Book Review: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Like everyone else, I recently watched Hamilton as a result of it being added to Disney+. In addition to really enjoying it, it made me curious about the revolutionary war period, so I went looking for a book to learn more. I was pleased to discover Founding Brothers, which I enjoyed immensely. It was both entertaining and very informative, and I would recommend it highly to anyone interested in this period of American history.

The book profiles several members of the revolutionary generation, focusing on specific stories and times of their lives that Ellis finds illuminating to the larger context of the founding of the United States. Conveniently, Ellis begins with the duel between Hamilton and Burr, providing an excellent segue for anyone approaching the book after having just watched Hamilton. The duel is the exception to the otherwise chronological sequence of the stories, essentially telling the story of the early years of the American republic in media res, with the shocking death of a major figure to draw the reader in. I hadn’t realized that in addition to being a very dramatic event, the dual is also historically very important because of how strongly it connects to Hamilton and Burr’s entire lives through their ongoing rivalry, which was connected to their most fundamental principles- including Hamilton’s belief that Burr didn’t have any, and Burr’s willingness to kill Alexander Hamilton because Hamilton was correct.

Ellis makes no secret of his own biases towards the revolutionary generation- he describes his attitude as disarmingly old fashioned, and expresses admiration for their achievements. This makes criticisms of the founders more authentic. Since my own attitude is fairly critical towards figures who have been romanticized, I appreciate the book’s more grounded and authentic depictions delivered from the perspective of a mainstream historian. This isn’t meant as a jab at Howard Zinn- I think I’ll read A People’s History of the United States next. But in this case I was looking for something fairly neutral, in as much as American history can be neutral, and to do that I wanted someone a little to the right of my own ideological alignment.

Sure enough, in spite of his admiration for the founders, Ellis effectively dismantles the popular myths about these men- specifically that everything they did was unanimously popular, correct, and destined to succeed. I was surprised by the degree to which they disagreed and even hated each other. While most of them had traits to admire (with the amusing exception of Burr, who is consistently unscrupulous and unprincipled) virtually all of them supported some idea that would be incredibly unpopular today, beyond the most obvious examples of the typical racism and sexism of the time. That said, I was very surprised by the book’s examination of their attitudes towards slavery. My impression had been that they somehow had been oblivious of what an atrocity it was. In fact, the competing factions were those who recognized it as a horrific institution that should be destroyed, and those who insisted that discussing it should be taboo as a result that no sensible defense of it could be made.

Ultimately I feel that I learned a lot from it, though that does raise the question of how I know so little about American history. At the risk of sounding defensive, I don’t think I’m alone in my ignorance. For anyone else looking to gain a better understanding of the revolutionary generation, I strongly recommend this book.


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