There are times, and there aren’t many, when I really want to like a book more than I actually do. When a book receives an award as prestigious as the Pulitzer Prize in History, it is generally a good sign that the book is an important contribution to the historical literature, it is accessible to a large audience, and fully engaging at almost every level. Something about Joseph J. Ellis’ Founding Brothers, leaves me feeling hollow, but I cannot put my finger exactly on the reason why. While there are several minor points, and a few larger, you could pick out to quibble over, the book is convincing. The prose is superb and flows elegantly – Ellis is a man who knows how to write. And the book is thoroughly readable to a wide audience, yet thoroughly academic – a quality that I absolutely adore. I will caution the reader that I am by no means an expert on the historiography of the Founding Fathers, the Framers, or whatever you want to call them. I have a solid working knowledge of this period of history, but this is not my speciality. With that being said, I think the one big reason I come away a bit hollow is that the main point Ellis makes for professionals might have been better suited in another forum, perhaps in a historiographic essay found in a periodical like the Journal of American History or the American Historical Review. I’ll get back to this point in just a moment. Overall, Founding Brothers is a good book about very familiar subjects. For a general readership, I recommend it if you want to learn more about the Early Republic, specifically from 1787, when the U. S. Constitution was adopted, until around 1800, when Thomas Jefferson was elected president. And overall, non-historians will likely find this book much more useful and illuminating than academics.
Books about the Founding Fathers are always germane to Americans who are political. Many want the United States to stay true to the Founder’s original intentions. For some, understanding what the Framer’s thought about, for example, the size and power of the Federal Government, should guide our actions today. For me, Originalism, as it has come to known, is complete fiction because this viewpoint assumes that there was a clear consensus very early in the republic on key issues that prevailed among the men who drafted the Constitution. In truth, the Founding Fathers agreed on almost nothing, and to argue that the Framers had something in mind when they drafted the Constitution underscores this historical fact. Not only did they not agree on very much, they often hated each other. Jefferson and Washington had a falling out and quit speaking to each other. Adams despised Hamilton with a red-hot intensity that is difficult to grasp. Madison thought that Adams was a traitor to the Revolution. Burr and Hamilton eventually fought a duel. At this juncture, Ellis’ book is instructive to modern readers, especially those who are absorbed in politics. Early on, Ellis explains that in the course of most revolutions those who disagree lay aside their differences in order to overthrow an oppressive or otherwise hated regime. Once the revolution is won, however, old differences arise with renewed vigor and quite often result in horrific violence (ie., the French Revolution). Ellis’ central question, then, puts the lie to all those who think the Founding Fathers were of a single mind. He asked how such a large and diverse nation survived its first ten years. No nation had ever tried republican government at this scale, and, Ellis argues, the deck was stacked against the success of the new American government. These Thirteen states had no history of sustained cooperation and, although the nation had abundant resources, bringing together such a diverse group of people who did not always get along from across a continent to form a republic was, at best, a dicey proposition. The main obstacle was simple. The Spirit of ’76 was anti-tyrannical; it was fundamentally against centralized power. After victory was won, the U. S. needed some form of central power to merely survive because the demands of new nation overwhelmed the existing political system. The Constitution thus “purported to create a consolidated federal government with powers sufficient to coerce obedience to national laws – in effect, to discipline a truly continental union – while remaining true to the republican principles of 1776” (9). Ellis argues that the Constitution inaugurated a second phase of the American Revolution, “[t]he first founding declared American independence; the second, American nationhood.” And he makes it clear that the Constitution and the Spirit of ’76 do not merge comfortably, and the nation’s first decade was critical to ensure the longterm survival of the United States. For Ellis, it was the leadership from the Founders that allowed the nation to overcome all the obstacles. He argued that “the revolutionary generation found a way to contain the explosive energies of the debate [over the role of central government] in the form of an ongoing argument or dialogue that was eventually institutionalized and rendered safe by the creation of political parties” (15). Four key factors of the Founding Fathers allowed the nation to survive its first decade and thus congeal into a real nation rather than a simple republican experiment: 1. The personalities of the men – taken together in all of their diversity – served as a system of checks and balances; 2. They all knew each other and were sometimes quite intimate; 3. They were able to avoid a real debate over slavery – the only issue with enough charge to destroy the union; 4. The Founders understood their role, wanted the experiment to work, and knew that the world was watching. So if anybody thinks they understand what the Founding Fathers thought about some issue, they need to understand that this was no monolithic body – they were as diverse as the people they represented.
Rather using a narrative in this book, Ellis presents six different episodes that illustrate his four points above: The Hamilton/Burr duel, the compromise of 1790, the slavery petitions before the First Congress, Washington’s Farewell Address, various personal and political collaborations in the beginning of the two-party system, and the Jefferson and Adams friendship in the twilight of their lives. I think the chapter on slavery is the most intellectually stimulating and points out the jarring irony that in order for a nation founded on principles of equality to survive, it had to keep slavery intact or the South would have destroyed the young union before it could coagulate into a meaningful institution. Overall, the chapters are not islands unto themselves, but the unifying thread seems buried at times. The stories here are all very well-known by professional historians and history buffs alike and Ellis offers very few startling narrative details in the chapters. While he demonstrates his thesis satisfactorily, the episodic feel of the book left me wanting something more vigorous, something grander in scale to communicate the way that the Founders were able to hold the nation together during its first delicate years. The great success of the book was that Ellis relied on contextualizing these chapters in order to make his point, and he does so with unparalleled expertise. In the Ellis rendering, the Hamilton/Burr duel became less about personal differences than the political environment of the Early Republic. As Ellis puts it, “Honor mattered because character mattered. And character mattered because the fate of the American experiment with republican government still required virtuous leaders to survive” (47). (He was taking Hamilton’s side.) Urging correct contextualization is Ellis’ chief historiographic selling point. He states early on that “we need…a form of hindsight that does not impose itself arbitrarily on the mentality of revolutionary generation, does not presume that we are witnessing the birth of an inevitable American superpower. We need a historical perspective that frames the issues with one eye on the precarious contingencies felt at the time, while the other eye looks to the more expansive consequences perceived dimly, if at all, by those trapped in the moment” (6-7).
He makes his point, and makes it well. But if this is the main reason for writing the book, I think he might have chosen the wrong the forum. It would make more sense, to me at least, to make this point in a historiographic essay in a major journal. Articles like these often can be major catalysts in setting research agendas, and Ellis, along with others, could have been in better position to reinterpret the Revolutionary Era with this idea in mind. Essentially, it seems to me, that Ellis took this very important historiographic idea and used it to think about and write his chapters. From there, it seems like Ellis came up with the four points he enumerated as his thesis and unifying thread. None of the four points that make up the thesis are earthshaking to anybody acquainted with the American Revolution or the Early Republic. In fact, they seem pretty obvious. Ellis is teaching a general audience, but I don’t think he’s really teaching historians very much. And I can’t help but think that he wrote the book because he wanted to a write book about the Founding Fathers more than he wanted to write a book to set a new research agenda to urge fellow historians to use a kind of hindsight that does not take the economic and political emergence of the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries for granted. And I might be dead wrong. If I am, something about the book still leaves me feeling uneasy. Founding Brothers received much critical praise from both professionals and laymen alike, and yet I can’t shake the feeling that this book could have better served the academic community as a historiographic article or have been executed differently somehow that shows a more rigorous and unifying synthetic argument to set a new research agenda.