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The Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Apr 15th, 2019


A Pulitzer Prize-winning book called The Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation is written by Joseph Ellis. The literary work focuses on the interactions among individuals of various origins who had a profound impact on the evolution of a new nation and culture, the United States of America. In particular, the account relates to the group of gifted individuals, including Franklin, Jefferson, Burr, Hamilton, Madison, Adams, and Washington, who managed to create a new union and survive in a new world.

In the book, the author highlights the realities of the end of the eighteenth century during which the Founding Brothers, also known as Founding Fathers, sought to define the practical underpinnings of our government, as well as create the content and ideals for the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.


The work focuses on the six significant historical episodes, including Burr and Hamilton’s deadly encounter, Washington’s Farewell Address, Adam and Jefferson’s correspondence, Franklin’s endeavor to make Congress consider the issue of slavery and Madison’s resistance to his attempts, and, finally, Adam’s political administration and cooperation with his wife.

In the first chapter entitled as The Duel, the scholar introduces personal and political encounter between Burr and Hamilton, leading to the deadly duel predetermined by the challenges of the Revolution. While looking through the prism of historical events, the duel is considered one of the most significant and famous encounters known in American history.

The rivalry resulted in Hamilton’s injury and death whereas Burr’s experienced indignation and disapproval on the part of society. The main conflict between the politicians was premised on the discrepancies in personal outlooks. The second chapter narrates the secrete negotiations resulting in the selection the Potomac River location for building the new national capital.

Such a decision is made in exchange for Virginia’s advocate of Hamilton’s financial plan. The plan referred to the development of states debts that should be acknowledged by the federal government. In Chapter Three called The Silence, the author uncovers the confrontation between James Madison supporting the postponement of slavery discussion and Benjamin Franklin who signed the petition that withdrew the importance of slave trade and slavery for the welfare of the union.

The fourth chapter of the book is called The Farewell and discloses the Presidents George Washington’s Address in which he presented his view on the political and social reforms that were vital for prosperous development of nation. The speech represents the classic message of republicanism through which the former presidents warn American society about the political hazards they must avoid to maintain and develop the nation’s veritable values.

The Collaborators is the title of the fifth chapter, in which two important relationships are discussed. The first one involves the political partnership between John Adams, the second president of the United States., and his wife during his administration period. The second partnership is dedicated to the evaluation of cooperation between James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in the course of the same historic period.

The first partnership is connected with the rise of the discussion on the Atlas of Independence, as well as of the revolution of the British policy. Madison and Jefferson formed another coalition whose main purpose was to create Democratic-Republican Party and write the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions to denounce the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The final chapter – The Friendship – introduces the active correspondence between Jefferson and Adams who strived to revive the lost friendship. While elaborating on this period, Ellis provides a unique account on the romanticized version of the correspondence on history, challenges, and politics. The correspondence can be interpreted as the attempt of both politicians to expound their outlooks on power and politics.

Historic Evaluation and Personal Analysis

Historical Perspective

While looking the book through the prism of historical events, it should be stressed that the correspondence between Adams and Jefferson touches on the question of whether history is represented either as a lived experience or as a recollection of the past.

At this point, Jefferson’s role as the founder of the Declaration of Independence became the underpinning for American history whereas Adams’s role is confined to his personal experience, which assumed sophisticated origin to the document, as well as the restricted importance of the drafter.

At the same time, different versions narrated by their followers about the events happened at Weehawken between Burr and Hamilton focus on the tragic fate of the latter, which is also perpetuated in the United States history. While choosing this perspective, the author unveils the content as a critical, thoughtful, and superior approach to evaluating the main facts from history throughout his work.

In response to Ellis’s account, Young and Nobles argue that the author strived “…to portray the leading figures of the Revolutionary era as individual actions within an enclosed circle of political insiders, all smilingly isolated from the social and political turmoil”[1].

To support this argument, it is purposeful to cite Ellis’s statement about collaborations and personal encounters among the politicians. In particular, the author stresses the importance of analyzing the “marginal or peripheral people whose lives are more typical”, but their significance to the history and political reforms is incredibly small[2].

Indeed, Ellis withdraws the importance of humble population; instead, his attention is paid to transcendence of the natural rights of the political elite. Within this perspective, all central events represented in the book are of political origin. These achievements bear historical significance due to their role in shaping the history of the United States.


The author organizes his book by evaluating particular events during the decade, including the 1787 Constitutional Convention to demonstrate the main constructs of American history, with no explicit data about outcomes.

In particular, Ellis does not construct the book in a comprehensive or systematic manner; rather, he focuses on several historically significant political figures – Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and James Madison – who are represented in a number of provoking episodes, testifying to such themes as the friendship, cooperation, convictions, and philosophical outlooks on the future development of the United States. The main emphasis in the book is placed on revealing thematic and experiential visions of the history rather than on chronological account.

