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Founding Brothers is a work of historical non-fiction, focusing on key moments both in post-revolutionary America and in the lives of the Founding Fathers. Ellis examines how the specific relationships of the Founding Fathers influenced, or were influenced by, the turbulent period in which they lived.
The author's intent to examine how the relationships of the main players in the Revolutionary generation influenced the course of American history is immediately introduced in the first chapter. Ellis asks the reader to consider the stories from both foresight and hindsight, suggesting that the stories should be understood both in terms of how they actually occurred, and in terms of what was later revealed over the years. Ellis has chosen to concentrate the framework of Founding Brothers around key members of the Revolutionary generation, including Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Hamilton, among others.
Ellis uses Founding Fathers to not only relate historical events, but also to consider the nature of history itself. His basic approach is to write about the Founding Fathers by using both foresight and hindsight. In terms of the former, he writers with a "sense of urgency" in order to relate the anxiety that these men felt at the time they were forming the new country. They were not certain that their experiment would succeed - as nothing quite like it had ever been accomplished - and hence did they make decisions without knowing quite what the effects would be. This largely explains the degree of their disagreements over the best way to proceed, the disagreements that would later break some of their friendships. In terms of hindsight, he considers these events in terms of what we have learned since, from historical research and documentation. In this way, he can both empathize and criticize certain decisions and personalities.