Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation discusses the conflicting interpretations of the meaning of the American Revolution as well as the influence of these rival interpretations on the early history of the United States of America. Ellis focuses on the thoughts and deeds of pivotal figures within the Revolution, including Abigail and John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. This history is structured episodically, although the chapters speak to common themes.
Ellis begins by contextualizing his study of the Revolutionary generation. He cautions his readers against viewing history with the benefit of hindsight. Although to our eyes it may seem inevitable that the British Empire would lose its colonies over time, Ellis points out that the American Revolution and the creation of an independent state were not inevitable at all. Ellis goes on to outline two conflicting interpretations of the American Revolution to drive home the divided ideology that, he argues, still remains at the center of American political and academic discourse today.
Thomas Jefferson and his adherents tended to interpret the American Revolution as an act of individual rebellion against a centralized state. The Jeffersonian interpretation is a libertarian ideology, one that if followed strictly may have prevented the different states from entering into a union. In this view, there would have been no purpose in rebelling against the British Empire only to create a new centralized power. This view characterizes the stance of the early Republicans.
In contrast, the Hamiltonian interpretation of the American Revolution focuses on the sacrifice made by individuals to advance a great cause. By this view, the American Revolution should be characterized as an act of outright liberty. George Washington and John Adams followed this view, and the Federalists supported them.
Ellis’s purpose is not to settle the dispute between the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian interpretations. Instead, he seeks to explore the creation of the American state and argues that its founding should be considered a “collective enterprise that succeeded because of the diversity of personalities and ideologies.” He also argues that the Founding Fathers succeeded because they knew one another personally and tabled the debate on slavery and because they were aware that they would be remembered throughout history.
Ellis’s first episode tells the story of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. The duel takes place in 1804 and ends with the death not only of Hamilton but also of Burr’s political career. By this time, Burr had risen as high as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson, and Hamilton was considered the “intellectual well-spring” of Federalism.
Although successful, both men were controversial figures. Burr’s personal life was rife with intrigue, and some of his contemporaries argued that his political life was as notorious for its unprincipled party jumping. Meanwhile, Hamilton also had a habit of making enemies. His chief political opponent was Thomas Jefferson. However, Hamilton would set himself against the unprincipled Aaron Burr, even if it meant supporting Thomas Jefferson. By 1804, the two men had fought a battle of words in the press that they failed to resolve. They determined to settle matter by a duel, an act that was illegal by this time.
Although both were elder statesmen at this point and their influence had largely waned, Ellis uses this famous duel to...
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