Book: Founding Brothers by JOSEPH J. ELLIS
Founding Brothers: The Duel
The duel between Hamilton and Burr occurred July 11, 1804 and while Aaron Burr ,the
victor of this duel, may have won, both duelists were ultimate losers. Ellis provides for the
reader some of the duelists backgrounds and ancestries as well as insight into the unclear
components of the duel.
Hamilton is described as “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar.” by John Adams with Ellis
adding only that the mother was French and that the Father was Scottish. Hamilton brought
Doctor David Hosack and his aid, Nathaniel Pendleton to the duel. Hamilton outranked Burr by
military rank holding the title of General Hamilton of the New Army.
Burr on the other hand was a Colonel. Burr was also the grandson of Jonathan Edwards,
a great theologian. Burr's accompanying aid to the duel was William Van Ness.
The duel occurred near the plains of Weehawken on a narrow ledge twenty feet above the
water. Burr's party arrived just before 7 A.M. and Hamilton's soon after, the aids reviewed the
rules of the “interview” as dueling was illegal. The aids, oarsmen and the doctor turned away
from the duel for deniability. Hamilton choose the weapons for the duel as .54 caliber pistols
that, without the hair-trigger and during the duel , needed 20 lbs. of pressure to fire.
Hamilton earlier wrote that he intended to waste the first shot yet he wore his eyeglasses
during the duel. Hamilton's choice of weapons(smooth barrel without hair-trigger) should have
made it very difficult to hit someone so it would seem neither party wanted to kill the other. Yet,
Hamilton was hit and died the next day. While two shots were heard yet Hamilton, does not
remember having fired, as denoted when the oarsmen tried to move his gun and Hamilton warned
it was yet loaded. Burr became the the most despised leader of the time and was forced to flee
the state. Ellis concludes that they dueled because they were insure and wanted to feel like
Founding Brothers: The Dinner
A meeting between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison brokered was by Thomas
Jefferson shortly after his return from France. The purpose of this meeting was, in Jefferson's
mind, to prevent the paralysis of the legislative body. Hamilton was the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury
at the time and the core of his financial plan for 1790 was being put down by Madison. This
core is referred to as assumption through out the chapter and is the plan of the federal
government assuming the debt of each state. In short, combining 13 ledgers into one.
Madison, who had collaborated in the creation of “Publius” in The Federalist Papers, was
against this proposition for the reason that it would make many southern states “slaves” to the
All the states had debt at the time, many of the southern states had paid a good deal of
it off already however. Were the original assumption implemented it would increase the debt
that many southern states had to work off. The chief example in this chapter is Virginia. In
this case they currently held 3.5 million dollars in debt, after assumption they would have a
debt of around 5 million.
At around the same time there was a great deal of debate over where the nation's
capital should be located(residency question). Many in the south, notably the Virginians,
wanted the capital built on the Potomac(Patowmac) and it was predicted by Jefferson that this
could generate an additional half million dollars a year for Virginia. Others leading
candidates were: Annapolis, Baltimore, Carlisle, Frederick,Germantown, New York,
Philadelphia Susquehanna and Trenton.
The ultimate resolution to the problem was this: Madison would not block assumption
and Hamilton would use his influence to make the Potomac the site of the new capital. Of
course, there was a great number of other deals including one to make Philadelphia the home
of the temporary capital in exchange for making the Potomac the final capital.
Founding Brothers: The Silence
This chapter provides a vivid insight into the thoughts of the people who made up the
government right after the revolutionary war and their thoughts immediately after the
revolutionary war. It names names and it give statistics state by state(p102) and in the end how the
congress accomplished very little with this forbidden subject and legislation.
The whole thing started February 11th , 1790 when Quaker delegations(New York and
Philadelphia) brought before the house petitions calling for an immediate end to the African slave
trade. Delegates from Georgia and South Carolina were characteristically unhappy about this.
However since the constitution forbade such action by the federal government, the Quakers
were asking for something already unavailable.
Madison suggested that the petition be sent to a committee “as a matter of course.” and
that it would go away. It did not however as on February 12th , 1790 another petition arrived from
the Pennsylvania Abolition Society asking that slavery be abolished. What was most problematic
about this petition was that it arrived under the signature of Benjamin Franklin. This petition also
pointed out that slavery was incompatible with the “values of '76.”
