I’ve traveled to Washington, D.C., to visit the Capitol and the White House. I’ve been to Mount Vernon to see George Washington’s magnificent homestead. These are monuments to the men who built the political foundations of our country. It seemed fitting, then, to read more about these men (plus Abigail Adams), to better understand the negotiations over slavery, the location of the capital, and other aspects of the founding of the republic. So, finally, I pulled Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers off my shelf, where it had sat since I was 18 or 19.
Ellis is a well-known historian, but he has little of the rhetorical panache of David McCullough, whose histories of America I find so fascinating. Ellis acknowledges as much in his preface, explaining that his episodic telling of America’s founding is chronological, save for the best storytelling he can muster, the tale of the infamous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, which opens the book. The scholarship seems strong and insightful, but the book doesn’t flow especially well. Ellis notes that America’s founding has been written and re-written, so he focuses on discrete moments and relationships, such as the longstanding friendship and feud between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Some pros and cons: The book suffers from too many uses of words like “virulent,” which pops up far too often for my taste. Although my eyes glazed over at times at descriptions of negotiations over slavery and what exactly the code duello meant, I grant that Ellis has a masterful sense of who our founding men and women were. Hamilton’s grandiosity, Jefferson’s aloofness, Adams’ bombastic nature, Washington’s regal reserve, Franklin’s exceptional knack for being in the right place at the right time — all of these characteristics come through in letters and descriptions. Ellis, who wrote biographies of Jefferson and Adams, admits that he’s an Adams man, whereas I have thought of myself as a fan of Jefferson. I certainly didn’t base it on much, so after reading this book, I better understood the secretive nature of Jefferson and questioned my allegiance.
Learning U.S. history was so perfunctory for me in grade school and high school that I didn’t bother to take any classes in college relating to it. Since then, I have felt more responsibility to understand moments and ages in American history. Though compact when compared to England’s history, American history is full of vivid characters who undertake grand adventures and misadventures. There’s certainly a dark side to the place, which Toni Morrison explored in her novel A Mercy, which took place a hundred years before the Constitutional Convention. I think that we Americans tend to mythologize our great leaders, as many nations do, though perhaps more so. (When I studied abroad in Chile, I noticed that every town had a street named after its liberator, Bernardo O’Higgins, essentially the Chilean George Washington.) We put them on money; carve them into mountains; erect monuments to them; name streets, cities, and schools after them; compare the living leaders to them (how many times will Barack Obama be compared and contrasted with Franklin Roosevelt?).
America is an outsized place. What other country would have the hubris to declare a Manifest Destiny to stretch from coast to coast, regardless of who might stand in the way? So we need outsized heroes like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. It is the mentality that supports the political science theory of the “great man,” which posits that rather than the political system or relationships between nations, a single man or woman can alter history. It’s compelling in certain circumstances, like blaming World War II on Hitler and ascribing the salvation of the Allies to Roosevelt and Churchill (another great book: Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston). The Great Man Theory is also easier to digest, because it isn’t as nuanced as making a structural analysis of where the economics and political scenarios of individual nations were and so on …. We like to credit or blame individuals in the sweep of history, even though, as David McCullough’s books about the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal show about infrastructure and as Rick Atkinson’s books about the North African and European theaters of World War II show about war, history is the work of more than one man or woman at a time.
Still, particular individuals may have the right combination of charisma, brains, and political agility to tilt history their way. America had many signers of the Declaration of Independence, but we remember very few of them. Remarkable people are remarkable for a reason, and Ellis’ Founding Brothers helped me understand more about the remarkable men who founded the republic.