Founding Brothers

Founding Brothers Themes


The men who became the Founding Fathers first developed relationships with each other as friends. Fighting beside one another, possessed by the spirit of ‘76, they formed a idealistic brotherhood intent on freedom. The decades that followed can be understood in terms of their persistent or declining friendships. Washington's close friendship with Hamilton was essential towards the formation of the Federalist party, for instance. Jefferson traded a friendship with Adams for a political collaboration with Madison, which revealed his shifting political obsessions. In fact, the relationship between Jefferson and Adams is arguably the central one of the book; Ellis explores how politics severed the close ties forged by the Revolution, but how time and perspective facilitated a renewal of that friendship. Much of Ellis's intention in this book is to consider how these friendships either affected or were affected by the turbulent times in which these men lived and formed a new government.


One of the most important themes of Founding Brothers is posterity. Ellis tries to understand the Revolutionary period in terms of what these men hoped posterity would say about them and their creation. He explores the ways in which they “pose for posterity” during and after the war. Some held the position better than others. Adams found it difficult to ignore messy reality for a mythic pose, unlike Jefferson, who had the foresight to sell himself as the legendary figure the public believed him to be. However, Ellis does not consider such poses as necessarily negative. For instance, Washington made many decisions as President in hopes that they would illustrate the proper use of presidential power for posterity. Finally, much of the legacy these men left behind is in the documents or institutions they created for posterity. As long as the Republic stands, bastioned by both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, our historical perspective will be split between the reality of their personalities and the long-lasting legacy of the words they left us.


An overlaying theme throughout the text, slavery is the taboo topic of discussion in "Chapter Three: The Silence." In this chapter, Ellis explores how the markedly different perspectives of Southerners and Northerners were not only not decided by the Constitution, but in fact were ignored for decades afterwards. A great unrest persisted, occasionally rearing its head (as in the incident detailed in Chapter Three), but never persevering until the Civil War finally forced the question. Ellis considers the Founding Fathers partly in terms of their stance on slavery, but suggests that all of them save Franklin were more concerned about the survival of a fragile Union than in forcing a question that might have caused secession. Overall, Ellis suggests that the Founding Fathers were silent on the question of slavery not because they were morally ambivalent, but because they were consumed with anxiety over the survival of their great republican experiment.


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.

As an extension, this approach allows Ellis to consider why some historical narratives persist, while others do not. For instance, he contrasts the Jeffersonian version of the Revolution - a romanticized, transcendent struggle - with Adams's, which revels in the messy details and anxieties of the period. Ellis seems to prefer the latter, but understands why Jefferson's version has persisted: it is neater, has a better story, and has a mythic air. Overall, by considering both approaches to history, Ellis suggests that history must be understood both in terms of the legend that persists and the messy, grounded personalities that facilitate those legends.


Ellis considers collaboration central to the success of the early Union, and he examines the ways in which it both worked and failed. Many noted collaborations appear within Founding Brothers, including: Washington’s reliance on Hamilton during the first days of the republic; Jefferson and Madison’s creation of the Republican party in opposition to the Federalists; the agreement brokered during the famed dinner Jefferson held for Madison and Hamilton; and most notably, Adams’ and Jefferson’s joint effort to secure a peace treaty from France to end the Revolutionary War. Although the author spends a considerable amount of time on the collaboration, and subsequent lack thereof, between Adams and Jefferson, it is the collaboration between Adams and his wife Abigail that is truly unique. When politics tore former allies apart, Adams found solace in a relationship unsullied by such concerns. In trying to understand why the Revolution and early republic were successful, Ellis examines the ways in which people work together, or fail to do so.


“No one present at the start [of the Revolution] knew how it would turn out in the end” (5). Throughout the book, Ellis attempts to understand the formation of the U.S. not as an effect of fate, but of specific personalities. While the Jeffersonian version of the period suggests that success was inevitable, Ellis is more interested in the way specific people affected or were affected by the time period. As alternative to fate, Ellis proposes improvisation, talent, and pure luck as the qualities that enabled victory and survival. Nevertheless, Ellis is willing to consider that history itself works as a type of fate. Not only are there amazing coincidences - like the deaths of Adams and Jefferson on the same day - but there are also occurrences that were not in human control, such as Adams's almost certain failure as the second President. In considering history as both removed from and yet itself a type of fate, Ellis creates a sophisticated, original retelling of this seminal American period.


A strong character trait amongst the Founding Fathers and a reoccurring theme in the text, truth is essentially illustrated in this book as a quest for honesty. Adams was determined to tell the truth of the American Revolution as he remembered it, without the doctored or romantic notions that his friend Jefferson employed. The author strives to find a historical truth that pays credence to both the Adams and Jefferson approaches. He is quick to dispel the validity of propaganda like that Jefferson and the Republicans used in 1800, but is also willing to consider that some claims derived from personality traits. For example, the criticisms of Washington as "quasi-king" were based in some part on his inherent aloofness. The legends and falsehoods become true when people believe them, especially when those legends influence history, as Jefferson's did. Overall, the book suggests that truth cannot be divorced from the myths that people create for themselves.