The main idea of the book is that the early history of the new republic of the United States was not as trouble-free as we are sometimes led to believe. Ellis argues that in the popular imagination, the break from the British and the ideals of the American Revolution are seen as inevitable – almost part of what we might call America’s manifest destiny. However, he reveals that the unity of the early republic was a very fragile thing and that it almost broke up because of disagreements between the different states. Ellis further argues that the Union of the states was saved – not because of some grand political ideals, but because of the close personal ties between the men who were part of the revolutionary generation, and that these personal links enabled compromises which saved the Union.For example, in Chapter Two, “The Dinner” – Ellis describes a dinner which Thomas Jefferson gave “most probably on Sunday, June 20th”, 1790 (Ellis, 49).The other guests were Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury, and James Madison, a Southern congressman. Hamilton and Madison were in deep disagreement about Hamilton’s proposals to rationalize the federal debt by the assumption of each states individual debt by the federal government. Jefferson was sympathetic to both politicians: the Federal plans were not in the interests of the South who would face higher taxation, but he wanted to preserve the Union and Ellis argues that at that private dinner Jefferson brokered a deal: Madison would support the Federal plans to assume the states’ debts, while Hamilton would support the Southern preference for a capital city on the banks of the Potomac. This private dinner, out of public view, solved two issues that the individual states were arguing passionately about, and which threatened the Union: some southern states were talking of secession.
Chapter Five – “The Collaborators” – describes how Adams succeeded Washington as president with Jefferson as his vice president. Adams and Jefferson, Ellis argues, were completely different in character, temperament, geographical origin and political ideas. But, because of their dedication to the sanctity of the Union, and a friendship forged in the fight for independence they were able to work together and reach compromises. Chapter Three – “The Silence” – deals with Congressional debates about an anti-slavery petition presented by Pennsylvanian Quakers. The issue of slavery was the most divisive issue for the new American republic and would result in Civil War. This chapter goes into great detail to show how Jackson and Madison (supported by Jefferson) managed to use congressional protocol to change the wording of the petition to delay confronting the abolitionist case and to preserve the status quo.
I enjoyed reading this book, because, despite its overarching thesis, each chapter deals with a different event and a different relationship, so, for a reader, there is constant variety. In addition, each chapter is written engagingly and has a similar structure. Ellis begins by describing what seems to be a trivial dinner or an encounter between two politicians, and he then puts that event in its wider historical context to describe the crisis that was threatening the Union and how the meeting or the dinner or the encounter (between perhaps just two of the revolutionary generation) resulted in a practical compromise which rescued the Union. Despite differences in political ideas and principles, the “founding brothers”, to use Ellis’s phrase, were prepared to do deals in private, sometimes against their state’s interests, because they wanted to preserve the Union.
Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation. 2000. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Print.