Founding Brothers

Founding Brothers Summary and Analysis of Preface: The Generation


“No event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution” (3).

Revolutionaries of the revolutionary time period, such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, suggested that colonial independence from sovereign England was not only plausible but fated. Ellis considers the founding members of the revolutionary generation as actors on the stage of history, securing their legacies through battle and later though legislation.

Ellis reminds the reader that though Americans take the fact of their independence for granted, their forefathers were not so certain of revolutionary success. Had certain circumstances favored the British in the war, these forefathers might as easily have been hung for treason as celebrated for victory. Yet these men acted as though there was an air of providence and predestination, and a fortunate combination of luck, intellect, and perseverance served to shape the foundation of the United States. No other colony at that time in history had ever successfully won its independence to form a lasting republic. In fact, the United States remains the oldest surviving republic in history.

After proposing America's history in this way, Ellis asks the reader to consider the American Revolution from myriad perspectives. Some of the revolutionary leaders were farsighted enough to see the great potential that America possessed as both unified nation and leading economic power. Others were more nearsighted; they wanted to secede from England, but had no intention of forming a central government. We often forget the assumption of local control that the colonies took for granted. They had no sense of national unity, nothing to join them together, except their desire for freedom. Therefore, this question of unity was quite undecided at the time of independence. The initially adopted system was called the Articles of Confederation, and favored independent colonial power over central control.

In 1787, four years after the end of the war, the most prominent leaders in America gathered to expand on the Articles of Confederation at the Constitutional Convention. The “miracle at Philadelphia” produced the United States Constitution, which eventually became the highest law of the nation, and a criterion for all future independent nations. Because they so ably navigated the thorny questions and controversies of the time to create this lasting document, those men gathered at the Constitutional Convention have come to be considered as the demi-gods of America’s illustrious beginnings.

At the time, however, these men of the Revolutionary generation were only intelligent and influential figures who sought a compromise on a seemingly impossible problem. In other words, their goals were not nearly so transcendent as we like to believe. Many of these men favored state's rights, and wanted to make certain that the amendements to the Articles of Confederation left power centered at the local level. Others favored federalism, meaning they wanted to craft a more powerful central government. What is impressive is that the Constitution came to life without alienating or favoring either political philosophy, by giving power not to a federal government or states, but to the "people" themselves.

In 1789, the new government gathered for the first time in New York City under the leadership of George Washington. In assessing whether their fledgling nation would endure, they had to confront several notable problems. First, no other republic encompassing such a large populace and even larger landmass had ever survived. Cicero’s Rome was the only successful republic in known history, and it had eventually failed. Secondly, the Constitution encouraged “the people” to question and even overthrow any governing body which infringed on their human rights; this idea stigmatized potential political parties from the onset. Thirdly, few of these colonies/states that were now united had any shared history outside of the Revolution. Lastly, the census of 1790 revealed that nearly 700,000 people in the United States were slaves, 90% of whom were located in the South. Finding a way to adequately represent this population as "the people" presented a thorny problem.

History has rightfully chosen this particular time period as one of the most defining and crucial moments in American history. The political elite of the Revolutionary generation were like no other group in history. Many were born poor, and had established their reputations through sheer determination and excessive intellect. If they had been born in Europe, many of the Founding Fathers would have grown not into fame but into obscurity, since their lower station would have prevented them from much opportunity. Further, the particular individuals who composed this generation made it the the rarest collection of political talent in American history. Only because of this unique conflux of singular talents was the Republic formed.

The story of the Revolutionary generation's first days in office is traditionally told from one of two different perspectives. The “Jeffersonian” tale claims that the nation broke from England’s monarchy and aristocracy to form a successful republic, only to fail at the hands of the Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton. The other interpretation suggests that the Federalist leaders (Washington, Hamilton, and John Adams) created an inclusive government which was marred by the rigid ideologies of Jefferson and his associates. To this day, the debate between the dominant political parties remains, and can be traced to this irreconcilable conflict. Thankfully, the government was so overwhelmed by practical problems in those early days that the issues could be decided by these representatives, instead of spiraling into an actual war, as happened in the French Revolution. Of course, this conflict would be at the heart of the Civil War, fought roughly 100 years later.

