Literary Criticism and Significance
Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation was critically and commercially well received. In addition to receiving positive reviews, Ellis won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. Founding Brothers has since been expanded and adapted by the History Channel.
As a popular history, Founding Brothers is successful for its clarity, and even readers who are unfamiliar with the American Revolution should feel comfortable understanding the work. Ellis resists choosing one side over the other; rather, he clearly explains how the diversity, personal relationships, and generally upright character of the Founding Fathers created a platform for the survival of the federal government.
Ellis’s most contentious assertion may be that the Union succeeded because the Revolutionary generation chose to set aside the discussion of slavery. This decision led to the continuation of the slave trade and the increase in the number of slaves in America. Ellis consistently warns against judging the Founding Fathers too harshly with our hindsight but urges his audience to consider what he refers to as “the crucible of the moment.” However, Ellis tends to balance this warning by pointing out when decisions were proven right or vindicated by history. Regarding slavery, Ellis argues that no one has been able to prove that the Union could have survived without tabling the discussion of slavery.
Ellis’s research is impressive. He cites primary sources extensively within the body of the text, sometimes taking the time to transparently explain his interpretation of them. Ellis refers to secondary sources using endnotes and occasionally discusses how history has come to view the Revolutionary Generation over time. On the whole, Ellis has produced a concise, analytical historical work invitingly organized around six stories.
Founding Brothers may be the most successful of Ellis’s books, but it is not unusual within his larger body of work. Much of Founding Brothers relies on Ellis’s insights into the character of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Before he published Founding Brothers, Ellis had already discussed them in his works Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (for which he won the National Book Award). Ellis has since written a biography of George Washington. Readers can trust that they are in the hands of an expert, one who openly confesses his admiration for his subjects.