Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us, and yet passing harmless under our bark, we knew not how, we rode through the storm with heart and hand and made a happy port. (Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams)
The Founding Fathers loom over Americans all of our lives: their portraits hang in our schoolrooms; their likenesses adorn our money. They are a peculiarity: an elite who created a democracy. The same set of men dreamed the American Revolution into being in Boston, fought for it at Trenton and Yorktown, struggled to bring its fruit to bear in Philadelphia, and finally attempted to steer the new ship of state onto a right course in Washington as one after the other assumed the presidency. Joseph Ellis’ eminently entertaining Founding Brothers focuses on how the interactions between these men as friends and rivals shaped the fate of a new nation, telling their story in six pieces.
Interestingly, Ellis opens the book by killing one of the central characters in his drama, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton perished in a duel against Aaron Burr (as anyone who saw a particular “Got Milk?” commercial in the 1990s will remember vividly), but Ellis doesn’t take us to the misty ridge that is the site of their ritual just for kicks. He digs into the history of Hamilton and Burr’s feud, which – while it became personal – originated from their varying political beliefs, between the Federalists who desired a strong national government and the anti-Federalists (“Republicans”) who despised the idea. Ellis thus establishes early on that the modern penchant for looking back to “the Founders’ intention” is futile, because the Founders were rarely of one mind on any issue. In “The Silence”, two Quakers surprise Congress by asking them to consider the issue of slavery – an issue which they wanted to pointedly avoid. The blaze of debate raged for days thereafter, seeing every argument southerners would cite throughout the early 19th century put into field. They were not blind to the hypocrisy of hailing victory and maintaining slavery, but somehow they found justification – in believing that slavery was a doomed enterprise and would die naturally if left alone, or in arguments from ‘economic necessity’. Throughout the book, these men argue about the meaning of the Revolution, and the ambiguities built in to the Constitution itself become clear. It was not meant to decide what kind of nation the United States was to be – only to give it its start. The Founders’ own uncertainties and passionate disagreements are a central theme.
Although Ellis introduces the founders as an American pantheon, and refers to them (lightly) as demigods throughout, Founding Brothers somehow keeps these men on their pedestals while simultaneously freeing them from being simple marble idols to be admired from afar. In their fraililities and passions, they are manifestly human, and Ellis’ background allows us to step into their minds, to not only sense their emotions and understand their thinking, but to grasp why they were the men they were. This matures into a strangely intimate piece for a history book, especially in the final sections which focus on the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – first political allies, then foes, then tired old friends who write letter after letter to one another with the attitude that “we two ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to one another”. This is a beautifully effective way to close out the book, not only because their dynamic is particularly touching but because it allows the reader to linger on the unfinished legacy of the Revolution, to seek an answer for themselves as to what it means.
Founding Brothers is a finely crafted book, a genuine pleasure to read and to consider.
Washington's Secret War, Thomas Fleming