“They are, from this period, to be considered as Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designed by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.”
Many of the Founding Fathers realized that the new nation possessed great potential. George Washington is a significant example; he thought expansion into the West would facilitate an enlightened future. In the above excerpt, Washington speaks specifically of the potential of the American people to achieve greatness. Washington mentions Providence, defined as inspired foresight from a benevolent God. A common phrase of the time period, the word suggests that Washington saw greatness as inevitable, a natural outgrowth of the country's potential. This type of rhetoric explains why figures like Washington have endured as legendary in the common remembrance.
“Mostly male, all white, this collection of public figures was hardly typical of the population as a whole; nor was it, on the other hand, a political elite like anything that existed in England or Europe…They were America’s first and, in many respects, its only natural aristocracy.”
Unlike any other group of politicians in history, the Founding Fathers were a consortium of the best of their generation. Ellis suggests here that the success of the American Revolution rested squarely on the fragile shoulders of the revolutionary generation, most of whom would have “languished in obscurity” had they been born in Europe. There was no aristocracy in the colonies, which is largely why revolutionary ideas were allowed to flourish. The Founding Fathers were made up of farmers, land owners, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, and men like Benjamin Franklin, who defied titles by excelling in his many areas of interest. Jefferson theorized that the American aristocracy was based not on entitlement, but on talent. They were patriots fighting for a nation that had yet to exist, under the common cause of obtaining freedom from the tyranny of England. The spirit of ‘76 joined together the leaders of the colonial rebellion, centralizing their efforts and establishing the foundation on which the new federal government would rest. The next few decades would see this foundation put to the test.
“All the vanguard members of the revolutionary generation developed a keen sense of their historical significance while they were still making history on which their reputations would rest.”
The theme of posterity is essential in this book. The above quote signifies the importance to the Founding Fathers of preserving Revolutionary mythology as it was happening. Hence, they ensured there were artistic renderings of the meeting halls, debates, and the signing of important legislation. Ellis considers how the Founding Fathers were acting both intuitively and deliberately, making sure that they would be well-remembered both for themselves and for the survival of their union. In this quote, Ellis reveals his perspective on these men, which helps to understand why he presents them both in terms of the anxiety they felt in their lifetimes, and in terms of how we remember them. The facts and the legends are all part of the truth.
“Tell them from ME, at MY request, for God’s sake, to cease these conversations and threatening about a separation of the Union. It must hang together as long as it can be made to.”
This message was sent by Alexander Hamilton to the declining Federalist party in 1804. A small delegate in New England was considering secession after the Republican party's success, and though Hamilton had seen his own reputation flounder along with that of his party, he nevertheless reveals here his primary goal: to keep the Union together. Even when the relationships between the Founding Fathers were at their most vitriolic, they shared an anxiety that the nation could fall apart. This message has special significance because it is the last Hamilton ever wrote, penned on the night before he died in a duel. It serves as a good symbol of what tied the Founding Fathers together even after politics tore them apart.
“If slavery’s cancerous growth was to be arrested and the dangerous malignancy removed, it demanded immediate surgery.”
One overarching theme of the text and of the early days of the republic was the silence with which almost everyone approached the slavery question. Here, Ellis proposes that while the Founding Fathers ignored the contentious issue in the Constitution, it was nevertheless bubbling beneath the surface, ready to erupt. In Chapter Three, Ellis explores one instance in which the question was raised in the House of Representatives, and several figures had opportunity to express how little consensus the Union had on the question. In many ways, Ellis here presents a bit of foreshadowing towards the Civil War - the question was not going to go away, even if the Founding Fathers thought survival of the Union more important than the moral question of slavery. Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, the question would only be decided with the very type of violence they were trying to avoid through their silence.
“More than any great leader in American history before or since, he was accustomed to getting his way, and equally accustomed to have history prove him right.”
Ellis has a particular affection for George Washington, even as he examines the first President's particular flaws and personality. Washington reached a mythic level even in his own lifetime, and as leader had to balance this power with the limits he wished to impose on the offices he held. What impresses Ellis so greatly is that though Washington was "accustomed to getting his way," he used that power to limit the power of the President, by retiring after a second term. Washington was a true democrat not because he had no power, but because he refused to let his power corrupt him.
“I have so long been in the habit of thinking well of his abilities and general good dispositions, that I cannot but feel some regret at this event [Jefferson’s retirement]…But his want of candor, his obstinate prejudice against all forms of government power, his real partiality in spite of all his pretensions…have so nearly reconciled me to it that I will not weep… His mind is now poisoned with passion, prejudice, and faction.”
Here, Adams reveals the complications of his long relationship with Thomas Jefferson. They had forged a deep respect for one another in the days leading up the Revolution, but were torn apart by the political battles of the early republic. Adams, who never committed to a party, was forever disappointed by Jefferson's inability to transcend the temptations of party politics, and always saw Jefferson as both a powerful intellect and a ideologue unable to see past the Republic platform. The fact that their friendship resumed even though neither ever compromised his political beliefs suggests that the former ultimately proved more powerful than the latter.
“Men who have been intimate all their lives cross the street to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch hats.”
Although Jefferson was one of the guiltiest Founding Fathers in terms of sacrificing his relationships to party politics, he here reveals a regret over the direness of the situation in the late 18th century. As the Republican party formed to combat the Federalist party, men who had once been bound by the spirit of '76 found themselves defined by more immediate party concerns. Most grievous was the sacrifice Jefferson made of his friendship with John Adams. The inability to collaborate in this early period has resonated through American history, so that party differences have become more important to many than nationalist pride - something John Adams was forever resentful over, and something it would take Jefferson a long time in his life to accept.
“You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to one another.”
Perhaps the most intriguing element to Founding Brothers is the friendship between Adams and Jefferson, and the way it serves as a symbol for these men who bonded over freedom, then split over party concerns. Here, Adams makes a request that ultimately resonated with Jefferson, and reveals the extent to which all of these men were personally invested in the survival and success of the union they created together. Though Adams and Jefferson had at one point quit their friendship, it was important for them to explain to both each other and posterity the reasons for their behavior. Ultimately, their friendship resumed because they recalled that the spirit of '76, a shared love of nation and independence, was more important than the ideological differences that neither was willing to renege on even at his dying day.
“I look back with rapture to those golden days when Virginia and Massachusetts lived and acted together like a band of brothers. While I breathe I shall be your friend.”
Despite all of the difficulties during and after the war, there was an undeniable bond between the Founding Fathers. Here, Jefferson confirms to Adams that the spirit of '76, a shared love of independence and nation, was more powerful a bond than party politics was a split. Even though Adams and Jefferson were hateful enemies at one point, in their hindsight, they realized that they had both always acted from an anxiety over the failure of the nation to which they dedicated their lives. This renewed friendship, and the realization expressed here, serves as a good symbol for the Founding Fathers, whom Ellis relabels "Brothers" because they were tied together by an inexorable bond even after they made every effort to separate themselves from one another.
Founding Brothers Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Founding Brothers is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Abigail Adams reached out to Jefferson after the death of his daughter. Jefferson responded poorly, assuming that her condolences were something more than intended. Abigail was insulted by Jefferson's response, and the way he misread her...