The American Revolution seemed “improbable” at the time, but in hindsight it was “inevitable.” Many of the figures involved in the Revolution spoke as if they were “actors in a historical drama.” Members of the revolutionary generation would claim that, in the words of John Adams, they were “present at the creation.” The extraordinary legacy of the Revolution is evident in the many revolutions that followed it, with republican governments replacing monarchies and colonial rule all across the globe. Today, the liberal principles established in the United States during this period hold sway around the world.
The opening passage establishes that the “revolutionary generation” had a somewhat contradictory experience of the Revolution. On one hand, the Revolution seemed unlikely to succeed because there was no historical precedent. On the other, the leaders predicted that their actions would go down in history, suggesting they believed the Revolution would ultimately succeed.
The revolutionary leaders may have spoken confidently, but in reality the values they fought for were still developing during their lifetimes. Military historians have concluded that if British commanders had been more aggressive at the beginning of the Revolution, they would have succeeded in stifling it, and the signers of the Declaration of Independence would have been executed for treason. It may have been inevitable that America eventually achieved independence from Britain, but it was not inevitable that this happened in one decisive but “improvisational” moment, rather than gradually. American institutions that survive to this day were created in a “sudden spasm” of creation.
Living in contemporary times, it is easy to take the authority of American political institutions or documents like the Declaration of Independence for granted. We can forget that these things were all created by human beings who had no idea whether or not they would endure in the future. Even though we can never fully dismiss the knowledge we gain from looking at historical events from our present era (that is, looking at events in hindsight), it is important to be aware of how our contemporary perspective can distort how we view the past.
Almost everything that the Revolution achieved was without any global precedent. In particular, no republican government had successfully presided over any territory as large as the thirteen colonies, which were not unified in any real way at the time. Hindsight is useful but “tricky,” and it is hard to know how much of it to employ. Ellis argues for a mode of hindsight that allows us to balance the knowledge we gain from our contemporary perspective with an understanding of the perspectives of those who lived during the post-Revolutionary period. He compares this to being “nearsighted and farsighted at the same time.”
Ellis’ metaphor of being “nearsighted and farsighted at the same time” is an implicit rejection of the cliché that “hindsight is 20/20” (the idea that hindsight shows us the complete, accurate version of an event). Ellis’ argument instead emphasizes the limitations of human knowledge. Witnessing events firsthand and looking back at them retrospectively both provide a useful, but inherently limited, perspective. Combining these two perspectives helps make up for those limitations.
Hindsight informs us that the abundance of the American natural landscape was a source of “limitless potential.” Meanwhile, the perspective of the revolutionary generation reminds us of a key problem: that the argument in favor of independence from Britain—a critique of centralized, distant authority—could also be used to undermine the new republican government of the United States of America. Although American’s long-term potential was indeed “limitless,” on a more immediate level the scale of the republic, along with its internal conflicts, made it seem likely that the nation would split into a number of different “state or regional sovereignties.”
Here Ellis introduces another important contradiction. Part of the “American dream” lies in the ability to start fresh, taking advantage of resources in order to flourish. However, starting fresh can be a daunting task—particularly in a situation as extreme as the one the Founding Fathers faced. In creating a new country, they had to balance their desire to overturn the old system with their ability to learn from history and make prudent choices to ensure future success.
History didn’t turn out this way thanks to the work of the handful of political leaders who drafted the Constitutional Convention in 1787. While the Constitution can certainly be viewed in a critical light, it is also true that Convention was a “miracle” in that it managed to solve problems that seemed entirely unsolvable. The Constitution managed to create a federal government that stayed true to the republican values outlined in 1776. 1787 was thus another “Founding Moment” of the nation, inaugurating a “second phase” of the Revolution.
Throughout the book, Ellis returns to the tension between 1776 and 1787 as the two most important “founding moments” in American history. Whereas the Declaration of Independence was a decisive, visionary moment, the Constitutional Convention involved the much trickier process of negotiating conflict in order to reach a compromise.
The atmosphere surrounding the Constitutional Convention was one of uncertainty. Many compromises were made in order to appease opposing interests, and some issues were approached in a deliberately vague way to avoid further conflict. At the time, the word “American”—like the word “democrat”—was used as an insult. In 1789, the newly elected federal government met in New York City to discuss the future of the republic. Helpfully, it had essentially been decided that George Washington would serve as the “first chief executive.” However, there remained many difficult issues to resolve.
As is made clear throughout the book, some of the problems facing the revolutionary generation are not that different from issues that arise in the US today (for example, the question of balancing federal power against states’ rights). On the other hand, the fact that the words “American” and “democrat” were considered slurs at this time shows how different the revolutionary era was from our own.
