By Joseph Ellis
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 29, 2001
The American Revolution and the longevity of the political system it created
appear in retrospect such inevitable results of historical development
that we sometimes forget what remarkable achievements they actually were.
No republican government had ever consolidated its authority over so vast
a geographical area. The statesmen of the revolutionary generation deserve
enormous credit for the success of the American experiment in nation-building
and self-government. This, at least, is Joseph J. Ellis' argument in "Founding
Ellis, who teaches at Mount Holyoke College, is best known for his study
of Thomas Jefferson, "American Sphinx" and for publicly changing
his opinion about Jefferson's purported relationship with his slave Sally
Hemings when DNA evidence indicated that he had fathered at least some
of her children. (In this book, he reiterates that Jefferson's paternity
has been established "beyond any reasonable doubt.") Loosely
modeled on Lytton Strachey's classic "Eminent Victorians," "Founding
Brothers" is less a history of the revolutionary era than a series
of "stories" meant to illustrate the character and beliefs of
the period's most prominent political leaders, among them John Adams,
Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.
But while Strachey's title was ironic and his sketches deconstructed,
as it were, his subjects' pretensions and reputations, Ellis has composed
a valentine to the founders.
Human that generation certainly was, with prejudices, passions, and blind
spots. Those who turn from our own sordid politics to seek in the past
a pristine time of disinterested statesmanship will not find much support
in this book. During the 1790's, Ellis points out, the political wheeling
and dealing inside Congress reached such epidemic proportions that Madison
acquired the unofficial title Big Knife because of his success in cutting
deals. . The political culture was intensely partisan and political invective
even more scurrilous than during Bill Clinton's presidency.
On the other hand, Ellis's abundant quotations from his subjects' writings
-- -- notably the exchange of letters between Adams and Jefferson that
began in 1812 and ended with their deaths in 1826 -- stand in sharp contrast
to our own era, when political leaders seem incapable of producing a grammatical
sentence, let alone a speech of soaring rhetoric. And his "stories";
make the point that the 18th century, unlike ours, was a time when American
statesmen debated questions that went to the root of the society's present
and future. The era's passions reflected, above all, profound differences
about how the fruits of independence should be secured and what kind of
nation the new United States should be.
"Founding Brothers" begins less than auspiciously, with a detailed
account of the maneuverings leading up to the 1804 duel with Aaron Burr
that cost Hamilton his life. While interesting in its own right, the chapter
seems to have little purpose other than to demonstrate Burr's recklessness.
But when Ellis moves on to the other founders, his careful exposition
of events and controversies illuminates the politics of the early republic.
Ellis uses a famous 1790 dinner, at which Jefferson brokered a political
bargain whereby Southerners accepted Hamilton's plan for federal assumption
of state debts in exchange for the establishment of a permanent capital
on the banks of the Potomac River, to explore rival visions of America's
economic future. To Hamilton, the new nation needed to mobilize its resources
under the guidance of the federal government and to tie its economic future
to the self-interested energies of its most dynamic business leaders --
bankers, merchants, and other members of the urban elite. Jeffersonians
believed the future lay with westward expansion and the consolidation
of an agrarian republic, not commerce and manufacturing. They feared that
Hamilton's fiscal plan was creating the very institutions a national
bank, national debt, and all-powerful national state -- that had led Britain
down the road to tyranny and corruption.
In a chapter on the drafting of Washington's Farewell Address (actually
a public letter, never delivered orally), Ellis illustrates the close
working relationship between Hamilton and the first president and ruminates
on Washington's indispensable role as both symbol and creator of national
unity. By examining the changes in Hamilton's successive drafts, Ellis
shows how he managed to express Washington's innermost beliefs more effectively
than the president himself. His prose was more elegant and epigrammatic
than Washington's, but when he tried to slip some of his own opinions
into the address, the president corrected him in no uncertain terms. And
Washington's decision to relinquish office voluntarily after serving two
terms the occasion for the address -- established a powerful precedent
for how political leadership in a republic would differ from that in the
Within its self-defined limits, "Founding Brothers" is remarkably
successful. Ellis writes in an lucid, unhurried style, and with a sure
command of the historical sources. This is one of those rare books that
one reads with greater and greater enjoyment as it goes on.
