Founding Brothers Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis.
Noted American historian, writer, and professor Joseph J. Ellis has written over a dozen books and essays, including Passionate Sage: the Character and Legacy of John Adams, His Excellency: George Washington, and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1997. However, it is the book Founding Brothers that won him a 2001 Pulitzer Prize.
In the book, Ellis explores the time that followed the Revolutionary War and the people who were the most responsible for holding the United States together while deciding what kind of country the United States would become. Those people include George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Aaron Burr. The book is divided into 6 chapters, each centering on a specific topic affecting the country at the time and the ways in which the founders dealt with them. Through these episodes, we can see the gradual evolution of the foundations of the U.S. Government.
In chapter one, “The Duel”, the focus is on the death of Alexander Hamilton at the hands of Aaron Burr in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804. This incident provides the best example of what Ellis is trying to communicate in his book, which is the importance the founding brothers placed on actively upholding the ideals of America. This may be why it’s the only chapter not in chronological order. The duel was not just a matter of gentlemanly satisfaction over personal insults, but an example of the importance of commitment in the eyes of the people at the time. According to Ellis, both men were intelligent, privately and publicly successful, and had ties to Washington’s military efforts during the Revolutionary War, but it was Hamilton who garnered the greatest respect by showing time and again that he was willing to die for those ideals. Burr was known more for simply wanting power. When Burr came within a few votes of becoming the third President instead of Jefferson, he was thwarted by Hamilton (a member of his own party) who unexpectedly threw his support behind Jefferson.
In the following chapter, “The Dinner,” Ellis discusses the secret meeting between Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison on June 20, 1790. According to Jefferson, who was the only person to leave a record of the meeting, he brokered a deal between Hamilton, who wanted to pass a bill that would give the federal government some financial control over each state by assuming their debts, and Madison, who wanted to move the nation’s Capitol away from New York and Pennsylvania and put it on the Potomac River just north of Virginia. Ellis questions the accuracy of Jefferson’s account and points out that it indicates a lot more about Jefferson’s desire to be seen as an intelligent and influential politician. According to Ellis, Jefferson himself regretted the entire incident as it set a precedent for making deals behind closed doors – something that should not be allowed within a democracy.
Ellis deals with the issue of slavery in the third chapter, “Silence.” Here, the author shows how the post-revolution statesmen in the House of Representatives engaged in a heated debate about the abolition of slavery all because of a petition signed by Benjamin Franklin. Since Franklin was not someone who could be ignored, the issue had to be addressed. But there was no way that either side would ever be willing to compromise on the issue, so James Madison convinced both sides that the only way to keep the country from civil war was to declare it unsolvable by the Federal Government and to table it for at least 20 years. It took almost 70 years before the Federal Government actually addressed it and, unfortunately, Madison was right.
In the next chapter, “Farewell,” Ellis deals with what might be the most important single act in all of American history: Washington’s decision to step down as President. Ellis provides a comparison between Washington the legend and Washington the man. He points out that the country had never known a time when Washington had not been its leader. There were many who wanted him to remain in charge permanently, many who expected it, and many who feared it. But Washington demonstrated once again why he was such a great leader; he showed his respect for the Republic by sacrificing his power to it because that was what a good leader would do.
In the fifth chapter, “The Collaborators,” Ellis centers on the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and how that relationship changed over the course of their lives. These two very different men forged a strong friendship based on their shared dream of independence, but when independence was achieved, their ideas about how the new country should be governed drove them to become political enemies and, ultimately, ended up destroying their personal friendship. Ellis covers the affect Abigail Adams and James Madison had on the two men, and also explores how Adams’ term as President influenced the relationship. Ellis’ idea in this chapter seems to be that while Adams and Jefferson did a lot to change the course of national events, those events managed to change them in return.
The last chapter, “The Friendship,” is, in essence, a sequel to chapter five in that it continues to center on the relationship between Adams and Jefferson. According to the book, the two men eventually managed to put aside their differences, rebuilding their friendship through the use of correspondence. Both began to understand the importance of a written narrative describing both the war for independence and the founding of the United States’ government, and Ellis uses these letters to show how important the individual personalities of the founding brothers were in framing the country’s identity.
Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation discusses the conflicting interpretations of the meaning of the American Revolution as well as the influence of these rival interpretations on the early history of the United States of America. Ellis focuses on the thoughts and deeds of pivotal figures within the Revolution, including Abigail and John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. This history is structured episodically, although the chapters speak to common themes.
Ellis begins by contextualizing his study of the Revolutionary generation. He cautions his readers against viewing history with the benefit of hindsight. Although to our eyes it may seem inevitable that the British Empire would lose its colonies over time, Ellis points out that the American Revolution and the creation of an independent state were not inevitable at all. Ellis goes on to outline two conflicting interpretations of the American Revolution to drive home the divided ideology that, he argues, still remains at the center of American political and academic discourse today.
Thomas Jefferson and his adherents tended to interpret the American Revolution as an act of individual rebellion against a centralized state. The Jeffersonian interpretation is a libertarian ideology, one that if followed strictly may have prevented the different states from entering into a union. In this view, there would have been no purpose in rebelling against the British Empire only to create a new centralized power. This view characterizes the stance of the early Republicans.
In contrast, the Hamiltonian interpretation of the American Revolution focuses on the sacrifice made by individuals to advance a great cause. By this view, the American Revolution should be characterized as an act of outright liberty. George Washington and John Adams followed this view, and the Federalists supported them.
Ellis’s purpose is not to settle the dispute between the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian interpretations. Instead, he seeks to explore the creation of the American state and argues that its founding should be considered a “collective enterprise that succeeded because of the diversity of personalities and ideologies.” He also argues that the Founding Fathers succeeded because they knew one another personally and tabled the debate on slavery and because they were aware that they would be remembered throughout history.
Ellis’s first episode tells the story of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. The duel takes place in 1804 and ends with the death not only of Hamilton but also of Burr’s political career. By this time, Burr had risen as high as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson, and Hamilton was considered the “intellectual well-spring” of Federalism.
Although successful, both men were controversial figures. Burr’s personal life was rife with intrigue, and some of his contemporaries argued that his political life was as notorious for its unprincipled party jumping. Meanwhile, Hamilton also had a habit of making enemies. His chief political opponent was Thomas Jefferson. However, Hamilton would set himself against the unprincipled Aaron Burr, even if it meant supporting Thomas Jefferson. By 1804, the two men had fought a battle of words in the press that they failed to resolve. They determined to settle matter by a duel, an act that was illegal by this time.
Although both were elder statesmen at this point and their influence had largely waned, Ellis uses this famous duel...
(The entire section is 1526 words.)