Monday, October 25, 2010

FOUNDING BROTHERS Paints a Full Picture

Founding Brothers, by Joseph J. Ellis, tells the story of the Revolutionary generation in America in a curious way. Six chapters each focus on one episode in the late 1700s or early 1800s, and from each episode, the narrative of each chapter fans out to the political climate of the time and the prevailing--and often opposing--opinions of the day.

“The Duel” tells the story of the conflict between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr that ended in Hamilton’s surprising demise (July 11, 1804). “The Dinner” relates the story, as well as the background, of the impromptu dinner (June 20, 1790) Madison and Hamilton had at Jefferson’s home where a deal was struck: Hamilton would throw his influence behind the national capitol being located along the Potomac, and Madison would throw his weight behind Hamilton’s plan for the national government to assume all states’ debts.

“The Silence” explains the diametric opinions and reasons behind the mutual assent to leave the hot potato of slavery alone for at least 20 years. “The Farewell” dissects and gives background to Washington’s notice in the American newspapers shortly before the election of 1796 that he would not run for a third term.

“The Collaborators” focuses primarily on the presidency of John Adams (1797-1801) and the debacle that it proved to be because of some of Adams’s own policies, because of his vice president’s (Jefferson) betrayal, and because of Hamilton’s own radical designs within Adams’s own party (though Adams claimed to be independent of his Federalist brethren). Finally, “The Friendship” tells the story of the friendship of Adams and Jefferson that was rekindled in both men’s retirement by means of a written correspondence (1812-1826), a correspondence that reveals much of their differing understandings of the American Revolution’s meaning.

In what follows, I am striving for brevity.

Things I learned on this, my second time through the book:

--The men of the Revolutionary generation, men like Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams, did not have a road map as to how to go about revolution and the subsequent establishment of a republican form of government. They were often making it up as they went along. Many of them did, however, sense that what they were doing was significant and would be enduring.

--In the establishing of the new government, I think I have underestimated Madison and overestimated Jefferson (though this is not to say that Jefferson didn’t have a significant contribution).

--If there was one indispensable man of the revolution, it was Washington. The second man of the revolution, who would have been considered so by the Revolutionary generation, was Benjamin Franklin.

--Abigail Adams is also a primary subject of Founding Brothers because of the influential role she played throughout John Adams’s life, especially during his presidency. She functioned as his one-person cabinet.

--A lot of these “founding brothers” did not get along with one another. Of course, Hamilton and Burr is the famous example. But consider also that Adams and Jefferson for a time, during their respective presidencies, had nothing good to say about the each other, and nothing to say to each other. Adams and Benjamin Franklin despised one another; Franklin thought Adams too tedious, and Adams thought Franklin an intellectual lightweight and a frivolous flirt. Adams loathed Hamilton (of his own party!) more than anyone else. After a letter of Jefferson’s was published that criticized Washington’s 2nd-term foreign policy and intimated that his intellectual prowess might be waning, all letters from Mount Vernon to Monticello ceased. And finally, Madison, Jefferson’s protégé, had little regard for Adams.

--All these men battled hubris. Because of this, and because of the aforementioned personal animosities that went in several directions, it seems even more incredible that these men pulled off a revolution, a constitutional convention, and a new form of government as successfully as they did. Then again, maybe it was because of these things that they were so successful.

Thoughts on the author’s style:

--I like Ellis’s approach, using episodes to paint the picture of the revolutionary era. One gets the impression that the picture thus painted is a very full one.

-- But this episodic approach at moments becomes a bit tedious. An episode is narrated, then explained, then the prevailing influences that led to the event are detailed, and the effects of the episode are explained, and then … layer upon layer is added. At moments it feels like a particular chapter has become an inverted pyramid, one episode bearing too much weight, and in an unsteady manner.

--Put another way, Ellis’s style feels like--to borrow from the trade of a pastor--historical exegesis. His conclusions are solid because they are based on a careful and systematic investigation of the data before him. But, like the preacher who preaches an entire series from one verse, at moments it wearies the audience. At those moments I got the same feeling listening to Ellis’s book--I listened to it this time around--as I have on occasion when I read a Jonathan Edwards sermon. (But keep in mind, I really like Edwards’ preaching, and I really like Ellis’s writing.)

Bottom line: I love this book. The fact that I re-read it indicates that. It’s a full education on the Revolutionary generation, and in an engaging manner.

My rating (out of 5): 4½

©2000 Albert A. Knopf. 248 pages.

First line: No event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution.

Last line: Whatever the version, he was wrong for the moment but right for the ages.

Appendix:
My favorite story in this book is its concluding one. Before Adams and Jefferson reconciled, Adams’s friend Benjamin Rush, who was working on both ends of the rift to repair it, writing letters to both Adams and Jefferson, reported a dream of his to Adams. In the dream, Adams sent a short note to Jefferson, “congratulating him on his recent retirement from public life.” Jefferson responded graciously, and a healing and rich correspondence ensued for some years until the two “sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country … and to their numerous merits and honors posterity has added that they were rival friends” (220).

It was an amazing dream given its fulfillment. Adams did send a brief letter to Jefferson three years later (1812), a reconciling correspondence did ensue, and they died within six hours of each other in 1826. One evening, Jefferson lapsed into a coma and died the following day around noon. At almost the same time Jefferson died, Adams collapsed in his favorite reading chair, awakened for a moment around 5:30 p.m. to say, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” and died. And to cap it off, the day they both died was July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of Independence Day.

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