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Posted on June 16th, 2012, by

Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis a historical non fiction book which describes separate episodes from the 1790s – a time, when the American nation was formed and country started its existence.Ā  The book is a unique combination of historical facts and personal information about the main characters, their thoughts, actions and motives in those historical times.

Ellis uses an interesting technique, he concentrates on specific events and uses them as a way to give an idea about the whole epoch in the history of America.

The book consists of six chapters. Each of them concentrates on one historical event and discovers the personalities of several historical characters.

The first chapter describes the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Ellis gives the readers insight on the motives which influence this political giants and at the same time provides us with detailed information about the duels taken at those times. Ellis sadly states that duel was a usual event during the time of the revolutionary generation, “when political difference ended in violence and death rather than in ongoing argument”¯ (Ellis, 87).

The second chapter describes a secret dinner at which the seat of the nation’s capital was determined, organised by Jefferson for Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in June 1790. This legendary dinner resulted one of the biggest compromises in the American history. Ellis regarded political relationship between Jefferson and Madison as “the most successful political partnership in American history”¯ (Ellis,159).Ā  Jefferson is described in the book like a brilliant strategist and Madison is portrayed as thoughtful tactician.Ā  Madison has performed a perfect example of political tactics when succeeded to oppose Washington’s and Hamilton’s policies which gave green light to Jefferson during the presidential elections in 1790s.

Third chapter touches an important topic of slavery. It’s an interesting survey on the topic which analyzes the attitude of founding brothers to the subject. In this chapter Ellis described Franklin’s last public act – petition to end the “peculiar institution”¯ of slavery and Madison’s efforts to quash it. The issue of slavery becomes that compromise that give the opportunity to Northern and Southern states agree to a federal government. The price was too high, but the foundation of the new state couldn’t go smooth and needed sacrifices.

Farewell address by George Washington in its historical context becomes the main issue described in the fourth chapter. These are the last words pronounced by Washington which announced his retirement from public sphere which contained last advice and wishes to the country and its citizens.Ā  The last words of the first president are put in the context of his presidency. In his farewell address Washington judged slavery and discrimination. “He tended to regard the condition of the black population as a product of nurture rather than nature””that is, he saw slavery as the culprit, preventing the development of diligence and responsibility that would emerge gradually and naturally after emancipation”¯ (Ellis, 194).

In the fifth chapter Ellis concentrates on the description of the events which took place on the political scene of the young country after the presidency of Washington.Ā  He gives the reader insight into sophisticated system of alliances and collaborations which formed political life of those times.

The sixth chapter is a touching story about the friendship between Adams and Jefferson. The author gives us idea about the relations through letters they sent each other which contain information about their political views, motives and major revolutionary achievements.Ā  The debate about the meaning of revolution becomes a conclusion of the book. In this debate Ellis expressed his view on the difference between Republicans and Federalists. He pointed to the importance of the fact that Republicans saw the Declaration of Independence and the fundamental document of the new-built country in contrast to Federalists, who regarded the revolution as only a brick in the fundament of the American nation and counted on the Constitution in their expectations and plans for political future of the country.

Ellis’s effort to created “modest-sized account of a massive historical subject”¯, as he characterised his book in the preface, became a success. Very personal but at the same time informative and historical narration gives us a better understanding of the origins of the American nation and its founders. The structure of the book makes it more interesting and easy to perceive. Six chapters, which inter-connect and not always follow in the strong chronological order, concentrate on six major events of the early American history. Ellis did a big job collecting historical facts and evidences and order to provide the reader with true historic record of the events, but he went much further than creating a scrupulous historic survey. He managed to show the humanness of each of his characters everybody got used to treat as gigantic historical personalities, Founding Fathers. He made us remember about their ordinary everyday life, their mistakes and doubts, small victories, feelings and emotions.Ā  I think that the description of the republic foundation is very interesting and rather precise, but the depictions of the key political figures of those times, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison can also be very useful to get a better idea about that epoch. Such type of narration makes the reader closer to the legends of the American history and makes the history more understandable for modern people. Ellis managed to create lively, three-dimensional characters with their own strengths and weaknesses and showed the unique role of each personality in creating the history of the US. “Founding Brothers”¯ gives a perfect opportunity to study the early American history in the entertaining yet scientific manner. Good thing about the book is that it is not only sheds the light of the past but also gives a better understanding of the modern American history as a lot of problems and conflicts we face now root from the past, from the first years of the country. So, studying the past it’s easier to understand the present. People, who don’t know their past are not worthy their future is an axiom which reflects the wisdom of the centuries.

I liked the book though is seemed boring sometimes but not because the events described were boring, but because of the author’s manner to repeat things and make the descriptions too long. These are the only counterparts I can mention about this book. I liked authors language ”“ simple but not primitive, it was easy for comprehension. I found out a lot of new information and also appreciated new interpretations of the commonly known facts. After reading the book I could form a personal attitude to the historic personalities and make my own guesses and conclusions about the events described. This book helped me to estimate in a new way historical facts I already knew and added some new information about this period. It’s an amazing way to show how the personal traits of characters, wishes, emotions and motivations of the founding brothers give input into the forming of the republic and make it the way we see it now. Probably, Ellis deprived some of the characters of their romantic aureoles we got used to create around them from the first history lessons but what he did was more important to my mind. He managed to show that fragile balance reached in the creation of the young American country was a unique combination of different visions and values of its founding fathers.

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