Ellis announces his intention to study the Founding Fathers by examining moments in history which not only uncover the truth of what really happened to these seminal figures, but also reveal how their actions influenced the course of history. Ellis wishes to examine such illustrative topics as: the personal relationships between the politicians; why slavery was not swiftly dealt with during the nation’s founding; and how certain personalities influenced events. He has chosen eight representatives whose stories he will center on in the book.


Joseph J. Ellis establishes his intentions early in the text. In the Preface, Ellis hopes to recover the “sense of urgency” felt at the time of the Revolutionary War. He reiterates to the reader that the Founding Fathers did not know they would win the war. While history has vacillated between viewing the victory as either luck or fate, Ellis wants to distinguish between truth and fiction. Much of our understanding of the Revolutionary War, and of the first days of the republic, are hidden beneath the myths of the period. To a modern reader, the Founding Fathers are legendary, their actions historic and renowned. Ellis hopes to draw attention to the Founding Fathers as they really were: unique men of talent and intelligence caught in the crossfire of a revolution, but entirely human, prone to mistakes and prejudices as well as victory and success. The Preface wishes to qualify this difficult task - he acknowledges the power of these myths, but at the same time believes the story is all the more compelling because its players had such a large potential for failure. Therefore, he focuses primarily on the players themselves, wishing to explore how their relationships resonated through political changes.

Ellis divides Founding Brothers into six sections, each told from the perspective of both foresight and hindsight. This split is a reoccurring motif throughout the work. He first presents his findings in the form of stories, to “catch the reader’s attention” and to mimic the way in which stories of the Founding Fathers are often related today. However, he also wants to to realize the anxieties that these men actually felt at the time, when success was not so assured. The chapters are linked both by Ellis's pursuit of balanced truth and through the recurring characters of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, James Madison, John Adams and Abigail Adams. It is interesting that Ellis includes Abigail so prominently - though she is not considered a Founding Father, she was instrumental in her husband John Adams's political life.

Throughout Founding Brothers, Ellis changes tenses to help the reader distinguish between the past and the present. For example, Ellis states that modern scholars now know that if Washington, as Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, had actively pursued the enemy and sought to win more battles in the beginning of the war, the more experienced and better-armed British would have won in the end. Through his patience, Washington watched as the British weakened over time. Ellis here uses hindsight to remark on the success of Washington’s military tactics. However, he also uses foresight by pointing out that Washington's patience was a matter of controversy at the time. His most important use of foresight, as previously noted, is his depiction of the Founding Fathers as men who had no idea of the magnitude of their actions. Because he splits his focus between foresight and hindsight, he can also examine how the decisions made post-war continued to resonate in later events like the Civil War.

Finally, it is worth noting how important context is to Ellis's history. He does important work in this Preface by establishing the basic conflict that the Founding Fathers faced. Because these colonies had little shared history, to centralize a government was to counteract the Revolutionary principles. The colonists had fought to break from a distant, dislocated control, and a government in New York City would have seemed totally alien to a Southern colony, another form of monarchy. The basic question of a central Constitution broke the nation into factions that threatened to cede the progress of the Revolution.

Collaboration, a key theme within the text, was crucial for the sake of progress. The Articles of Confederation (and later, the Constitution) were acts of extreme collaboration between all political factions. While leaders like Washington and Hamilton feared the strength of the states and the public, others like Jefferson feared the limit of individual liberties at the hands of government. Ellis's title, Founding Brothers, provides insight into his feelings. The divide between these men was as much as about personality as it was about politics, and the success of compromise was contingent on personal relationships. These men had known each other intimately for years and, as proven in the ramifications of the turbulent Adams/Jefferson friendship, the nature of these relationships deeply determined history's course.