Founding Brothers Summary

Joseph J. Ellis

Founding Brothers

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Founding Brothers Summary

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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.