The Books: “Founding Brothers” (Joseph Ellis)

And here is my next excerpt of the day from my library.

515JD4A8CNL.jpgNext book in my American history section is the marvelous Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph Ellis.

7 guys: Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Madison, Franklin
6 episodes:

— The duel between Hamilton and Burr
— George Washington’s Farewell Address
— The Adams administration
— 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

Ellis is one of my favorite popular historians out there. I’ve read all of his stuff by now. Wonderful writer, but why I really like him is that I like how he THINKS. I like to hear what he thinks about things. He comes at things from a different angle. Unlike so many other historians or biographers, he seems quite comfortable with contradiction, mystery, and with saying, as an author: “We can’t really know what Jefferson was thinking here …” He tries to guess, but we KNOW he’s guessing, and it’s a pleasure to listen to his speculations.

His biography of Jefferson is not-to-be-missed as well, although I like all of his stuff.

With this book, Founding Brothers he hit the big leagues. As in NY Times bestseller list, etc. Small wonder.

I love it!! I’ve already read it twice. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on Washington’s farewell address (props to Alexander Hamilton) – and why it continuees to be studied, picked apart, interpreted and re-interpreted.


From Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph Ellis.

The disarming simplicity of the statement, combined with its quasi-Delphic character, has made the Farewell Address a perennial candidate for historical commentary. Throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, the bulk of attention focused on the foreign policy section, advocates of American isolationism citing it as the classic statement of their cause, others arguing that strict isolation was never Washington’s intention, or that America’s emergence as a world power has rendered Washington’s wisdom irrelevant. More recently, the early section of the Farewell Address has been rediscovered, its plea for a politics of consensus serving as a warning against single-issue political movements, or against the separation of American into racial, ethnic, of gender-based constituencies. Like the classic it has become, the Farewell Address has demonstrated the capacity to assume different shapes in different eras, to change color, if you will, in varying shades of light.

Although Washington’s own eyes never changed color and were set very much on the future, he had no way of knowing (much less influencing) the multiple meanings that future generations would discover in his words. The beginning of all true wisdom concerning the Farewell Address is that Washington’s core insights were firmly grounded in the lessons he had learned as America’s premier military and civilian leader during the revolutionary era. Unless one believes that ideas are like migratory birds that can fly unchanged from one century to the next, the only way to grasp the authentic meaning of his message is to recover the context out of which it emerged. Washington was not claiming to offer novel prescriptions based on his original reading of philosophical treatises or books; quite the opposite, he was reminding his countrymen of the venerable principles he had acquired from personal experience, principles so obvious and elemental that they were at risk of being overlooked by his contemporaries; and so thoroughly grounded in the American Revolution that they are virtually invisible to a more distant posterity.

First, it is crucial to recognize that Washington’s extraordinary reputation rested less on his prudent exercise of power than on his dramatic flair at surrendering it. He was, in fact, a veritable virtuoso of exits. Almost everyone regarded his retirement of 1796 as a repeat performance of his resignation as commander of the Continental Army in 1783. Back then, faced with a restive and unpaid remnant of the victorious army quartered in Newburgh, New York, he had suddenly appeared at a meeting of officers who were contemplating insurrection; the murky plot involved marching on the Congress and then seizing a tract of land for themselves in the West, all presumably with Washington as their leader.

He summarily rejected their offer to become the American Caesar and denounced the entire scheme as treason to the cause for which they had fought. Then, in a melodramatic gesture that immediately became famous, he pulled a pair of glasses out of his pocket: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles,” he declared rhetorically, “for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in service to my country.” Upon learning that Washington intended to reject the mantle of emperor, no less an authority than George III allegedly observed, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” True to his word, on December 22, 1783, Washington surrendered his commission to the Congress, then meeting in Annapolis: “Having now finished the work assigned me,” he announced, “I now retire from the great theatre of action.” In so doing, he became the supreme example of the leader who could be trusted with power because he was so ready to give it up.

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One Response to The Books: “Founding Brothers” (Joseph Ellis)

  1. Bitter B. says:

    You really learn to love the way he thinks and argues when sitting in a classroom with him and he starts making annoying little college girls have fits because he challenges their comfy liberal mindset. (Funny since he’s not conservative, he just expects students to think in his classroom.) He does have a way to making history come alive.

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