Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

by Joseph J. Ellis

Paper Book, 2000




Knopf (2000), Edition: 1st, 304 pages


An analysis of the intertwined careers of the founders of the American republic documents the lives of John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.

Original publication date






½ (1004 ratings; 3.9)

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LibraryThing member dougwood57
The title of this book, Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis comes from a letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: "I look back with rapture to those golden days when Virginia and Massachusetts lived and acted together like a band of brothers." The title is ironic because Ellis' efforts are aimed
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at de-mythologizing the Founders.

Through a series of vignettes Ellis presents eight towering members of the Revolutionary generations and shows their essential humanity (for better and worse): Abigail and John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. Each story can stand on its own.

The Duel tells the story of the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr feud that led to the fatal duel. Hamilton literally died and Burr's political fortunes ended. The nation was better off without further influence from Burr.

The Silence relates the final serious attempt of the revolutionary generation to deal with slavery. Benjamin Franklin fought his last battle, a losing effort to abolish slavery. The story illustrates that the founders knew slavery was morally repugnant, but many feared, probably correctly, that the Republic would not survive an attempt to abolish the institution. The majority chose nationhood and slavery was quite literally banished as a topic of debate in the Congress. This story shines an unforgiving light on slave-holders like Jefferson and Washington. Members of their generation like Franklin understood the injustice of slavery. It is not anachronistic to say that as individuals Jefferson and Washington could also have perceived the injustice slavery and 'abolished' slavery on their own lands, but chose not to do so.

Other chapters detail the fascinating relationship between Adams and Jefferson (rekindled late in life by a series of letters between Abigail Adams and Jefferson) and the arrangement among Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison to establish a permanent new capital in exchange for support of Hamilton's financial plans for the country.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in American history.
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LibraryThing member tututhefirst
I was hoping this book would be a 'refresher' to bring me back up to snuff on the most telling issues of the American Revolution. I am rejoining the US Presidents' challenge, having read bios of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson several years ago, and didn't want to have to go back.

Ellis presents us
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six essays which are alternately entertaining, enlightening, and brutally boring. He seems to think that if 100 words would do, 500 are much better. I had a hard time in several places staying awake.

Interestingly, he begins with the Hamilton-Burr duel, and seems to feel a lengthy lesson in economics is needed to explain the enmity built up between these two.

Then he gives us a chapter entitled "The Dinner" at which Thomas Jefferson, the host, is reputed to have brokered a deal between Hamilton and Madison to allow for federal assumption of all states debt in exchange for allowing the federal capital to be situated in Virginia. We got page upon page of background, but I had a hard time finding the dinner.

The third chapter "The Silence" I found the most interesting, but also the most difficult to read. It refers to the decision of the Founders to avoid a discussion or decision about the question of slavery.

Next up is "The Farewell" a elucidation of Washington's famous address in which he puts forth his (and many claim Hamilton's) thoughts on the party system, the need for the country not to form alliances, etc. Again, enlightening, but pedantic.

"The Collaborators" I found the hardest of all to follow. To me it was a series of short paragraphs describing various friendships, alliances and relationships that helped patch together diverse policies.

And finally, "the Friendship". The most cogent of the chapters where Ellis gives us a condensed look at the magnificent letter writing that took place over the last 14 years of the lives of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

If you are a true history buff, you'll love this book. It is extensively researched, and well footnoted. If you are looking for a quick fill in, this might not be the book for you. I'm glad I read it, but I won't be pulling it off the shelf to re-read anytime soon.
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LibraryThing member cranmergirl
This was a very interesting book about seven of the leading figures of the Revolutionary Era (John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.) The book consisted of six chapters, each chapter telling a different Revolutionary
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tale. As Americans, we have been told a much romanticized version of the American Revolution. Some of our founding fathers have been portrayed as near saints, while others have been marginalized and almost ignored. I believe that in truth the Revolution was much more chaotic and messy than often depicted. Also many of the less well-known founders played much more crucial roles than the romantic version would have us believe. This book does a good job of filling in some of the gaps in our knowledge of the founders and the decisive role that each played at such a consequential time in our nation's history.
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LibraryThing member greeniezona
I've owned this book for ages, and it's been on my "priority" shelf for over a year now. But it took my oldest son's obsession with Hamilton to get me to finally take it down and open it. This book us framed around six events/relationships/conflicts -- three of which are explicitly major events in
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the musical. So there were definitely plenty of little bonus moments of "Oh, *that's* what that one little line meant!" It was enough to make me even a little happy that I put off reading this until I had a major portion of Hamilton lyrics living in my head.

While there were some moments of authorial opining that irritated me here and there, in general, I appreciated Ellis's approach -- which is generally to remind us of the stakes of the American Revolution. While those involved in the creation of America certainly felt that they were engaged in a great endeavor -- for which history would certainly be watching them -- it was never a foregone conclusion that their experiment on democracy would be successful, which is easy to lose sight of from our vantage point.

