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...
(The entire section is 1526 words.)
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