I am reading a very good book right now which I wanted to recommend. Actually, I think one of you recommended it to me a while back – forgive me that I don’t remember who!
It’s called Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph J. Ellis. Ellis has taken it upon himself to delve into some of the personalities of that “Revolutionary Generation” – but not in an obnoxious post-modern kind of way. I’ve read a lot about the Founding Fathers, and I guess you could say I’m kind of a traditionalist. I don’t want to read a biography of George Washington that focuses mainly on his penchant to lick his wife’s toes, or make some huge Freudian thing about Benjamin’s Franklin childhood, or dwell on Alexander Hamilton’s sexual weirdness. You get my drift.
I mean – I want to have all of that information, but I don’t want to read books that make a fetish of such details. Big difference.
I prefer to just read about what they did, to read excerpts from their letters, to hear about their influences (in terms of historical events, books, philosophers) – and leave the modern interpretations out of it.
Founding Brothers looks at 7 of these men (Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison) and it looks at the issues facing the young nation in the context of the time. We know how it all turned out. We have the gift of perspective. These men knew they were making history, but there was no certainty that it would turn out the way it did. The stakes were high, and no one could see what tomorrow looks like. Which is why their fights are so famous, so wrought with tension – because at any moment this great “experiment” could crumble around them. Now some of their language may sound hyperbolic, but seen in the context of the 1780s and 1790s – it makes complete sense.
Ellis chooses six specific episodes as his filter to look at this generation and their challenges.
— The duel between Hamilton and Burr
— George Washington’s Farewell Address
— The relationship between John and Abigail Adams
— The heated debate about where to place the capital
— Benjamin Franklin trying to force Congress to deal with the issue of slavery and James Madison’s resistance to that
— The correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
I love the format. These are all stories I know very well. I could sit around the campfire and tell some of these episodes myself. But the context Ellis provides is quite interesting at points, his interpretation of events is very compelling (especially Alexander Hamilton’s personality and his fiscal plan – which, frankly, I find hard to grasp in any way other than in its BROADEST terms). I most like that Ellis is completely uninterested in putting a modern-day spin on events. He wants to see what it was like for them.
When he doesn’t know something, he doesn’t assume. He has what I would call an exciting and engaging writing style. He makes you feel, in a way, like you are there in that room, listening to the pro and con arguments about slavery … etc.
Very good read.