Summary and book reviews of Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis

Founding Brothers

The Revolutionary Generation

by Joseph J. Ellis

Founding Brothers
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2000, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2002, 304 pages

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Book Summary

Informs our understanding of American politics--then and now--and gives us a new perspective on the unpredictable forces that shape history.

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.

The Generation

No event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution. On the inevitability side, it is true there were voices back then urging prospective patriots to regard American independence as an early version of manifest destiny. Tom Paine, for example, claimed that it was simply a matter of common sense that an island could not rule a continent. And Thomas Jefferson's lyrical rendering of the reasons for the entire revolutionary enterprise emphasized the self-evident character of the principles at stake.

Several other prominent American revolutionaries also talked as if they were actors in a historical drama whose script had already been written by the gods. In his old age, John Adams recalled his youthful intimations of the providential forces at work: "There is nothing . . . more ancient in my memory," he wrote in 1807, "than the observation that arts, sciences, and empire had always ...

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 ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

New York Times Book Review - Michiko Kakutan

....a lively and illuminating, if somewhat arbitrary book that leaves the reader with a visceral sense of a formative era in American life.

New York Times Book Review - Benson Bobrick

A splendid book -- humane, learned, written with flair and radiant with a calm intelligence and wit. Even those familiar with 'the Revolutionary generation' will [find much] to captivate and enlarge their understanding of our nation's fledgling years.

Kirkus Reviews

An accomplished historian and biographer seeks nothing less than to frame the Framers, bringing into clear focus the personalities and human dynamic that shaped and defined the early republic.

Library Journal

... If there is a central theme that runs through the chapters, it concerns the fragility of the early years of the republic.... The question of slavery was so explosive that most Founding Fathers avoided discussing it at all. Ellis clearly admires the irascible John Adams. Perhaps surprisingly from the author of American Sphinx, however, the Founding Father who comes off least well here is Jefferson himself. Highly recommended.

Reader Reviews

DougO

Character Matters- Then and now!
Highly recommend Founding Brothers, this is a great read. An honest and mature presentation of the challenges our Founding Fathers faced creating America after the Revolution. You will get to know the founding fathers as individuals, each with ...   Read More

Jake

This book is not written at the 8th grade level...
I found the book very compelling and inspiring. I am a veteran and a student of history. Though the book was a challenging read, I found it much more enjoyable than most texts written to accommodate students who are lacking in reading skills. You ...   Read More

Don G.

If you only knew what you don't know.
Ellis' book is a great read. People who read it with the idea that history is a noun, full of facts, dates, people, and places, miss the point. Ellis intends us to look at history as a verb, the inquiry, not the things, but the relationship between...   Read More

founding bros

Just because I am VERY interested in History
I have never read such a challenging book in my young life before but after the first few pages, the style and essence of Ellis' writing really hit me as eloquent, intriguing, and insightful. I believe that this book is the right choice for someone ...   Read More

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