Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis. Not recommended.
In Founding Brothers, Joseph Ellis uses six vignettes to show how the thoughts, acts, and interactions of the leaders of the “Revolutionary Generation” reveal their uncertainty about the new republic’s ability to survive and about the issues that threaten that survival, including slavery and the two parties’ fundamental differences. The “Brothers” of the title are Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton (one vignette examines their famous duel), George Washington, Benjamin Franklin (who is skimmed over, partly because of his age and lack of highest-level participation in the new government and partly, one suspects, because Ellis openly holds him in low regard), James Madison, John (and Abigail) Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.
Ellis is a highly biased historian and, as a result, can be a sloppy one. He fares best with Hamilton and Burr, showing Hamilton’s concerns about Burr’s character at a crucial time when character mattered because so much was at stake. While, given the evidence of Burr’s lifetime, it is difficult to turn Burr into a sympathetic figure, Ellis does show that Burr and Hamilton were very much alike and, later, that many of the Revolutionary Generation had legitimate concerns about Hamilton’s character in the context of a republic.
Any attempt at objectivity ends with Hamilton and Burr, however. For Ellis, George Washington is the sole reason we are here today. While outlining his physical flaws (unimportant as these are in the context), Ellis believes that Washington had a prescient idea of what the nation needed, including a strong leader like himself — a leader who could write to the Cherokee “in this path I wish all the Indian nations to walk” (referring to his advice to them to stop fighting white expansion and to adopt white economics and culture). Ellis avoids the arrogance of this suggestion and any reference to what would happen when many of the Cherokee did exactly what Washington told them to do — the infamous Trail of Tears. For all of Ellis’s belief in Washington’s prophetic abilities and insight, he deliberately leaves out that which does not fit with his view of history — the fact that the Indians, whether compliant Cherokee or defiant Comanche, were going to suffer similar fates, whether they took Washington’s advice or not. Being further east and situated on prime land, the Cherokee merely faced theirs sooner.
Later, when listing the Founding Brothers’ individual faults, the worst Ellis can say of Washington is that he was not well read, did not write well, and was a poor speller (as though spelling ability is a critical quality in a leader — and as though the rest of the Revolutionary Generation were much better). He also notes that Washington was more of an actor than a leader, failing to acknowledge that leadership is largely a matter of acting out the role and performing for the public.
Ellis is similarly protective of John Adams, whose presidency is remembered as a bad one because that is what Jefferson wanted. Ellis points out that Adams’s best decision — to send a peace delegation to France — was made while Abigail was sick in Quincy, while his worst choices — support of the Alien and Sedition Acts — were made under her direct influence. When he says that Adams did well when all the votes were counted, despite “bad luck, poor timing, and the highly focused political strategy of his Republican enemies,” Ellis disingenuously blames circumstance, Abigail, and Jefferson for Adams’s failings. Ellis can gloss over the evidence, but he cannot explain away Adams’s personal choice to support bad legislation. He, not Abigail or Jefferson, was responsible for his own actions and his own presidency.
This is not the case with Jefferson’s presidency. While it is barely mentioned (it merits part of a paragraph on page 212), Ellis says that Jefferson’s first term “would go down as one of the most brilliantly successful in American history.” This passive statement implies that this success had nothing to do with Jefferson or his actions, but just happens to be how history has recorded it. Ellis hurries on to state that his second term “proved to be a series of domestic tribulations and foreign policy failures.” Ellis leaves the reader with the impression that Adams is not to blame for his mistakes and that Jefferson can take credit only for his failures.
At this point, Ellis enhances Adams’s quoted assessment of Jefferson by noting that “Jefferson was an elegant stylist, to be sure . . . But he was not a mover-and-shaker, only a draftsman.” This seems an odd point for Ellis to make, given his focus for much of the book on Jefferson’s tireless efforts to eliminate Adams and the Federalists as threats and to have his version of history emerge as the one remembered.
While Ellis’s view of Jefferson as a conniving, borderline psychotic may explain Jefferson’s behavior and pattern of denial, it does so partly because Ellis contorts the evidence to lead to his conclusion rather than letting the evidence lead him to the conclusion. At one point, he states that Adams must surely have seen an exchange of letters between Abigail and Jefferson and that “we can be reasonably sure that Abigail was speaking for her husband as well as herself” and goes on to elaborate that the “Adams team” was charging Jefferson with two serious offenses. One page later, Ellis contradicts himself when he says, “Although Jefferson probably presumed that Abigail was sharing their correspondence with her husband, Adams himself never saw the letters until several months later.” He quotes Adams as writing, “The whole of the correspondence was begun and conducted without my Knowledge or Suspicion.”
Later, Ellis reads Jefferson’s mind, asserting that his use of the “collective we” in a letter was “inadvertent acknowledgment of the coordinated campaign of the Republican party.” How Ellis draws this conclusion is unclear; Jefferson uses “we” three times in the sentence. There is nothing “inadvertent” about Jefferson’s statement; he is telling Adams outright the collective Republican leadership’s perception of his role.
Ellis has come up with an interesting interpretation of Washington as indispensable; Jefferson as treacherous, traitorous, and seemingly disturbed; and Adams between the two — a fiery but decent man, hamstrung by Washington’s aura and reputation and by Jefferson’s disingenuous deviousness. Jefferson’s version of history, which Ellis believes was consciously created, has won. The underlying problem is that, given the level of contortions, distortions, and outright mind reading it requires for Ellis to come to this point, his version of history is as suspect as that of the Thomas Jefferson he portrays.
If you want to learn about the aftermath of the American Revolution and the relationships of its leaders, read Founding Brothers — but read it critically and with an awareness that Ellis is guiding you not to where the evidence leads, but where he directs it to lead. It’s interesting, entertaining, and thought provoking — but then so is historical fiction. Trust Ellis’s objectivity as much as he trusts Jefferson’s.
5 May 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf