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Review on Joseph K. Ellis' Book 'Founding Brothers'

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Joseph K. Ellis addresses the various number of obstacles that the revolutionary generation faced at home and abroad, as well as how the founding brothers’ relationship influenced the new nation after the fight for independence from Britain in 1776, in his book ‘Founding Brothers’. Joseph Ellis is an expert writer and American historian who focuses his works mainly on the early stages and development of the American nation. Of which, ‘Founding Fathers’ is one of his most successful works of art known for Ellis’ clarity in analyzing and explaining how personal relationships, mass challenges and instability, diversity, and general shortcomings of the Founding Fathers shaped the platform for the survival of democratic principles and the governmental framework that still exists to this day.

To establish stability and impose order, the founding fathers took many initiatives to the common issues that erupted during the nation’s years of inception including failure to come to an agreement on the issue of slavery, George Washington’s Farewell Address which stated the stepping down of Washington from office, America’s debt and public credit, the choosing of America’s capitol city, the major contested presidential elections, and so on. Ellis takes the reader back to 1790, when the general public’s credit has been ruined by the colonies’ debt after the American revolution. Alexander Hamilton’s solution was known as assumption, which was based on the premise that the central government would pay the colonies’ debt as a singular central body. James Madison, on the other hand, worked to thwart Hamilton’s scheme. Madison argued that the colonies had failed to pay their respective debts equally, and that Hamilton’s plan would cause certain states to cover the debts of other states and resulting in unfairness. On June 20, 1790, Thomas Jefferson held a dinner for James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, asking them to put their disagreements aside and find a way forward. According to Ellis, “the dinner invitation he had extended to the embattled Madison and Hamilton was perfectly in keeping with his character” (Ellis, 67). Madison then agreed to approve Hamilton’s financial plan and in return the capitol of the union would be established in Virginia, Madison’s hometown. With sixteen possible locations being proposed, choosing a location for the capitol of the nation was previously a struggle. Ellis claims that “Madison and Jefferson wanted the capital site to be close to them to be able to keep an eye on the capital” (Ellis, 71). Ellis stresses the frailty caused by the tension between the federal and state government and emphasizes on how important trust was between the founding fathers to the sacrifices reached for the union to succeed.

One major issue that early America struggled to rid of or come to an agreement on was slavery. The Constitution of the United States of 1787 established America’s national government and fundamental laws and focused primarily on the establishment of a union of states, which was almost impractical because of the southern states’ refusal to abolish slavery. In the month of February in 1790, Quakers petitioned the House and Congress to set slaves free, but the southern states threatened to leave the union. James Madison felt that he needed to save the Union, but the outcome ultimately came down to the issue that the “Constitution of the United States, only recently ratified, specifically prohibited the Congress from passing any law that abolished or restricted the slave trade until 1808” (Ellis, 82). James Madison and his representatives went silent. Thus, slavery continued to surge in America.

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In ‘Founding Brothers’, Ellis also speaks upon George Washington’s Farewell Address. Washington, who was elected as president in 1789, was leaving office after his two-term presidency. Ellis described Washington as “The Father of the Country” since 1776 which is to say, before there was even a country (Ellis, 120), which explains the popularity of him within the people and how his stepping down from office revealed the nature of the American union and how the nation refused to become a monarch. In order to promote national peace, Washington believed that the nation had to abstain from foreign affairs. He argued that war was expensive and needed to be avoided. This idea was condemned by many people including Madison and Jefferson, who excoriated Washington for his decision to remain neutral within French and British affairs, and sequentially creating the ideological disagreements between the federalists and republicans. Ellis points out his agreement with Washington’s decision, and that it undoubtedly strengthened his legacy as the greatest of the revolutionary generation.

Washington’s resignation from office forced the necessity of choosing a new leader, causing the Americans to feel concern and confusion on who would be the next president. According to Ellis, choosing between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1796 was like “choosing between the head and the heart of the American Revolution” (Ellis, 164). Although the two were very different in many ways, they developed a decade’s worth of friendship after their initial involvement in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. They traveled overseas on diplomatic missions and had an intimate relationship like no other—until politics finally drew them apart. The public in the early years of the nation chose their leaders not based on political beliefs and values, but rather by their revolutionary credentials and contribution. In this case, Adams was practically bound to win the election. During Adams’ presidency, he signed the Alien and Sedition Act in fear of imminent French invasion. Ellis refers to this decision as Adams’ biggest blunder. In addition, suspicions of Adams’ plan to create a monarch further ruined his reputation. The republicans saw Adams’ acts as a contradiction to the very characteristic of the American revolution that Americans fought for—liberty. Adams’ policies were harshly criticized by the republicans, which ultimately led to the failure of his reelection and Jefferson’s election to presidency in 1801. Adams saw this as betrayal of their comradeship and they stopped speaking, but due to the intimacy of their friendship they eventually began to correspond again. In the end, their views on politics remain dissimilar in which Jefferson believed American’s freedom to succeed are based on their own merit and the continued belief of Adams that the sublimation of individual states to the union was necessary. This is a prime example of how politics, even in the earliest stages of America, can influence just about anything. These fraught relationships and bitter feuds between the founding fathers have truly brought the light on the erratic and constantly changing nature of the nation.

The book ‘Founding Brothers’ allows for a comprehensive, multi-perspective examination of the people who drafted our Constitution and the values that Americans aspire for even today. Ellis explains all facets of the key incidents that occurred during the formation of America using hindsight and foresight techniques. He offers us insight into the minds of the founding fathers, their major accomplishments, how their complex relationships helped shape governmental foundations in the earlier years, and the origins of the American nation. Ellis also presents the various challenges after the revolutionary war, namely those surrounding the national debt and disagreements on the idea of slavery, etc. Despite achieving the one thing they wanted and boasted most about—freedom, the revolutionary generation were left in shambles and were deeply conflicted in their contrasting views on economic, social, and political aspects. ‘Founding Brothers’ broadens our view on the nature of American politics in the nation’s earliest years and offers a thorough understanding of the volatile forces that form history.

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Review on Joseph K. Ellis’ Book ‘Founding Brothers’. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from
“Review on Joseph K. Ellis’ Book ‘Founding Brothers’.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
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