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Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
by Joseph J. Ellis
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Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation Summary
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Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation discusses the conflicting interpretations of the meaning of the American Revolution as well as the influence of these rival interpretations on the early history of the United States of America. Ellis focuses on the thoughts and deeds of pivotal figures within the Revolution, including Abigail ...view middle of the document...
This view characterizes the stance of the early Republicans.
In contrast, the Hamiltonian interpretation of the American Revolution focuses on the sacrifice made by individuals to advance a great cause. By this view, the American Revolution should be characterized as an act of outright liberty. George Washington and John Adams followed this view, and the Federalists supported them.
Ellis’s purpose is not to settle the dispute between the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian interpretations. Instead, he seeks to explore the creation of the American state and argues that its founding should be considered a “collective enterprise that succeeded because of the diversity of personalities and ideologies.” He also argues that the Founding Fathers succeeded because they knew one another personally and tabled the debate on slavery and because they were aware that they would be remembered throughout history.
Ellis’s first episode tells the story of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. The duel takes place in 1804 and ends with the death not only of Hamilton but also of Burr’s political career. By this time, Burr had risen as high as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson, and Hamilton was considered the “intellectual well-spring” of Federalism.
Although successful, both men were controversial figures. Burr’s personal life was rife with intrigue, and some of his contemporaries argued that his political life was as notorious for its unprincipled party jumping. Meanwhile, Hamilton also had a habit of making enemies. His chief political opponent was Thomas Jefferson. However, Hamilton would set himself against the unprincipled Aaron Burr, even if it meant supporting Thomas Jefferson. By 1804, the two men had fought a battle of words in the press that they failed to resolve. They determined to settle matter by a duel, an act that was illegal by this time.
Although both were elder statesmen at this point and their influence had largely waned, Ellis uses this famous duel to suggest that because the American state was still young and its laws had yet to “congeal,” they fought because of character, and
character mattered because the fate of the American experiment with Republican government still required virtuous leaders to survive.
In other words, because men of dubious honor could take advantage of the still developing state, it was important that the Founding Fathers maintain a virtuous reputation. When Hamilton and Burr dueled, they did so to show that they were men of honorable character.
Ellis’s next vignette takes the reader back to 1790. America’s debt from the Revolution had left the public credit in shambles. Previously, the debt had been paid by each of the colonies. Hamilton’s solution was assumption: the debt of the colonies would be taken up by the federal government and paid as one central body. However, James Madison of Virginia worked to stop Hamilton’s plan. Madison’s argument was that the colonies had not all paid...