November 2000

The bonds that started a nation

By Joseph J. Ellis
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The crucial political decisions in the young American republic of the late 18th century were made by relatively few leaders. They knew one another personally, and their face-to-face interaction in social settings had a significant impact on the choices they eventually made. In the words of historian Joseph Ellis, these decisions with long-ranging consequences came about "in a sudden spasm of enforced inspiration and makeshift construction. How this worked is the subject of Ellis' magnificent new study Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. The author knows the terrain well. His American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson received the National Book Award in 1996, and Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams is regarded as one of the best books on our second president.

Ellis eloquently conveys the interconnected personal relationships and overriding issues that set the nation's course. The eight most influential leaders he focuses on are: George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Abigail and John Adams. The extraordinary mix of such diverse personalities with strongly held opinions helped check each other. Despite their differences, and particularly when contrasted with what was happening in France during the same period, it is noteworthy that the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804 was the only case in "the revolutionary generation when political difference ended in violence and death rather than in ongoing argument. The author says the Jefferson-Madison relationship "can be considered the most successful political partnership in American history. For many years, Jefferson provided the grand strategy and Madison was an agile tactician. In the 1790s, Madison managed the effort behind the scenes to oppose the policies of Washington and Hamilton and to prepare the way for Jefferson's presidential candidacy. Ellis contrasts Washington, the realist, and Jefferson, "for whom ideals were the supreme reality and whose inspirational prowess derived from his confidence that the world would eventually come around to fit the picture he had in his head. The author explores Washington's vision as expressed in his last Circular Letter as commander in chief of the army to the states in 1783 and in his Farewell Address as president. It is interesting to note that Washington, in his "Address to the Cherokee Nation, imagined the inclusion of Native Americans in the developing country. And, in contrast to Jefferson, "He tended to regard the condition of the black population as a product of nurture rather than nature that is, he saw slavery as the culprit, preventing the development of diligence and responsibility that would emerge gradually and naturally after emancipation.

John Adams is one of the author's favorite characters. "His refreshing and often irreverent candor provides the clearest window into the deeper ambitions and clashing vanities that propelled them all. Ellis shows how all other political leaders deserted Adams when he became president and Abigail became his one-woman staff. The author masterfully steers us through the Adams presidency and Abigail and John's reconciliation with Jefferson, which led to their 14-year exchange of letters, now considered the most important correspondence between prominent American statesmen.

This carefully researched, beautifully written overview of the "band of brothers and Abigail Adams who established our nation" should be enjoyed by a wide readership.

Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.


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