I don't think that this would serve as a great introduction to the Revolution, but it was a fascinating addition. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on The Duel, John and Abigail Adams's partnership, and the late in life letter-writing of Adams and Jefferson. (The least enjoyable was the chapter on Washington's farewell, which dragged terribly.)

Glad I finally read it.
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LibraryThing member reannon
Ellis has written an entertaining as well as educational book. It takes an unusual form. He takes a verbal snapshot of six moments in time, then filled in the context for that event. That context is necessary... most of us have an insufficient view of the past, thinking we know it better than we
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do, and looking from our current lens. The most important part of the context we need to understand now is how fragile the US seemed to that first generation. Rightly or wrongly, they saw many issues as having the potential to end the Revolutionary experiment. Ellis calls his chapter on slavery "The Silence". The moment in time was debate in Congress in 1790 over Quaker anti-slave trade petitions. The main upshot was an agreement to not discuss the issue, as it seemed the main issue that would fracture the Republic. And Ellis makes a good case that financially and socially there probably wasn't a workable solution.

Other chapters cover the Hamilton-Burr duel in 1804, Washington's Farewell Address, a dinner with Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison that helped cement a solution on the federal assumption of state debt and the settlement of the nation's capitol on the Potomac, the 1796 Presidential election, and the tumultuous friendship between Adams and Jefferson.

There are wonderful character studies along the way... Hamilton, Burr, Madison, Washington, and most especially Adams and Jefferson. This is the history I love, the stories of people, as well as forces, and how they interplay.

Wonderful book, highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member nittnut
It is human nature to romanticize events in history, to elevate the players above the level of human. Ellis uses 6 different vignettes from the founding of the United States to illustrate that the Founders were human, with opinions, sometimes right, sometimes wrong. Instead of trying to write a
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comprehensive history, he writes a balanced narrative showing how the achievement of the revolutionary generation was a collective enterprise that succeeded because of the diversity of personalities and ideologies present in the mix... they all knew one another personally...they managed to take the most threatening and divisive issue off the political agenda.
My favorites of all the sections were The Farewell, about George Washington's farewell and the peaceful transfer of power, and The Friendship, about the falling out of Adams and Jefferson and the eventual reconciliation.
One quote I particularly liked illustrated the reality (as Adams saw it) of the American Revolution, and lends some perspective to the political battles of today:
As Adams remembered it, on the other hand, "all the great critical questions about men and measures from 1774 to 1778 were desperately contested and highly problematic occasions, usually decided by the vote of a single state, and that vote was often decided by a single individual." Nothing was clear, inevitable or even comprehensible to the soldiers in the field at Saratoga or the statesmen in the corridors at Philadelphia: "It was patched and piebald policy then, as it is now, ever was, and ever will be, world without end." The real drama of the American Revolution, which was perfectly in accord with Adam's memory as well as with the turbulent conditions of his own soul, was its inherent messiness. This meant recovering the exciting but terrifying sense that all the major players had at the time - namely, that they were making it up as they went along, improvising on the edge of catastrophe."
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LibraryThing member KLmesoftly
I loved this book. The title, as another reviewer said, is apt, since Ellis focuses on the very human relationships between these American minor dieties. The author manages to remain reverent - or at the least, affectionate - even as he depicts these men at their most petty, which makes for an
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insightful, entertaining read. I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member ck2935
A great book analysing the relationship between our Founding Fathers. An easy read.
LibraryThing member MarthaLillie
A very interesting book on the interaction of the main characters on the stage after the revolution.
LibraryThing member CritEER
- Winner of 2001 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award (recognizes books of exceptional merit written on the Revolutionary War era)
- Great analysis on six important events from the revolutionary period
- Washington's precedent setting farewell address was my favorite chapter
LibraryThing member derekstaff
A great look into the lives of various members of the "Founding Fathers," examining their relationships and their foibles. Ellis presents a refreshing look at their conflicts, challenging the notion of some harmonious vision among that collection of men. It reminds us that they were indeed men, not
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LibraryThing member dvf1976
I wouldn't trust Jefferson. He paid a muckraker journalist named Calendar to write disparaging (untrue) things about his 'friend' John Adams.

When later confronted about it by Adams, Jefferson did not admit to it (even though there was solid evidence that he was lying)

According to the author, he
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had convinced himself that he wasn't in league with Calendar.

Calendar was also the person who broke the story that Jefferson slept with one of his slaves...

You reap what you sow!
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LibraryThing member linedog1848
This was a bit of a grind to get through. The historical content of this work was interesting and well-researched, but I find Ellis's presentation pedantic and at times pretentious. Then again, I think the same thing of Ellis in his speech and lecturing style as well.

Just the same, I continue to
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read his work because he has a way of narrowing in on well known people or events in history about which I've read before in a new and unexpected way. This particular book brought some particularly interesting new perspectives on the Jefferson-Adams dynamic over time, about the Washington administration (including insights not really articulated in His Excellency: George Washington).

In the end, it was good, and worth reading, but I just don't like the author's style or manner of speech. And the chapter titles drive me nuts.