A representative's side depended on if they based their opinions from 1776 or 1787.
Oddly enough, northern states tended to follow '76 while the states of the deep south followed
1787's example. Virginia was something of a split state however when it came down to it, they
were against emancipation. Emancipation, both gradual and immediate, had two major problems
“How would the owners be compensated?”, or rather where would the estimated 140 million
dollars come from, and “Where would the slaves go?” as mentioned in Jefferson's Notes of the
State of Virginia. It was agreed that the people would never accept a tax sufficient to cover the 140
million dollars need to buy the freedom of all slaves and even if they were freed it was agreed that
incorporation was unlikely, even unthinkable. The only other place to go would be either a colony
(like Sierra Leone which failed horribly) or a “homeland” in the western territories.
In the end debate over slavery was put to an end until the civil war. Everyone was happy
about this, except the Quakers, as it may have saved the union for another 71 years. (P108-112 Franklin Bio)
Founding Brothers: The Farewell
George Washington died December 14th , 1799. This chapter describes his Farewell
address which was published in the form of an article made to “the people of the United
States.” this article has become known as “Washington's Farewell Address” despite it being
titled as such in only one paper, the Courier of New Hampshire.
This address was written originally to bring Washington's first term to a close and
was drafted by Madison however his advisers were able to convince him to stay a second
term. As his second term came to a close George Washington had Alexander Hamilton aid in
his farewell address, this address was based upon the original drafted by Madison partly to
show that he never wanted to run a second term in the first place and to help defend against
critics who felt Washington was abusing his power.
The address was ultimately based wholly upon Washington's ideas, involved some of
Madison's words and quite a few of Hamilton's words. The main issues in the address were
those of the benefits of the federal government, warnings against the party system, morality,
religion, stable public credit, warnings against permanent foreign alliances, and that of an
over-powerful military. One last thing Washington wished to stress but ultimately hardly
mentioned was that of a national university.
Washington officially left office March 1797 and returned to Mount Vernon.
Jefferson's betrayal(slander) of Washington and Jay's treaty is also covered in this chapter.
Jay's treaty eliminated British control of western posts, established America's claim for
damages from British ship seizures, and provided America a right to trade in the West Indies
in exchange for having any “outstanding” pre-revolutionary repaid and for something of a
pro-English trade situation, as opposed to a pro-French. Jefferson's claims of Washington's
senility ended relations between the two when a news paper printed one of Jefferson's letters.
The full address can be found at http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/washing.htm
Founding Brothers: The Collaborators
Due to Washington's retirement it was necessary to find a replacement and this new nation
had yet to have experienced such a thing before. At the time only four men would really even be
considered to become commander-and-chief: George Washington(retired), Benjamin Franklin
(dead), John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Seeing as how Washington was retired and Franklin
was dead that left only Adams and Jefferson to run for office.
Adams was born in 1735 south of Boston and was later educated at Harvard. He then
became a schoolteacher then an apprentice lawyer. In 1764 he married Abigail Smith and in 1765
he began opposition of British policy. He later wrote Thoughts on Government. In 1777 Adams
and Franklin went to Paris to negotiate an alliance with France. Upon his return he drafted the
Massachusetts Constitution with minor aid. Adams went back to Europe a few more times before
he finally returned to become the first vice president of the United States. Subsequently Adams
cast more tie breaking votes than any other vice president since during his eight years in office. It
was also because of Adams that it was decided that the vice president was not allowed to speak in
Jefferson, the other candidate, was eight years younger than Adams having been born in
1743 near Albermarle County, Virginia. He studied at the College of William and Mary. In 1772
he married Martha Skelton and took her to live in Monticello, his mountaintop home. Jefferson
lent his writing to the patriot cause more than his voice and became know as the “silent member”
of Congress. At 33 he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was Secretary of State
in Washington's Cabinet until he resigned in 1793. In the end Jefferson reluctantly entered the
race against Adams.
Once the votes were cast the votes were split, Adams commanded New England while
Jefferson had control of South. Ultimately Adams won the election coming in three votes above
Jefferson. Jefferson became the vice president although having been an opponent of Adams.
