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Summary: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis

Founding Brothers (2002) complicates and enriches our understanding of the American revolution. The men who founded America lived and worked in uncertain times. The future was far from certain, and even the truths they held to be self-evident often led to strikingly different conclusions. But they clung to one another – as friends, as rivals, and even as enemies. Together, they formed a fraternity of remarkable minds that could collectively solve the problems each of them on their own could not.


History, Politics, Biographies, Memoirs, Leaders, Notable People, American Revolution Biographies, U.S. Revolution and Founding History

Introduction: New insights into the men who made America.

Clichés get at truths, but they also simplify them. If a cliché captures something essential, it also obscures the larger picture. In short, while catchy, they can be pretty one-dimensional.

The term “Founding Fathers” is one of those clichés.

Remarkable statesmen like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson – the founders we’ll be looking at here – can claim paternity of the United States. That much of the story is true. But to leave it at that doesn’t do the whole story justice.

Historian Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers gives us a fuller narrative of America’s founders. In his telling, men like Franklin, Madison, and Hamilton aren’t all-seeing patriarchs issuing wise guidance to an infant nation; they’re brothers-in-arms in a struggle whose outcome was never certain.

This isn’t a contrarian argument – Ellis doesn’t deny their genius. But the picture he paints is far from one-dimensional. These revolutionaries were far-sighted, but they were also human. They made mistakes. They gambled. They followed their instincts. They could compromise, but they could also be unrelenting. Most of all, though, they held each other to high standards.

And that’s the thread we’ll be following in this summary to Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis. The revolution had high stakes – the very future of humanity depended on it, these men thought. There was only one chance to get it right, which is why the clashes between them were so highly charged.

[Book Summary] Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Along the way, you’ll learn

  • Why virtue was so important to America’s revolutionary generation;
  • How Washington was chosen as the nation’s new capitol; and
  • Why the country’s leading statement didn’t abolish slavery straight away.

1776: A utopian wager

History is much more than a collection of facts and a record of dates. It’s also our way of illuminating the present. Of finding out how we got here and how our world was made.

But the past doesn’t lead inevitably into the present. There are always forks in the road, and not every road leads to Rome. At each turn, our forebears made decisions. They had different paths to choose from, and different futures to discover.

So let’s turn back to one of those moments – the year 1775.

We’re in North America. Thirteen colonies belonging to the globe’s greatest military power – the British empire – decide to throw off the colonial yoke. They take up arms. A year later, in 1776, they explain their motives in what will become a world-famous document: the Declaration of Independence. Because we know what happened next, it’s hard to appreciate the stakes of this utopian wager.

Going up against the British army and navy was an act of almost suicidal defiance. Victory eventually came in 1783, but only after the American revolutionaries had come perilously close to defeat on several occasions. But those revolutionaries weren’t just taking on a superior military force; as they saw it, they were also challenging the very course of human history up to that point.

Let’s zoom in on the revolutionary generation – our founding brothers. Before we discuss any individuals, let’s look into something they all shared. It was a way of thinking about the world. A common ideal that illuminated their collective actions. It was called republicanism.

A republic is a state in which the people – the citizens – rule themselves by electing representatives. They are their own masters. They can replace their government, which is an expression of the collective will of all citizens and a servant of the people. Today, we’d call it a democracy.

The opposite of a republic is a monarchy – a catchall that describes absolutist states in which there are no citizens, only subjects. These governments cannot be replaced; they must simply be obeyed.

In 1776, the world was ruled by monarchies, as it had been for most of human history. There were exceptions to this rule, like the Roman Republic in ancient times, and American revolutionaries loved these exceptions. They were the bright spots of liberty in a sea of darkness and despotism.

But, the revolutionaries wondered, why exactly were free states so rare? And why did they inevitably collapse into absolutism? How was it that would-be dictators succeeded in overthrowing republics like Rome and turning them into unfree monarchies? The answer the American revolutionaries came up with hinged on virtue.

Vigilance: A republican virtue

A despot doesn’t need to be virtuous to win loyalty or obedience. He has absolute power. Rebellious subjects can be thrown in dungeons, or sent to the gallows, and there aren’t impartial juries to judge their fate. A dictator’s will is law; a monarch always has the last word.

Nor do the subjects of despots need to be virtuous – in fact, it helps if they’re selfish and corrupt. If a despot grants them tracts of profitable land, or a monopoly to sell luxury goods, they’re not going to insist on their neighbors having the same rights. People without strong moral values are easy to buy.

So what about republics? Well, that’s a completely different story. To win and keep the loyalty of citizens, republican governments must be virtuous. If they don’t treat all equally, follow their own laws, or act in the common interest, citizens have a right to replace them – either by election or revolution.

