Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation Themes

Joseph J. Ellis


A Precarious Nation

Ellis warns his audience against excessively relying on hindsight when studying history, often directing them instead to focus on the “crucible of the moment.” Modern readers know that the Revolutionary Generation would be successful and that America would become a world superpower. However, there were no guarantees for the Founding Fathers. Although we often look at the paintings and correspondence of these men and conclude that they were confident, in agreement, and above suspicion, Ellis takes the time to point out that they were only human. The creation of the United States of America was constantly at risk of failure.

Ellis highlights two conflicting interpretations of America’s purpose, which he refers to as the meaning of the Revolution and the spirit of ’76. On one extreme, the Revolution was about the creation of a self-governing people: independence, defiance, and individuality are highlights of this view. Jefferson and Madison of the Republicans are most strongly associated with this interpretation of the Revolution. The Federalists argued for the need for a central authority to represent the nation. They called for the sublimation of individual states to support the nation. They also tended to believe that the president should be vested with considerable authority and executive power. Hamilton, Adams, and Washington are most strongly associated with this view.

Ellis demonstrates that no single individual created the Union. Instead, the diversity of personalities and ideals allowed the government to steer a course that resisted extreme views. To illustrate this point, Ellis often points out the impracticality of Jefferson’s views. Where Jefferson chastised the central power of the Federalist government over the individual states, Adams and Hamilton were quick to respond that surely the Founding Fathers created a state to govern. However, there were times...

(The entire section is 788 words.)