Subsequently after having failed to revive their “great collaboration” Adams ended up almost
ignoring his cabinet and Jefferson.
Founding Brothers: The Friendship
The Friendship begins with a short, hostile, correspondence between Abigail Adams
and President Jefferson. Which brings up the point that Jefferson was the first president to
actually run his own campaign as well as that of sponsoring the smear campaign arranged
through Callender. The Friendship then continues onto Jefferson's presidential career.
During Jefferson's incredibly successful first term he eliminated the unpopular tax on
whiskey, cut the budget, slashed military expenditures and reduced the national debt by a
third. Jefferson also acquired the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1803, effectively
doubling the country's size. It is important to note that the Constitution didn't really give
Jefferson to do this in the first place. Jefferson's second term however is regarded as a failure
especially because of the Embargo Act in 1807 which damaged the economy.
Meanwhile Adams was attempting to be remembered in history. He first attempted to
write and autobiography which ended without an end as a rant against Adams' political
enemies. He then attacked Mercy Warren because of her three volume History of the
American Revolution (1805) didn't make Adams a major player in the revolution. He then
sent memoirs to the Boston Patriot in order to “set the record straight”; Adams also began
drafting essays for the Patriot in which he compared himself to a wild animal and ensuingly
showed himself half-crazy if not insane. Adams eventually began a correspondence with
Benjamin Rush regarding each others dreams and this seems to have healed Adams psyche.
An example of such a dream is given on page 215 in which Adams lectures a “royal
menagerie” on the principles of liberty and equality among living creatures.
Benjamin Rush eventually began attempting to resurrect the friendship between
Adams and Jefferson. It eventually succeeded leading to a 14 year correspondence via letter.
There was mention of a classless system and how it would never work because of human
nature. Thomas Jefferson died July 4th , 1826. John Adams died the same day.
Overall Argument of Founding Brothers
Founding Brothers is an interesting book as history lessons go, and Ellis does an
excellent job storytelling these six historical events. If you have read the little notes near the
front of the book you will notice that other books also written by Mr. Ellis include Passionate
Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams and American Sphinx: The Character of
Thomas Jefferson, and after having read this book, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary
Generation you may notice that two characters appear in every chapter. These two characters
are of course John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Ellis obviously is writing about what
he knows. But what is the overall argument of Founding Brothers? Is it that without two or
three men the American revolution would have failed? Or perhaps it is that before the fairy
tale they were real people working towards a better future for their children. The correct
answer could be one of these, it could be both of these and at the same time the correct
answer may be neither. However I would assert that the greatest argument made throughout
the course of Founding Brothers is that of my second option. “It is that before the fairy tale
they were real people.”
In the first chapter is showed how even these political giants are mortal with
Hamilton's death. The Duel also shows that despite Washington's “perfect” example not all of
the founding fathers were immune to corruption as was Aaron Burr in his attempt to betray
his countrymen to the British.
With “The Dinner” it is explained to us that many of the things that happened didn't
just happen, there were deals behind closed doors some of which may have saved the new
nation from collapse and civil war, for a time.
Then in chapter three, “The Silence”, our nations “dirty little secret” of the time is
discussed as well as why nothing was immediately done and it points out that while many of
our freedom fighters were all for fighting for their freedom, they were not all so eager to fight
for a freedom that would have hurt profits. In the end even what some would call the greatest
leaders in American history couldn't fix this problem so they just shoved it back under the
table until it ended up in civil war.
Chapter four was entitled The Farewell and it showed that even the great Washington
had critics, even he was mortal and susceptible to old age, and that even George Washington,
to whom King George III admitted inferiority, was not perfect as he was made out to be.
Chapters five and six run connect more clearly than any of the other chapters. These
two chapters are all about Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Throughout these two
chapters we are shown more fallibility in these founding fathers than any other. Thomas
Jefferson's damage to the economy during his second term and his sponsoring Callender to
produce slander against former president and former friend John Adams in order to win the
race for presidency. John Adams obsession with fame was perhaps his major flaw.
In the end, every founding father depicted in this book is shown to not have been the
perfect, superhuman depicted in many revolutionary stories, they are shown to be mortal men
just like everybody else.
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