be removed without killing the patient"
[p. 158]? Should the nation's leaders have pressed harder, given that "the
further one got from 1776, the lower the revolutionary fires burned and the less
imperative the logic of the revolutionary ideology seemed" [p. 104]? What
difference might it have made in the racial currents of contemporary American
life if slavery had been abolished in the early days of the nation?
What does Ellis mean when he says that the public figures on which he
focuses in this book were "America's first and, in many respects, its only
natural aristocracy" [p. 13]? In what sense is this true?
How does the character of George Washington come across, as Ellis
presents him and in the quoted extracts of the farewell address? How does
Washington measure up to the mythology that surrounded him even in his own time?
What qualities made Washington so indispensable to the new nation?
Ellis focuses more intensively on the plight of the slaves than that
of the Indians, but he does point out that Washington addressed their situation
with the suggestion that they abandon their hunter-gatherer way of life and
assimilate themselves into the general population as farmers [p. 159]. Was this
a viable solution, or merely a pragmatic one? What other solutions might have
been offered at the time?
What is most surprising about Thomas Jefferson's character, as
presented by Ellis? Which aspects of his personality, or which particular
actions or decisions, seem incongruous in the man who wrote the idealistic words
of the Declaration of Independence?
What is most impressive about Abigail Adams's intervention on her
husband's behalf in his quarrel with Thomas Jefferson? Is it possible to compare
the political partnership of John and Abigail Adams with, for example, that of
Hillary and Bill Clinton?
Ellis has said of Founding Brothers, "If there is a
method to my madness in the book, it is rooted in the belief that readers prefer
to get their history through stories. Each chapter is a self-contained story
about a propitious moment when big things got decided. . . . In a sense, I have
formed this founding generation into a kind of repertory company, then put them
into dramatic scenes which, taken together, allow us to witness that historic
production called the founding of the United States." Does his focus on
creating separate narrative units succeed in making the complex history of the
founders simpler to penetrate and understand? Are there any drawbacks to
presenting history this way?
Ellis says that the founders were always self- conscious about how
posterity would view their decisions and their behavior. For instance, Adams's
efforts on behalf of a "more realistic, non-mythologized version of the
American Revolution" were partly motivated by his wounded vanity, his
effort to get rid of versions of the story that "failed to provide him with
a starring role in the drama" [p. 217]. How similar or different are more
recent presidents' efforts to shape the historical portrayal of their own terms
in office, as with presidential libraries and such?
Ellis notes that his ambition with Founding Brothers was
"to write a modest-sized account of a massive historical subject . . .
without tripping over the dead bodies of my many scholarly predecessors."
In search of a structure in which "less could be more" Ellis takes as
a model Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918). Strachey wrote that
the historian "will row out over the great ocean of material, and lower
down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light
of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with
a careful curiosity" [p. ix]. How does this approach differ from other
historical narratives or biographies of historical figures that you have read,
and how does it affect your reading experience?
In the conflict between Republicans and Federalists described by
Ellis throughout the book, readers can understand the origins of party
factionalism that is a strong factor in American politics to this day. If, as
Ellis writes, "The dominant intellectual legacy of the Revolution,
enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, stigmatized all concentrated
political power and even . . . depicted any energetic expression of governmental
authority as an alien force that all responsible citizens ought to repudiate
and, if possible, overthrow" [p. 11], what compromises were made in order
to bring a stable national government to fruition? Does the apparent
contradiction between Republican and Federalist principles still create
instability in the American system?
In recent years historians have tended to avoid focusing on such
issues as leadership and character, and more is being written about popular
movements and working people whose lives exemplify a sort of democratic norm.
Ellis clearly goes against this trend in offering Founding Brothers as
"a polite argument against the scholarly grain" [p. 12]. Does he
effectively convince his readers that the founding of the American nation was,
in fact, largely accomplished by a handful of extraordinary individuals?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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