While deliberating on the book structure and organization, Young and Nobles explain, “this emphasis on individual character and political connection …is, after all one basic approach to biography”[3]. Such an approach is perceived critically by other book critics who believe that lack of comprehensive manner constitutes the major shortcoming of the book. Nevertheless, such an approach is beneficial in terms of highlighting the main personalities and leaderships styles employed by the famous historical figures in American history.

Author’s Significant Assumptions

By describing and accounting the major experiences, feelings, and attitudes experienced by the Founding Fathers, Ellis encompasses all propitious events, as well as practices the skill of narrating. In particular, the description of the duel event, the author insists, “the stigma associated with the Burr-Hamilton duel put the code duello on the defensive as a national institution”[4]. In addition, the book ignores the politicians’ origins because the New World provides people with equal opportunities for gaining power and freedom.

While depicting and assessing the historical events, the author frequently refers to the importance of collaboration and interaction among the politicians, leading to the formation of new concepts, regulations, and principles in a new union. At this point, the role of personal approaches and political visions is amplified because these interactions do not only contribute to political growth and evolution of the union, but also serve as an underpinning for constrains and contradictions among the politicians.

Thus, the correspondence between Jefferson and Adams, the duel between Burr and Hamilton, and the confrontation between Madison and Franklin are bright examples of how political and personal relationships can influence the creation of social and economic environment in the country.

At this point, the author argues, “the key point is that the debate was not resolved so much as built into the fabric of our national identity”[5]. Looking through the prism of personal encounters allow the author to define and predict the development of the Unite States as a series of confrontations.

Apart from shaping the American nation’s identity, the interactions among the Founding Fathers also affected the content of such famous documents as the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. This is of particular concern to Washington’s Farewell speech, which is considered as a transcendent document, leading to the adoption of the Declaration.

Under this chapter, the author discusses such themes as national unity, struggle for political power, independent foreign policy, and disapproval of factions. The extensive overview of these topics provides a fresh insight into the history of the United States and creates a new pattern in understanding political and social life at the end of eighteenth century.

Logic in Developing the Thesis

Based on the book’s main idea and argumentative thesis, the author relies on a handful of direct quotes that specifically relate to the correspondence between the above-mentioned politicians. Using this approach in interpreting the history allows the author to link the thematic nodes in all six chapters, beginning from betrayal and confrontation of personal interests and ending with author’s attitude to friendship.

In general, addressing the interaction between notable historic and political activist creates a fresh insight at the American history and explain the existing biases and conflicts in a contemporary society. It also sheds light on the formation of cultural and national identities in the United States, as well as defines the perspectives for social development.

In fact, using a narrow-focused personal vision of the political situation at the end of eighteenth differs much from the social history perspective that is heavily used by most historians for describing American history. Ellis’s decision to confine the list of characters only to eight people contributes to developing a new context in which all historical events occur.

Use of Sources to Support Author’s Assertion

The book can be compared with other biographic books dedicated to the American founding. In particular, in the book called Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries, Richard Morris focuses on defining the role of historic figures in shaping the destiny and future development of the new nation[6].

The work by Donald Philips called The Founding Fathers on Leadership: Classic Teamwork in Changing Times sheds light on a range of leadership styles that were practiced in the New World and were used by the Founders[7]. From this viewpoint, Ellis’s book is considered a mixture of Phillips and Morris texts, although it has much in common with Morris’s book in terms of use of sources.

As a proof, the author presents a quote from the correspondence between Adams and Jefferson that refers to their friendship: “The Friendship shoulder-to-shoulder against the Tories, served together in Europe as a dynamic team, then returned to serve again in the new national government”[8]. Thus, despite all the hardships and challenges that emerged among the Founding Fathers, they all were united by a special bond.

Audience for the Book and Language Used

The target audience of the book is relatively vast because it can be used for educational purposes and for personal inquiries. Due to the fact that this account is premised on experiences and biographic information, it simplifies the process of reading and comprehending the material because no theoretical framework are presented.

Absence of pedagogical approach makes the work even more compelling and interesting. References to first-hand documents are also beneficial because they provide a deeper insight into the realities of the time. Most importantly, the book manages to skillfully combine the historical flashback with the current trends in development of American society.


Columbus, Frank H. Book Reviews on Presidents and the Presidency. US: Nova Publishers, 2008.

Ellis, Joseph. The Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. US: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2000.

Young, Alfred Fabian and Gregory H. Nobles. Whose Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding. NY: NYU Press, 2011.


  1. Alfred Fabian Young and Gregory H. Nobles. Whose Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding. (NY: NYU Press, 2011) 140.
  2. Joseph Ellis. The Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. (US: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2000), 10.
  3. Alfred Fabian Young and Gregory H. Nobles. Whose Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding. (NY: NYU Press, 2011) 141.
  4. Joseph Ellis. The Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. (US: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2000), 20.
  5. Ibid., 16.
  6. Frank H. Columbus. Book Reviews on Presidents and the Presidency. (US: Nova Publishers, 2008), 56.
  7. Ibid., 56.
  8. Joseph Ellis. The Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. (US: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2000), 212.
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