And a republic’s citizens must also be virtuous. If they are too selfish or corrupt, they’ll favor their own interests above those of their neighbors and break the bonds of trust that sustain power-sharing. The result: civil war and the death of the republic. That outcome can only be prevented if fellow citizens strike compromises and place the interests of the common good above their own interests. In short, good republican citizens must be deeply patriotic.

It’s easy to see, then, why despotic monarchies have been the norm for most of human history: republics have to clear very high bars to survive, let alone thrive. Republics are absolutely dependent on the people’s moral character. Any lapse in the judgment of statesmen, any slackening of virtue among citizens, can condemn a republic to an early death. For American revolutionaries, that was precisely what had happened to historic republics like Rome.

When Romans were virtuous, they were patriotic – they looked to the common good. They fought for Rome’s honor, not to advance their own rank or fortune. But when they became obsessed by personal status or money, they looked to their own good, not the republic’s. Corruption and selfishness led to internal division, which brought conflict and – eventually – the republic’s demise.

The lesson for America’s republicans was obvious. The nation they were creating – a free republic dedicated to the liberty and happiness of all – was a political oddity. It was a risky, crazy attempt to defy history. And it could only succeed if the revolutionary generation and its leaders remained vigilant against every dropping off of virtue.

As we’ll see, it was this determination to see their experiment succeed that drove American revolutionaries to hold each other to such high standards. It also explains why they clashed so often. For America’s founders, every misstep was potentially the first step on the road to ruin.

A little lion in the urban jungle

Against all odds, the revolutionary war was won. In 1783, the British conceded. King George III signed a peace treaty and recognized the new American republic.

The nation had been born in war. How would it fare in times of peace?

There wasn’t a blueprint. However much the revolutionary generation admired Rome, they couldn’t turn the clock back. Their republic belonged to the modern world. They had to find their own answers. And while the founders shared the same ideals, they often drew different conclusions from their common assumptions.

In the early days of the republic, for example, Thomas Jefferson, one of its leading statesmen, argued that each generation was sovereign. It was only fitting, he concluded, that laws should expire after 20 years. He eventually came to see this plan as a recipe for anarchy, but it’s revealing that he could entertain the idea: it showed that the future of the United States was anything but settled.

So let’s introduce one of the leading actors in this open-ended drama. Enter Alexander Hamilton, the champion of a cause known as federalism – the idea that the United States should have a strong central government that plays an active role in managing the economy.

Hamilton was known as the “little lion of federalism.” The word “little” referred to his stature – a diminutive five foot seven. The word “lion” referenced his combative nature.

As a general in the revolutionary army, Hamilton proved himself a brave and resourceful soldier. As a politician, he displayed the same qualities. He refused to yield. He threw everything he had at obstacles, taking on political opponents with the same zeal he’d once shown on the battlefield.

Hamilton’s nature earned him the lifelong admiration of his allies – and the hatred of his opponents. Founder and future president John Adams was one of the latter. For him, Hamilton was little more than the “bastard brat of a Scotch peddler.”

It was an insult, but it was also literally true. Hamilton was born on the West Indian island of Nevis, the illegitimate son of a hard-drinking Scottish merchant with a talent for bankrupting businesses. It was those undistinguished origins which explained Hamilton’s need to prove his superiority in everything he did. But it was his escape from the provincial world of Nevis that really shaped him.

Hamilton rose through society after being given a chance to prove himself in the New York offices of merchants, bankers, and industrialists – the urban business elite. These men lacked the aristocratic snobbery of the plantation-owning class from which many revolutionary leaders came. Unlike those gentlemen, they wanted to create rather than conserve. Hamilton didn’t just admire them – he believed they represented the future. This idea – that it was in the cities, the home of industry, that America’s fortune would be made – was at the heart of Hamilton’s federalism.

Hamilton encounters an immovable obstacle

There’s an old idea in politics which says that crises can be opportunities – if politicians seize the initiative. When a crisis hit the United States in the 1780s, Hamilton tried to do just that.

America was broke. The war had dragged on for eight long years and the republic had borrowed heavily to pay and arm its soldiers. By 1789, it owed its creditors $80 million. To put that in perspective, it raised less than $3 million in revenue. If the United States didn’t pay down its debts, its credit rating would suffer. That would make it much harder to borrow money in the future.

But debt repayments were devolved: each of the thirteen states was responsible for what it owed. Some states, like Virginia, could clear their debts; others, like Rhode Island, were close to bankruptcy.

Hamilton believed this state of affairs risked carving the United States up into separate economic zones. Investors might trust Virginia with their money, but states like Rhode Island would stagnate. That undermined national unity. How, though, could investors be convinced to invest their capital in the entire start-up nation that was the United States? Hamilton’s answer was called assumption.