Again, it was unclear whether it would be possible for a republican government to govern territory as large as the United States, and whether this would violate the principles of the Revolution if such an experiment proved successful. It remained to be seen if a coherent sense of American identity would develop at all. Furthermore, 700,000 of those living in the new American republic were black slaves, most of them in the Chesapeake Colonies and the Deep South.
Ellis emphasizes that the occupation of land and the institution of slavery were challenging in both an ideological and practical sense. Even those who ideologically agreed with expansion and slavery still faced the task of figuring out how these projects would be managed by the government.
The final years of the eighteenth century following the Constitutional Convention were “the most crucial and consequential” decade in American history. Issues ranging from the Civil War to the growth of American imperial domination in the twentieth century all had their origins in this period. People both idolize and vilify the Founding Fathers precisely because we are still “living their legacy.”
Ellis’ statement that we are still “living their legacy” alludes both to the successes, achievements, and creations of the Founding Fathers as well as their failures. Issues that they were not able to resolve have troubled the country long since the end of the eighteenth century.
Among historians, it has become trendy to avoid focusing on the Founding Fathers and instead tell the story of the revolutionary period by focusing on the lives of ordinary people. Ellis’ decision to spotlight the leaders of the time is thus “old-fashioned”; however, he insists that these leaders were unquestionably the most important figures of the era. American institutions that still exist today were built by these leaders, all of whom had close—if tumultuous—personal relationships with one another.
Here Ellis outlines an important aspect of his book’s contribution to our understanding of American history. While it is certainly important to understand the lives of ordinary people in history, Ellis believes that in order to understanding the founding of America, we must look to the leaders of the revolutionary moment.
These figures were all white, and essentially all were men. On the other hand, all of them would have been prohibited by the class system from rising to political prominence in England. In this sense, they were very American—“America’s first and, in many respects, its only natural aristocracy.” One school of thought interprets the Revolution as a radical assertion of liberty against European corruption, which was then corrupted by the Federalists (especially Alexander Hamilton). A different school highlights the origins of the Revolution further back, and proposes that its main principle was “collectivist rather than individualistic” action in service of the nation as a whole.
Here Ellis shows how present-day political divisions are connected to the ideological divide that existed in the revolutionary generation. Although the Federalist Party no longer exists, contemporary historians who believe strongly in states’ rights and reducing federal power are likely to adopt the stance that the Federalists corrupted the legacy of the Revolution, just as the Republicans of the era believed.
The different interpretations that exist in the present reflect the debates that raged at the time. Ultimately, both sides “have legitimate claims on historical truth” and both reflect the values of the Revolution. One of the most important legacies of the Revolution was harnessing the energy of disagreement and turning it toward productive ends. This means that “the United States is founded on a contradiction,” and that we should accept this. It is important to see that relations among the revolutionary generation were not harmonious, but rather “a decade-long shouting match.”
Ellis does not explicitly endorse a particular political position or ideological interpretation of the Revolutionary era. Instead, he emphasizes how important conflict, compromise, and collaboration were to the founding of the American republic. In doing so, he emphasizes the importance of diverse political positions operating side by side—even when this causes conflict.
Founding Brothers focuses on the “eight most prominent political leaders” of the time: Abigail and John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. The book focuses on a series of episodes that illustrate the characteristics of the revolutionary generation, and overall highlights four themes: the Founding Fathers’ achievements was a “collective enterprise,” their political relations were also highly personal, they took the most challenging issue, slavery, “off the agenda,” and the revolutionary generation was aware that they were “making history” and behaved accordingly, with consideration to their own legacies.
Founding Brothers is full of detailed observation and intricate historical evidence. Yet the overall argument Ellis makes is fairly straightforward, as this passage shows. Each of the four themes are distinct yet related to one another, and ultimately build a coherent picture of the revolutionary generation, including their aims, achievements, strengths, limitations, and failures.
The episodes in Founding Brothers are in chronological order, except for the first one, which portrays the fatal duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. This appears first in the book because it introduces the themes of the book well. It is also the only instance in which a disagreement among the Founding Fathers led to violence, in part due to the fact that Burr is the “odd man out” among the revolutionary generation. The end of the chapter sets the scene of the duel: a “hot summer morning in 1804,” as Burr and Hamilton separately row across the Hudson River to their meeting point.
Here, Ellis suggests that the duel between Hamilton and Burr is both representative and exceptional. It encapsulates the four themes of the book outlined in the passage above, yet is unusual due to the fact that it features violent conflict. In this sense, the duel episode challenges Ellis’ point that conflict is productive. While this may be true in some cases, at other times conflict leads to violent destruction.