Thursday, February 19, 2009

#47 - "Founding Brothers" by Joseph J. Ellis

Founding Brothers (2000) by Joseph J. Ellis was a book I found because Sarah Vowell and Assassination Vacation got me all interested in the history of our presidents; so I decided to read some more on the subject. And after some digging around in the library, Founding Brothers looked pretty interesting, even though I wasn't quite sure what I was getting into.

In Founding Brothers, Ellis looks back at the founding of the United States by looking with great detail at six separate times in its early history, which he hopes can lead to some generalizations about how our country was formed. His theory is that the people instrumental in creating our country were performing a grand experiment. No revolution had successfully formed a Republic in the past and they didn't know if they would succeed or how it would work. Ellis tries to dislodge the comfort of looking back at history through our hindsight of knowing that the Constitution has weathered the years, that slavery was abolished, and that the United States became the most powerful nation in the world. At the time, all that was up for grabs. In most revolutions, once the people successfully fight off their common enemy, their major differences of opinion quickly split them apart once again and violence erupts, which the United States managed to avoid. Ellis seems to argue that this was because the founders of our country were just a small group of men who knew each other well and used their trust and personal relationships to avoid the floundering pitfalls that might have torn the country apart before it even got its footing.

The six chapters include: the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr; a dinner with Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton where a deal to allow Hamilton's financial plan to pass in exchange for the location of the capitol on the Potomac was finished; the discussions on slavery in the new Congress in the 1790's; Washington's farewell "address" to the nation when he voluntarily stepped down from office after two terms; Adams's subsequent presidency with his political foe Jefferson as vice-president; and finally, the extensive letter-writing discourse between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson that renewed their trust and friendship.

What was most striking about this book was how Ellis describes the "intentions of the founders." It's something that we still argue about all the time today. And Ellis suggests that their intentions were just as diverse and varying as ours are today. Whether it was the question of slavery or the role and power of the national government, for the most part, they just agreed to disagree and made the Constitution vague enough that it could be accepted.

I thought the most interesting chapters were the ones on the duel between Hamilton and Burr and Congress's deliberation on slavery. I had never read about the duel in so much detail, and it is just shocking to me that the Vice-President of the United States and one of its most important political leaders (with a wife and seven kids) would run around like juvenile kids with too much testosterone and shoot guns at each other over some name calling. Can you imagine if that kind of thing happened today? Anyway, Ellis uses this as an example of the one exception where violence broke out among the founders (and also because it's an interesting story).

The other really interesting chapter was the discussion on slavery in Congress. Some northern states wanted to abolish slavery. South Carolina and Georgia were vociferously opposed to any kind of interference with their livelihood and loudly declared their staunch arguments to Congress as well as threats of secession. Virginian leaders like Madison hypocritically tried to reconcile his position that slavery was an abhorrence, but at the same time opposed anyone messing with the economic interests or "property rights" of his state. The arguments of the extreme southern states embarassed him, but Madison couldn't write clearly or articulately when trying to describe his convoluted position. What happened in the end was that Congress decided they would ignore the issue of slavery. It was too big a problem, too entrenched in the South, and they were afraid to confront it. Ellis brings up the question, though, of what would have happened if Congress hadn't avoided this issue. Would it have torn apart the nation? Could we have avoided the Civil War?

I learned a lot from this book, and on the whole it was detailed and interesting. However, it did become a bit of a chore to read. I'm not a huge fan of politics, so the long-winded discussions of who disliked who, the power struggles, and who started leaking information to someone else because they couldn't tell them in person, got a little tedious for me. And Ellis certainly had his own perspective. He was obviously not a huge fan of Jefferson and I don't know enough history to know how accurate his portrayal of these men were. But I'm not sorry I read it; I learned a lot.

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