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. Separated into seven sections, the book uses the lenses of hindsight and foresight to understand both what these men went through, and how history has come to understand them.
The chapters are as follows:
The author introduces his intention to examine how the relationships of the main players in the Revolutionary generation influenced the course of American history. 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.
The first chapter of the text details the most famous duel in American history. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met on July 11, 1804 near Weehawken, New Jersey in a challenge of honor. Hamilton's resulting death is examined, and Ellis also discusses how the duel reveals the importance of personal reputation in the days of a nascent government.
Ellis first tells the traditional story: At a dinner held in 1790, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton set aside their political differences to compromise on a plan to pay off the national debt and to locate the nation's new capitol in the South. He then considers whether the story has been too influenced by Jefferson's self-interested record of the event, and whether the story tells us more about Jefferson than about the compromise, which Ellis believes might have been brokered before the dinner ever took place.
Ellis explores in this chapter how difficult the issue of slavery was from the moment of the country's inception. In 1790, both a Quaker delegation and Benjamin Franklin urged the House of Representatives to debate an end to the African slave trade. Ellis details this debate, in which outraged Southern representatives demanded the issue be dropped, while Northern representatives attempted to broach the issue without discussing emancipation. The inability to come to any real compromise only illustrates how pointed and difficult the question truly was.
Ellis discusses George Washington's retirement from the presidency, suggesting it was not a sign of failure but of strength and foresight. Washington knew how powerful his influence was, and believed that by setting a two-term precedent for Presidency, he would ensure the strength of the country. Ellis also considers how his hatred of press criticism and his failing health fed the decision. The chapter ends with a discussion of the major points in Washington’s Farewell Address.
Ellis turns his attention in the final two chapters to the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. After having forged a legendary friendship during the Revolution, the two men were separated by political differences, even during Adams's term as the country's second President, in which Jefferson served as Vice President. Adams's presidency was marred by a variety of issues which Ellis discusses, but his most grievous resentment was reserved for Jefferson, who unfairly criticized him for the sake of political gain. Jefferson won the office in 1800, largely through the success of these attacks, and despite the fact that Adams's final decisions in office have been proven wise by history.
Finally, Ellis examines the renewed friendship between Adams and Jefferson, which persisted through correspondence until their deaths. After Jefferson won the presidency, neither man wrote to the other for well over a decade. After time passed, they resumed a correspondance, in which they discussed their competing views of the Revolutionary period, current events, and the country's future. Ellis details their exchange, noting that both former Presidents were writing both to one another and to posterity. Their long friendship ended on July 4, 1826, the nation's 50th Independence Day, and the day on which they both died.