Physically, the book was okay. It was thin, but the pages had a good texture. The font was somewhat smaller than I prefer, though. It was small enough to be my take-with-me book, which I like, but because of the other mentioned issues with style, it wasn't something that could hold my attention amidst distractions and ended up being the nightstand book.
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LibraryThing member datrappert
Highly readable account of America's founding fathers brings their individual personalities to life - or larger than life in the case of George Washington. What amazed me most was their awareness of their place in history and how their actions would set precedents for the future.
LibraryThing member timspalding
I'm only part-way through this, but I can already say it's an excellent book. I'm inherently skeptical of books everyone likes—there must be something wrong with them. But I think the Pulitzer committee got this one right.
LibraryThing member ALGuerra
Excellent book! Very easy to read and very interesting. Gives the reader a lot of information and an inside look to the troubles of our Founding Fathers. Ellis provides the stories for each of our Founding Fathers and provides an interesting story of each them.
LibraryThing member torrey23
Ellis does a great job in this book. He enlightens his audience on a variety of issues ranging from George Washington to Aaron Burr. This stories that he chooses to expound upon are stories that I knew, but did not truly understand all of the implications of the stories. Ellis remains objective
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throughout the book. He has no obvious worshippings of the players, nor does he give any undue criticisms. This is a great book, and well worth the time and money spent on it.
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LibraryThing member OccassionalRead
Terrificly titled book. Founding Brothers (instead of fathers) draws attention to the fact that this book is largely about the relationship between what we now call our this country's founding fathers. It details their friendships, hatreds, rivalries, and overt and covert alliances. It pays most
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attention to Jefferson and Adams, but also provides insights into Hamilton, Burr, Washington, Franklin and Madison. Ellis is a terrific writer, never dry, witty at times, insightful, full of reverence and respect, and extremely knowledgeable about the time and players. This is history as you want it. Not full of facts and figures but stories about intriguing, human, real life players, who just happened to be geniuses and extremely interesting people.
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LibraryThing member beccac220
Great book! What a wonderful introduction for someone inexperienced in this period of American history. I thought the organization of the book was brilliant and, although it was a little above my head in terms of dialect, I enjoyed the challenge. A higly recommended read.
LibraryThing member tloeffler
Unlike a regular biography, Ellis gives us six stories about different combinations of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr. This is a different perspective, assuming that you know the facts, and takes us down a path
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of relationships between and among these men whose accomplishments are usually seen from the standpoint of each individual man. Fascinating and fun!
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LibraryThing member KatieANYC
Deservedly considered a classic of the genre, FOUNDING BROTHERS is a riveting and personal look at the founding generation after they completed their revolution and were faced with running the country. Rivalry, strategy, idealism, legacy, and most importantly, survival, were at the front of their
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minds as they navigated questions of seeking alliances in Europe, tackling slavery, uniting the northern and southern colonies, etc. To lean on a cliche, Ellis really breathes life into these icons, restoring their humanity and petty frailties while lauding their accomplishments. An absolutely marvelous work of American history.
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
Since I originally thought this book would be more about the American Revolution, I was initially somewhat disappointed to find myself reading more about the post-Constitutional Convention years of early American history. However, Joseph Ellis nevertheless does an excellent job of bringing out the
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drama of those years and highlighting the different personalities involved. This book is a great introduction to the early American republic, as Ellis profiles the various characters familiar to most Americans - Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton - and the issues they faced as well as the issues they refused to face. Ellis displays how the Founding Fathers refused to discuss the issue of slavery for fear of dividing the country so recently created and so forced following generations to wrestle with what they could not.
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LibraryThing member ScottKalas
After listening to David McCullough's "John Adams" Joesph Ellis' "Founding Brothers" was a disappointment. Ellis writes about 6 events surrounding the lives of John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.

The events, Burr and
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Hamilton's deadly duel; Hamilton; Jefferson, and Madison's secret dinner, where the capital's permanent location & Hamilton's financial plan were planned; Franklin's drive to end slavery, and Madison's efforts to thwart it; Washington's Farewell Address; Adams's challenges as Washington's successor & an alleged scheme to pass the presidency on to his son; and Adams and Jefferson's correspondence at the end of their lives. Though all 6 events had some noteworthiness, they were way to long and about midway no longer kept my interest.

McCullough's biography kept my interest throughout, his writing on events presented a more personable approach. Where as Ellis made them sound just like men of history

Ellis is a recognized writer of American History and has authored many books of which I plan to listen to, but as for listening to "Founding Brothers" for the most part it was like those days back in school, "boring!!!"
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LibraryThing member TimmyP
Very interesting and easy to read. Scholars of American history will find the way Ellis explains the debates between the major founding fathers very interesting and more casual readers of history will find the overview he gives of the key players in the American revolution and creation of the USA
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very interesting and entertaining.
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LibraryThing member lfranco
Winner of the Pulitzer prize, it took a while for me to get into this book. I found the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to be very interesting.


Pulitzer Prize (Winner — History — 2001)
LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — Biography — 2000)
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