Book Review: Founding Brothers

"All the vanguard members of the revolutionary generation developed a keen sense of their historical significance even while they were still making history on which their reputations would rest. They began posing for posterity, writing letters to us as much as to one another especially toward the end of their respective careers. If they sometimes look like marble statues that is how they wanted to look...if they sometimes behave like actors in a historical drama, that is often how they regarded themselves. In a very real sense, we are complicitous in their achievement since we are the audience for which they were performing, knowing we would be watching helped to keep them on their best behavior." (pg. 18)


If this book had to be boiled down to one paragraph, I think this quote fully embodies the point that Joseph Ellis made in each chapter. He attempts to humanize the men we know as the founding fathers by showcasing six different scenes of that time period:


  1. The Duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton

  2. The Dinner Thomas Jefferson hosted between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison

  3. The Silence of Congress on the subject of slavery

  4. The Farewell Address of George Washington

  5. The Collaborators of the Revolution and Political Beginnings of the country

  6. The Friendship of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

While I think he successfully reminds the reader that these "founding fathers" really were a generation of friends/enemies/writers/politicians who made history, he doesn't always make it feel like a fascinating story to read. For a good majority of the book, it reads more like a professor trying to explain history rather than a story teller telling some stories of old friends. That aside, I think this book did offer some good insight into the Revolutionary generation.

Perhaps one of the most interesting ways that Ellis makes the reader see the Founding Fathers from the perspective of Founding Brothers is that he keeps painting pictures of them working together as personal friends/mentors to accomplish a goal, and in doing so, reminded the reader that they were real people with real emotions and real relationships.

"John Adams lobbied for Washington to head the Continental Army and personally selected Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence." (pg. 165)

"The creation of the Farewell Address was an inherently collaborative process. Some of the words were Madison's; most were Hamilton's; all the ideas were Washington's. The drafting and editing of the Farewell Address in effect became a metaphor for the kind of collective effort Washington was urging on the American people as a whole." (pg. 148)

"After 1800 - the kind of towering defiance that both Washington and Adams had harbored toward what might be called the 'morality of partnership' [was dead in American political culture]. That defiance had always depended on revolutionary credentials - those present at the creation of the republic could be trusted to act responsibly - and as the memory of the revolution faded so did the trust it conferred. Of course, Jefferson could and did claim membership in the 'band of brothers', but his election marked the end of an era." (pg. 180)

Which brings me to my next point...

We can look at the deep political divisions of today and look longingly at the past for a united American voice that was strong and "above the fray", but reading this book is a good reminder that only three presidencies after the Revolution - public memory faded and no longer were presidents solely leaders of a fledgling nation, they were leaders of political parties that had very different views of what foreign and domestic policy should look like.

Overall, I would recommend this book for the historical aspect, but not necessarily for enjoyable easy reading. It is a bit of a heavy read, and sometimes dry but it does a good job of showing off the Founding Brothers- the Revolutionary Generation.

© 2019 by The History Lover

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