Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis is one of the best books about the Founding Fathers as a group that I’ve read. Unlike The History of the United States During the Administration of Thomas Jefferson or His Excellency: George Washington (also by Joseph J. Ellis), Founding Brothers is a book about the group as a whole and the relationships between them, not the actions of individual men.
That, I think, is what makes it interesting. Too many books focus on just one person’s actions; that’s why I don’t really like biographies or autobiographies. While it’s great to learn about how one man contributed to history, sometimes quite significantly (although usually less significantly than the author would have you believe), I think it’s far more interesting to learn about how individuals both fought and worked together, as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams alternated doing throughout their careers, to create the world we live in.
In Founding Brothers, Joseph J. Ellis does that masterfully. He doesn’t diminish anyone’s achievements or contributions in creating the new American Republic, but he does show how those great men interacted, which I found absolutely fascinating. It’s an under-reported aspect of the American Revolution, but is certainly interesting to read about, as you’ll see from my summary and analysis of Founding Brothers.
Summary of Founding Brothers
As I stated in my introduction, Founding Brothers is about the relationships between the Founding Fathers. The duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and what caused that duel. The level of enmity between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Jefferson’s long-term friendship with his political rival, John Adams. How the Founding Fathers handled their differences of opinion over slavery.
All of those facets of early American life are discussed by Ellis. As in Hanson’s The Father of Us All, each chapter doesn’t fit with the others to form a steady narrative. Instead, they’re mostly independent chapters that, while they might reference some of the same people, namely Jefferson, could stand on their own.
But that doesn’t mean that Founding Brothers isn’t a coherent narrative. In fact, because the chapters are separate, Ellis doesn’t have to reach to try to connect events that didn’t really connect at the time other than that they were facets of the Federalist/ Democratic-Republican split that took place after Washington’s first term. Because he’s not reaching, each chapter makes more sense and seems entirely true, rather than contrived, which I appreciated.
In other words, each argument or relationship between the founding brothers is described in full, rather than discussed for a short section and then forgot until later because of other events or arguments that happened around a similar time. That helps Ellis fully explore each topic and helps the reader understand the full story, rather than having to remember small details from chapters beforehand.
Finally, whatever relationship he is discussing, Ellis uses primary source evidence to prove his point. The wealth of letters between Jefferson and Adams and their accomplishments together, the dearth of letters between Washington and Jefferson due to their split, newspapers and pamphlets that showed the competing ideologies of the time and how the men involved championed them, and even private journal entries help Ellis prove his points about relationships between the Founding Fathers and show what those great men believed and how they tried to get their ideas implemented.
Analysis of Founding Brothers
I thought that Founding Brothers was excellent. Ellis is a terrific writer, his uses of primary sources is masterful, and his collection of disparate stories from post-Washington’s First Term America shows how early America was changing and what the political thoughts of the times were.
There were two main aspects of Founding Brothers that I thought were particularly insightful.
The first is that Ellis did a great job of showing the early rift in early American politics between the Democratic-Republicans, headed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and the Federalists, led by men like John Adams and John Marshall. Furthermore, in his discussion of that rift, Ellis is able to capture how contentious American politics at that time were; it was impossible for them to have a respectful political discussion. As a result, many of the former friendships from the revolutionary generation were destroyed as the Founders fought over what they thought the legacy of the American Revolution should be.
My second main takeaway was that Thomas Jefferson was involved in most of those debates. Ellis frames him as duplicitous and backstabbing, but a genius. While I agree that Jefferson was a political genius, I’m not sure if he was quite as amoral as Ellis makes him out to be. I
n any case, he was certainly one of the most influential of the Founding Brothers and was by far the best about putting his political ideas into practice, mainly because of how he was able to influence his acolytes and create a solid political base for the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists, men like John Adams, were nowhere near as good as Jefferson at that.
Americans need to read books like Founding Brothers so that they understand the Founding Fathers and learn American history. Far too many young Americans, even young conservatives and college conservatives, don’t understand what the Founding Fathers did and how they created the America we know and love.
That’s because the left only teaches us that the revolutionary generation was a group of “racist, old men” that stood for slavery. That’s why the leftists that want to erase our history have gained such high amounts of support recently.
I don’t think they’d be as successful if more Americans read actual history, rather than the lies of the 1619 project, and learned about how the Founding Fathers were great men that created the freest and most prosperous nation on Earth. The Founding Brothers were heroes.
By: Gen Z Conservative