The federal government would assume – that is, take on – all thirteen states’ debts. Instead of thirteen separate ledgers, there would be just one. Since the central government had more resources at its disposal than individual states, lenders would be more confident that debts would be repaid. Less risk meant lower interest rates, easier access to credit, and more investment. Win-win, right?

Hamilton, the friend of industry, thought so. But a Virginian gentleman, a representative of that state’s plantation-owning aristocracy, disagreed. His name was James Madison.

Madison was small and frail. He weighed just 140 pounds and was often ill. He spoke softly and plainly, rejecting the high-minded revolutionary rhetoric of his peers. In short, he was anything but charismatic. But his unassuming appearance and manner concealed a shrewd mind. He didn’t need rhetoric or the force of personality – his inoffensive arguments nearly always won the day anyway.

Madison, then, was a formidable opponent. And on the question of debt, he was resolutely opposed to Hamilton’s plans. Virginia had already paid off its debts, he pointed out, and it would be unfair if the state now also had to contribute to repaying the debts of other states. But that pragmatic economic argument concealed a deeper disagreement about the political future of the United States.

Hamilton’s plan gave the federal government ultimate authority over the economies of individual states. The British had ruled America as a tax colony, channeling American taxes into their treasury in distant London. So, he proposed to do the same to states like Virginia, whose taxes would now fund an unaccountable government in far-away New York. Wasn’t that also a form of tyranny? Madison, like many southerners, thought it was.

A famous dinner leads to a famous compromise

Hamilton and Madison had reached a deadlock, then. Each accused the other of betrayal. One risked the very survival of the revolutionary republic; the other was putting it on the path to tyranny.

Enter Thomas Jefferson – the third character in our drama.

Jefferson loomed over Hamilton and Madison, literally and figuratively. Measuring six foot two, he was the tallest of the three. He was also around a decade older than Hamilton and Madison, who treated him with the respect they believed they owed to an older brother.

Jefferson was a man of high standards and few words. During the war, when he was the governor of Virginia, British troops forced him to abandon the state capitol, which they promptly burned to the ground. Jefferson was cleared of any wrongdoing, but he withdrew from public life after that, taking up a diplomatic post in France. It was only in 1789, at the personal request of the president, George Washington, that he left his self-imposed exile and returned to the political frontlines.

In 1790, Jefferson repaid Washington’s faith in him by defusing the conflict between Hamilton and Madison – a conflict that threatened to derail America’s political experiment.

Jefferson invited both men to dinner that summer to see if they couldn’t reach an agreement. Having spent several years in France, Jefferson knew that the United States wouldn’t be taken seriously in Europe’s capitals until her foreign debts had been cleared. But he also knew that Madison wouldn’t be won over by purely economic arguments. There would have to be a political compromise.

What kind, though? The question Jefferson honed in on was a question that had provoked endless debate in the country – the site of the future capitol of the United States.

Each state and city found reasons why it deserved such an honor. Pennsylvanians said the capitol ought to be at the geographic center of the nation, which just so happened to be Pennsylvania. New Yorkers, Bostonians, and Philadelphians had other, equally ingenious and self-serving arguments.

Virginians like Madison, though, made a more high-minded case for their state. They believed that the river Potomac fed into the Mississippi, which made Virginia a gateway to the continent’s vast interior. The future of the United States, they said, lay in the west, and building the capitol on the banks of the Potomac was a fitting symbol of the nation’s divine mission to colonize that interior.

Geographically, this was nonsense – the Potomac doesn’t feed into the Mississippi – and many Americans mocked Virginians for their provincial romanticism. In the words of one northern senator, Madison had confused the Potomac with a “Euphrates flowing through paradise.” By 1790, he had all but admitted defeat. Only a stroke of fortune, he said, could save the plan. And that’s when a letter inviting him to dine with Alexander Hamilton at Thomas Jefferson’s residence arrived.

The rest is history. Madison agreed that the federal government would take on the states’ debts. In return, he got his capitol on the Potomac – today’s Washington. The federal government could levy its taxes, but it would remain close to Virginians. This was the Compromise of 1790. An existential crisis to the infant republic had been averted. The great experiment continued.

The moral conscience of the revolution

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Those are the famous words of the Declaration of Independence – the document which announced the American revolution in 1776. All men, it continues, have certain unalienable rights – rights that cannot be denied or taken away. They include the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Revolutions, though, rarely make a clean sweep of the past. Hated institutions and ideas live on, compromising revolutionary ideals. For the great American revolutionary Benjamin Franklin, there was no more hateful compromise than the continued existence of slavery – the practice which cruelly denied the liberty and equality of all.

Like Hamilton, Franklin didn’t come from an illustrious family. But his genius more than made up for what he lacked in connections and wealth. Born in 1706, he excelled at everything he touched. By the 1780s, his fame was unrivaled. He was America’s greatest scientist; its leading diplomat; its greatest wit and prose stylist. His twinkling eyes and the shoulder-length gray hair which hung around his otherwise bald head like a halo were familiar to every American newspaper reader.

