41 pages 1 hour read

Joseph J. Ellis

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2000

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Summary and Study Guide


The Pulitzer Prize–winning book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation is the work of renowned American history writer, Joseph J. Ellis. Published in 2000, Ellis’s book examines the lives, contributions, and relationships of the men responsible for establishing the new American nation following the defeat of the British in the 1776 war of independence. 

Ellis first introduces the idea that the American Revolution, while seeming inevitable to modern Americans, is by no means a forgone conclusion at the time it occurs. Ellis considers America’s assets, such as bounteous natural resources, geographic independence from the European continent, and a youthful population, as well as the many challenges that face the new republic, such as a lack of unity between disparate peoples and the problem of slavery.

The 1804 duel between former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr stands out as the only example of members of the revolutionary generation using violence rather than debate to solve their interpersonal disputes. The American public meets this final gesture to the habits of the European aristocracy with disgust and censure. 

Next, Ellis examines the events leading up to the mythological 1790 dinner between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Representative James Madison, and strong unionist Alexander Hamilton. Madison opposes Hamilton’s plan for the assumption of state debts, which will give the federal government more powers over the states. Their debate is representative of longer-standing battles between the federal government and the states. 

Another conflict for the revolutionary generation is the issue of slavery. The revolutionary generation fails to pursue the Revolution to the fullest ends and abolish slavery. States’ positions on slavery differ according to the requirements of their economies. The revolutionary generation’s procrastination on the issue feeds directly into the reasons for the Civil War, seventy years later.

Ellis also examines the role of the first president, George Washington, through his Farewell Letter, published in 1796, just prior to his retirement. Washington is a paradoxical watershed figure—he is loved as a monarch at a time when the revolution demands that the nation dispense with all monarchical figures.

Finally, Ellis describes the first contested presidential election between Thomas Jefferson and Vice President John Adams. Though the two have been longstanding friends, Adams and Jefferson have very different ideas of the significance of the Revolution and America’s future.

During Jefferson’s presidency, which begins in 1800, the concepts of political parties and partisanship are cemented. Jefferson and Adams do not speak for years after Jefferson’s election, but later in their lives, they regularly write letters to each other—a practice that continues until their deaths in 1826. This correspondence is instrumental in establishing the history and historiography of the revolution.