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Sibling Rivalry

  • Nov 17, 2008
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It looked a lot prettier in those Gilbert Stuart and John Trumbull paintings. If there's an overall theme to Joseph Ellis's 2000 book "Founding Brothers", it's that the United States was tempered as much by internal conflict as by war with Great Britain.

Ellis's approach deals with the aftermath of the American Revolution, post-Constitution, in six drawn-out narratives exploring various facets of the often-feuding Founding Fathers. He begins with the most famous and deadly of them, when Aaron Burr, then a sitting vice president, killed Alexander Hamilton for expressing disapproval of Burr's character. It was a duel, agreed to by both men, but a strange way for Burr to uphold his honor.

Ellis's treatment feels weak. As a story-teller, he muddies the waters by flipping back and forth in time, losing the suspense of "Interview at Weehawken" by teasing out various pet theories about the reason for the duel. As a historian, he misses some vital, commonly-known points, like Burr's gloating right after the duel and conjecture that Hamilton's pistol shot down a tree branch, which if true could confirm he had no intention of shooting Burr that day.

Ellis's middle chapters take on the question of how Washington, D.C. became the nation's capital; why slavery was allowed to remain in effect for so long; and what Washington was thinking when he either penned, or merely signed, his famous Farewell Address.

All of these chapters are readable, occasionally poignant. You get a sense of Washington as the supreme stoic in his standing behind an unpopular treaty. "Clouds may and doubtless often will in the vicissitudes of events, hover over political concerns, but a steady adherence to these principles will not only dispel but render our prospects brighter by such temporary obscurities," he writes.

But there is a lot of nothing in them, too. The chapter about Washington, D.C., "The Dinner", for all its scene-setting, doesn't establish any such dinner, to talk over locating the Capital and assuming state debts, really took place at all. Ellis presents the slavery question well enough, but struggles with coherent storyline. The idea was the South didn't want to end slavery, and the North didn't want the South to leave the Union. But as with the Dinner, there is some mystery as to the particulars which Ellis doesn't dispel.

The last two chapters of "Founding Brothers" give it life, memorableness, and probably that Pulitzer. It focuses on two Founders, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, in kind of a bookend way to Burr and Hamilton. Jefferson and Adams also had a bitter fallout, but patched things up and corresponded over their last 14 years. Adams is portrayed more positively, which seems to me fitting, but not without his peevish flaws. Jefferson was a hypocrite on slavery and a consummate fabulist about everything, but it was hard to hold that too much against him when one of those inventions was America.

Ellis presents the pair as the yin and yang of early America; Adams earthy and rooted to reality, Jefferson the dreamer. Jefferson had the ability to construct an edifice, Adams the cussedness to look for structural flaws with brilliant argumentation. In the end, you had a sturdy dwelling, but some hard feelings it took the two a while to resolve.

They did resolve it, though, holding out hope for Americans decades and centuries hence that what unites us can overcome what divides us. It's a nice lesson, presented subtly, but feels more tacked on than it should in this somewhat unfocused book.

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More Founding Brothers: The Revolut... reviews
review by . September 08, 2008
Ellis brings to well-crafted life the fragile nature of the American experiment in the first years after the revolution and the Constitution. He uses six short stories or incidents to frame this so-fragile balance between war and peace, Federalist and Republican, the very success or ignominious death of the American experiment:     --The Burr/Hamilton duel (in which Burr, the sitting VP shot and killed Hamilton.    --The compromise dinner (one of many clandestine …
review by . July 22, 2006
This work sheds light on our Founding Fathers by discussing early  historical events in more detail. For instance, Benjamin Franklin  tried to force Congress to confront slavery- head on. Our early  lawmakers were at a loss to figure out how slaves would be integrated into the economy and the broader society once freed.  Alexander Hamilton foresaw a scenario; wherein, the federal  government would triumph over the states.Alternatively, the Union …
review by . July 01, 2002
"Founding Brothers," begins with the most famous duel in American history, and ends with what may be the most famous reconciliation. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, ten-paces apart, level their pistols at each other, shots are fired, and one man is left standing with his reputation about to be demolished as surely as his opponent lay demolished on the banks of the Hudson. At the other end, two friends, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who, in the heat of politics, became bitter enemies, reconcile …
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Bill Slocum ()
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Reading is my way of eavesdropping on a thousand conversations, meeting hundreds of new and fascinating people, and discovering what it is about the world I enjoy most. Only after a while, I lose track … more
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In retrospect, it seems as if the American Revolution was inevitable. But was it? InFounding Brothers,Joseph J. Ellisreveals that many of those truths we hold to be self-evident were actually fiercely contested in the early days of the republic.

Ellis focuses on six crucial moments in the life of the new nation, including a secret dinner at which the seat of the nation's capital was determined--in exchange for support of Hamilton's financial plan; Washington's precedent-setting Farewell Address; and the Hamilton and Burr duel. Most interesting, perhaps, is the debate (still dividing scholars today) over the meaning of the Revolution. In a fascinating chapter on the renewed friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson at the end of their lives, Ellis points out the fundamental differences between the Republicans, who saw the Revolution as a liberating act and hold the Declaration of Independence most sacred, and the Federalists, who saw the revolution as a step in the building of American nationhood and hold the Constitution most dear. Throughout the text, Ellis explains the personal, face-to-face nature of early American politics--and notes that the members of the revolutionary generation were conscious of the fact that they were establishing precedents on which future generations would rely.

In Founding Brothers, Ellis (whose American Sphinx won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1997) has written an elegant and engaging narrative, sure to become a classic. ...

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ISBN-10: 0375705244
ISBN-13: 978-0375705243
Author: Joseph J. Ellis
Genre: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Nonfiction
Publisher: Vintage
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