Franklin was the oldest of the revolutionaries; many said he was also the wisest. He was present at every pivotal moment in the country’s history. He coauthored the Declaration of Independence. He was in Paris to sign a wartime treaty with the republic’s first ally, France. He was there again five years later when Britain signed the peace treaty of 1783. And he was in Philadelphia in 1778 when the Constitution was drafted. Franklin didn’t just accompany the revolution, though – he was its moral conscience. Which brings us to the final act of his remarkable life.

It’s the spring of 1790. Franklin is 84 and close to his death. But he finds the energy to make one last contribution to the revolution: he signs a petition to Congress calling for the immediate abolition of slavery. The statement that all men are equal and equally free, he says, wasn’t mere rhetoric – it was a statement of fact. Slavery, he concludes, is incompatible with the ideals of the republic.

He wasn’t the first or only American to reach this conclusion – religious groups like the Quakers had been saying as much for decades. But Franklin’s voice couldn’t be ignored. As a contemporary put it, Franklin spoke the language of America and his words called the nation back to its first principles.

When Franklin died that spring, the abolition of slavery was still many decades away. But his last act forced the nation to openly confront an issue that had long been hidden away like a dirty secret.

The great silence

Franklin went to his death reminding Americans that slavery was a betrayal of the revolution. His last words echoed through the republic, shattering a conspiracy of silence.

That silence had several roots. There was self-interest – like other well-to-do Americans, many of the founders owned slaves themselves. Self-regard also played its part: no one, after all, likes to think of themself as a hypocrite. Then there was the political question of the United States’ future, which was more easily settled by not talking about slavery.

When the Constitution was drafted in 1787, a divide opened up between northern and southern states. The former were on the way to abolishing slavery. The latter, though, were expanding slavery, especially on their cotton plantations. If the Constitution had laid out a path to the abolition of slavery, the southern states would have refused to ratify it. And if it had enshrined the rights of slaveholders, the northern states would have walked away. The only way to break this deadlock was to ignore the issue, which is why the word “slavery” doesn’t appear in this historic document.

Put differently, the very survival of the republic at this critical moment hinged on a kind of gentleman’s agreement not to broach this divisive topic.

Franklin’s intervention blew that agreement out of the water. As Madison saw it, he had risked the survival of the United States – a fear that was confirmed when politicians from southern states began talking about declaring their independence.

Madison said there was no point in sowing division around slavery. The practice had been outlawed in the northern states and it was only a matter of time before the southern states joined them. Why? In a word, economics. Madison had convinced himself that slavery wasn’t efficient enough to remain profitable for long. Secure in this belief, he set about convincing northern abolitionists to drop the issue while reassuring southern politicians that their states’ interests would be guaranteed. When petitions like Franklin’s were finally debated, Congress agreed that the federal government would give up its right to intervene in the question of slavery until at least 1808.

Politically, this compromise served its purpose – the unity of the nation was preserved. But that unity came at a high price. The idea that slavery was destined to disappear was wrong. Slave plantations became more efficient and thus more profitable to their owners, who brought more slaves into the southern states. The larger the slave population grew, the harder it became to imagine how slavery could be abolished since everyone agreed that slave owners would be compensated. Where was the government supposed to get the money from? Few abolitionists had an answer to that question.

Madison had argued that the window of opportunity to destroy slavery was just opening and urged abolitionists to be patient. But Franklin’s view was the correct one: that window was closing in 1790.

Madison did get one thing right, though. As he had foreseen, abolishing slavery proved to be hugely divisive – as we know, the matter was only resolved at the end of a brutal and bloody civil war. Over half a million Americans perished in that conflict, but the United States endured. Would it have been able to survive a similar crisis in the 1790s? We can only speculate.

Final Summary

The most important thing to remember from all this is that:

History looks certain when we look back at it from the present. It’s as though there’s a straight path from the American revolution to the United States of today. For the founders of that nation, though, nothing was certain. As they saw it, the chances of failure were high – that was the nature of their audacious political experiment. They had to make it up as they went along, one bitter clash and painful compromise at a time. That they succeeded isn’t evidence of their superhuman genius, but their deeply human determination.

About the author

Joseph J. Ellis is the author of several books of American history, among them Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, which won the 1997 National Book Award. He was educated at the College of William and Mary and Yale University and lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, Ellen, and three sons.

Table of Contents

About the Author
Other Books by This Author
Title Page
Preface: The Generation
Chapter One: The Duel
Chapter Two: The Dinner
Chapter Three: The Silence
Chapter Four: The Farewell
Chapter Five: The Collaborators
Chapter Six: The Friendship


Stay tuned for book review…

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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