7 guys, 6 episodes

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.

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13 Responses to 7 guys, 6 episodes

  1. Dan says:

    Heh, that was me I believe.

    Oddly enough I bought it at Penn Sation the last time I was in NYC.

  2. red says:

    I knew one of you people would step forward with the truth. Well, thanks for the rec, Dan – I do like it very much!!

    Just realized that the title of this post is unfortunately ambiguous and could be … misinterpreted.

  3. Dan says:

    Glad you like it. I think he’s written others on that era.

  4. Ken Summers, Perversion Catalyst says:

    Damn, damn, DAMN!

    Thank you for reminding me, Shelia. I have been meaning to read it and keep forgetting.

  5. red says:

    Can anyone explain to me Alexander Hamilton’s fiscal policy? He believed in creating national debt – in order to bind us together .. is that the general idea?

  6. red says:

    I mean – “to bind us together as a nation”. And to strengthen the federal government.

    This is what I know. I suppose that’s all I NEED to know, but still – my ignorance dismays me.

  7. Ken Summers, Perversion Catalyst says:

    I’m just up to that portion of the book, but it seems to me that the point was partly to consolidate all of the various debts of the state and federal governments (both foreign and domestic) into one large debt to simplify matters, but primarily to have central management of the economy (rather than let laissez faire market forces predominate). Hamilton apparently believed that the potential of the new nation could not be realized unless the economy were controlled.

    This is a major issue I have with Hamilton (in fairness, I didn’t know it until I read Ellis’s description of it). Hamilton also wanted consolidation of money in the hands of a few – he apparently believed that money in the hands of many is just money, but in the hands of a few rich people, it was capital.

  8. Independence Day Post

    I’m not doing one. I started to, but learning of the murder (or possible murder) of Corporal Hassoun killed the writing spirit. It’s just as well. Once again, others have done a far better job than I possibly could. [UPDATE]…

  9. red says:


    A while back I read a biography of Alexander Hamilton which was amazing. A complex man, yes, not all that likable – but completely magnetic in every way. And with an intellect beyond compare. A prodigy, too. Apparently, Princeton wouldn’t accept Hamilton on his own terms – when he was 16, because he wanted to be allowed to move through the curriculum as quickly as was possible was for him – he didn’t want to be slowed down. They said “No”, and so he didn’t go to Princeton.

    A fascinating man.

  10. Ken Summers, Perversion Catalyst says:

    The further I get into Founding Brothers, the more amazed I am at how lucky this nation was to have such an incredible wealth of political talent together. So many things I had never read before, especially about Hamilton and Madison – two vastlyy brilliant minds grappling with huge questions, in full knowledge that they were making history. Incredible that we should be so lucky.

  11. Ken Summers, Perversion Catalyst says:

    And thank you so very much again, for reminding me to read it. I’ve been meaning to, but put it off for no good reason.

  12. Sherril Smoger says:

    I just happened upon these posts and I am glad I did. I recently listened to the book on CD, David McCullough’s John Adams. I am 52 years old and this was my first book about history that I’ve read since High School and it won’t be the last. I am suddenly fascinated about those people in Colonial America and it is no longer dry information to be spewed back on an exam or memorized with as much interest as that for multiplication tables. This is like a whole new world opening to me and my arms are wide open to receive it. So, thanks for the recommendation of “Founding Brothers…” by Joseph Ellis. I hope it’s on CD. I seem to need my auditory sense for this kind of reading and it makes the time in the car go by quickly, while at the same time bringing the past into my present. Thanks.

  13. Independence Day Post

    I’m not doing one. I started to, but learning of the murder (or possible murder) of Corporal Hassoun killed the writing spirit. It’s just as well. Once again, others have done a far better job than I possibly could. [UPDATE]…

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