Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, Joseph Ellis

Ellis, Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College, frames his book as an attempt to rescue the “great man” theory of history from the relativism and debunking of postmodernism. He is somewhat tongue-in-cheek in making this claim, but there is no doubt that his scrupulously-researched and richly-detailed book is an attempt to reassert the importance of the “founding brothers” to the emergence of the American republic and, most notably, its survival through its stumbling, precarious first 50 or so years. As he says, the book is “an attempt to recover the urgency and improvisation, what it looked and felt like, for the… leaders in the early republic” (pg. 17).

While figures such as Aaron Burr, Ben Franklin, and Tom Paine fleeting cross the stage, Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Adams are the primary figures. The book is a biographical examination of these key creators of the then-tenuous American nation. Ellis organizes the book around 6 “events:” the Burr-Hamilton duel, the Hamilton-Madison accord on federal fiscal policy, early slavery debates in the House, Washington’s retirement from the presidency after two terms, and the collaboration, falling out, and reconciliation of the two subsequent presidents, Adams and Jefferson, each of which was representative of the ideological schism which shaped early governance (Federalism and Republicanism, in the “party” parlance of the day).

Though the book is episodic in organization, two related themes predominate. The first contextualizes the actions of the revolutionary generation as undertaken to ensure “the continued viability of a fragile nation whose laws, institutions, and customs had not yet coalesced,” or what Ellis calls elsewhere the “fluid conditions of an emergent nation.” Ellis repeatedly stresses how the debates and feuds of the day were driven by pre-Revolutionary opinions and beliefs, but how each crisis had the potential to bring down the entire ongoing “experiment” of self-rule. The implicit precariousness of governance was fully evident to founding fathers and guided their actions in ways not evident in (and sometimes in opposition to) the lofty principals of the founding documents or their own published writing.

Ellis’s second theme is engendered in a similar vein of self-awareness. These figures, while driven to strengthen and fortify the ever-teetering intuition they had created, were also acutely aware of their own roles in an ongoing historical event. As Ellis says, each of these figures “developed a keen sense of their historical significance even while they were still making the history on which their reputations would rest… If they sometimes behave like actors in a historical drama, that is often how they regarded themselves” (pg. 18).

There is no doubt that their political beliefs and personalities were shaped by their involvement in the Revolutionary War, but Ellis’s book isn’t really about war and the revolution, or these figures involvement in it, gets little analysis. But the idea of a studied self-awareness within historical narratives reminded me of the Paul Fussell book, in which he attempted a literary explication of the narrative tropes of war memoirs and posited that “irony” was an interpretive framework through which WWI veterans told their stories. The experience of the founding brothers, at least in the scope of Ellis’s book, was less traumatic and more concerned with political machinations and personal acrimonies, but it will be interesting to see how it compares with other works on self-reflexive (solipsistic, even) historical consciousness.

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