Ellis gently notes that at a time when most historians focus on the social
history of ordinary Americans, his study of a few major political leaders
goes "against the scholarly grain. Of course, there is no single
way to study history. Nonetheless, Ellis' decision to limit his cast of
characters to seven men and one woman (Abigail Adams, her husband's "chief
domestic minister without portfolio" creates problems. After all,
one of the Revolution's signal achievements was a vast expansion of what
historians call the public sphere -- the arena of political debate outside
the realm of government. Beneath the leaders' intense disagreements of
the 1790s lay deep differences within American society. Ellis does not
really capture the intense reactions to the French Revolution unbridled
enthusiasm among Jeffersonians, revulsion on the part of Federalists
that fueled the era's fierce newspaper debates and intense partisan politics.
The "fundamental division" over the nation's future that Ellis
delineates among the founders also played out within the country at large.
The limits of Ellis' approach are most apparent in his treatment of one
issue the founders failed to confront effectively, slavery. This chapter
begins with the arrival of petitions to Congress in 1790 calling for the
abolition of the African slave trade and of slavery itself. One bore the
weighty signature of Benjamin Franklin, who had recently accepted the
post of president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. The petitions
sparked a long and acrimonious congressional debate in which speakers
from South Carolina and Georgia defended slavery with arguments that drew
on Biblical authority, states' rights, and racial superiority and invoked
the prospect of civil war between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states.
Few of the founders, Ellis insists, wished to defend slavery. Madison
and Jefferson, both of whom owned slaves, considered the pro-slavery speeches
in Congress "a moral embarrassment." But fearful that the issue
would destroy the new nation, they insisted that it be removed from the
political agenda. A conspiracy of silence followed, broken only occasionally
until half a century later, by which time slavery had become too large
and too powerful to be eradicated peacefully.
Ellis does not excuse the founders' inaction, but gives them the benefit
of every possible doubt. Believing that slavery was destined to wither
and die, they became, he writes, victims of their own "false optimism."
In the end, the "liberal values of the Declaration did indeed win
out" an odd way of describing the destruction of slavery in
a four-year war in which 600,000 Americans perished. The Constitution
was"intentionally elusive" with regard to slavery, a judgment
Ellis can only reach by ignoring the fugitive slave clause, which made
the entire nation responsible for maintaining the institution's stability
by requiring that blacks who escaped be hunted down and returned to bondage.
As for race, the founders were products of their time. "No responsible
statesman," Ellis writes, "had ever contemplated, much less
endorsed, a biracial American society." Ellis views the founders'
record regarding slavery as an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence
of the need for national unity. Another way of describing it is as a colossal
failure of American statesmanship.
Here is where one wishes Ellis had expanded his vista to include other
voices of the revolutionary era. The range of available alternatives cannot
be gauged by looking at seven men and one woman. Belief in inborn racial
differences was certainly pervasive, but free black men were allowed to
vote in nearly every state in the 1790s. Not every white American shared
the founders' inability to conceive of a biracial America.
Most strikingly, one misses the voices of African-Americans themselves,
not one of whom is quoted in the book. Yet they also participated in this
debate slaves who addressed "freedom petitions" to American
courts and legislatures, the poet Phyllis Wheatley, who wrote movingly
of her "love of freedom," the slave rebel Gabriel and his followers,
as much products of revolutionary Virginia as Jefferson and Washington,
who declared they had the same "right to fight for our liberty as
any men." It is to Americans like these, not the "founding brothers,"
that one must look for the origins of the conviction that liberty is truly
a universal entitlement.