Joseph J. Ellis
I finished the first book on my reading list! (Ahem.)
1. The author of this book looks a little bit like Gerald Ford and a little bit like Jimmy Carter.
2. Founding Brothers won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2001.
3. Joseph Ellis got into trouble right after he won the Pulitzer for exaggerating his participation in the Vietnam War (he was in uniform but served in America, not Vietnam as he claimed to students and media), and as a result was suspended from teaching history for a year among other punitive actions. Rather ironic.
4. Washington and his vice-president, John Adams, considered the vice-presidency as a legislative office based in the Senate.
I think it’s a fascinating book. Disclosure: I was a graduate student in history once, with a special interest in the Early Republic. Still, I think any person reasonably interested in history would also find it fascinating, especially in light of the many constitutional crises of the past seven years. Frequently passages are poundingly resonant with current times. The book is fairly well written and easily comprehended (though I caught some misspellings (apart from the weird free-style spelling of the 1700s) and one strange phrase: “shades of light.” ??)
Ellis concentrates on the personal dynamics that roiled the politics of the Founding and the early Republic. The personal stories and interactions of this "band of brothers" are what makes the book a compelling read.
Ellis admits to taking a “disarmingly old-fashioned” approach to this history, instead of following a modern trend which focuses on “recover[ing] lost voices” and “ignoring mainstream politics.” He writes:
In my opinion, the central events and achievements of the revolutionary era and the early republic were political. These events and achievements are historically significant because they shaped the subsequent history of the United States, including our own time. The central players in the drama were not the marginal or peripheral figures, whose lives are more typical, but rather the political leaders at the center of the national story who wielded power.
The book is cleverly organized into six segments, each following a particular story or vignette:
1. The Duel – A riveting account of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and an illuminating “back story.”
2. The Dinner – The pact that Jefferson facilitated over dinner in June of 1790 at his lodgings at 57 Maiden Lane in New York City (right around the corner from where I’m writing this, in fact). The other partygoers were James Madison and Alexander Hamilton (who by the way is buried in the churchyard just down the street). Jefferson manipulated the other two into coming to terms about federal assumption of state debts. This was a controversial issue because some of the states had already paid their own, and other states had humongous amounts owing, and it was of course not fair. But Hamilton (treasury secretary at the time, as you well know) was desperately determined to repair the public credit, and the whole thing was in congressional deadlock. By bringing the two prime movers and antagonists together and making them come to terms, Jefferson extracted the condition that the new capital of the new country would eventually settle in what was to become Washington, D.C.
3. The Silence – A heartbreaker…the “silence” referred to in the chapter title actually descended after the events of this chapter, the debate over slavery at the Constitutional Convention.
4. The Farewell – Eight words: George Washington was the Father of our Country. This account is also illuminating and heartbreaking at times. I wish he were alive today.
5. The Collaborators – More of the machinations of Thomas Jefferson. The chapter starts off as though it’s going to be about John Adams and Jefferson, the president and vice-president at the time, but it ends up being about Jefferson and Madison and their undermining of the Adams presidency (to vastly oversimplify--and in their defense they thought they were saving the Republic.)
6. The Friendship – This is my favorite chapter, I think. It brings the book to an appropriate climax and summation by exploring the personal relationship between Adams and Jefferson, the bitter rift that grew between them, and the repair of the relationship in their old age. The story of this friendship encompasses the whole of the Founding, and the enmity between the two illustrates nothing less than the birth pangs of the country. The ending is priceless.
Obviously from the chapter titles, the book doesn’t follow chronological order. Each event is placed in the context of the larger story of the founding, and the impact of the event on history, which makes each chapter a little history in itself. I sometimes felt that even within the chapter narrative, backward and forward jumps in time got a little confusing. But that’s a minor complaint.
As a student of history, it didn’t come as any surprise that Thomas Jefferson was a devious bastard, but anyone coming to the book with a typical high school/general studies view of the Founding Fathers might find his Machiavellian approach to politics a big surprise. Get this:
[Jefferson’s] conduct in providing clandestine instructions to Adams’s cabinet undermined the constitutional authority of the executive branch in ways that would have landed him in jail in modern times.
[I’m moved to recount some personal description of Jefferson that struck me as a student: he had a very soft voice (they called his second Inaugural Address the “Second Inaudible Address), he would hardly look anyone in the eye, and he padded around the White House in bedroom slippers. He was also described by contemporaries as having immense personal charm. Go figure.]
I was very gratified, however, to learn more about John Adams, who I’ve never really delved into much because he has seemed an unsympathetic character. It’s great to get below the surface of his reputation and find an immensely passionate, brilliant but erratic, and funny person. I think he might just be the funniest of the founders.
The last chapter brilliantly explores the building of the Narrative of the Founding—something Jefferson excelled at. Speaking of the words he penned for the 50th anniversary of independence (incidentally, the day he died, and Adams as well), Ellis writes:
[This] uniquely Jeffersonian message…was inherently rhetorical in character—that is, it framed the issues at a rarefied altitude, where all answers were self-evident and no real choices had to be made. And that was the ultimate source of its beguiling charm. The Jeffersonian vision floated. It functioned at inspirational levels above the bedeviling particularities, like a big bang theory of the American Revolution…
Jefferson was positively Reaganesque in his ability to package himself and the Founding in glowing idealism, while Adams insisted on the down-and-dirty “bedeviling particularities.” It irked him no end that Jefferson was going to go down in history (oh yes, Adams knew he would) as the iconic figure that he spun himself, and that he, Adams, would end up as the irascible, faintly ridiculous figure that he knew he was (big ego or no big ego).
Here are some choice random quotes from Founding Brothers:
Adams on ideology:
Adams claimed to be fascinated by the new word “upon the Common Principle of delight in every Thing We cannot understand.” What was an “ideology”? he asked playfully: “Does it mean Idiotism? The Science of Non Compos Menticism. The Science of Lunacy? The Theory of Delerium? [sic]” As Adams explained it, the French philosophes had invented the word, which became a central part of their utopian style of thinking and a major tenet in their “school of folly.” It referred to a set of ideals and hopes, like human perfection or social equality, that philosophers mistakenly believed could be implemented in the world because it existed in their heads. Jefferson himself thought in this French fashion, Adams claimed, confusing the seductive prospects envisioned in his imagination with the more limited possibilities history permitted.
Jefferson on political parties:
“In the present situation of the United States, divided as they are between two parties, which mutually accuse each other of perfidy and treason…this exalted station [the presidency] is surrounded with dangerous rocks, and the most eminent abilities will not be sufficient to steer clear of them all.” Whereas Washington had been able to levitate above the partisan factions, “the next president of the United States will only be the president of a party.”
On Washington’s military strategy in the Revolutionary War:
…By 1778 he had reached an elemental understanding…namely, that captured ground—what he termed “a war of posts” –was virtually meaningless. The strategic key was the Continental Army. If it remained intact as an effective fighting force, the American Revolution remained alive. The British army could occupy Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and it did. The British navy could blockade and bombard American seaports with impunity, and it did. The Continental Congress could be driven from one location to another like a covey of pigeons, and it was. But as long as Washington held the Continental Army together, the British could not win the war, which in turn meant that they would eventually lose it.
Next up: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. (By the way, I think it’s really weird that there’s a cruise ship named the MS Fyodor Dostoevsky. Don’t you?)