Founding Brothers, a nonfiction book by Joseph Ellis, emphasizes that the period following the American Revolution was defined by an extraordinary amount of conflict, from petty disputes to discord so serious that it threatened the very existence of the republic. Compromise was an extremely necessary—and extremely difficult—task for the leaders of the nation. Indeed, Ellis argues that one of the most extraordinary aspects of the leaders of this era was their ability to resolve conflicts through compromise, and that this ability should be one of the defining elements of their legacy. At the same time, there is a major exception to this. The issue of slavery was so divisive that the Founding Fathers decided the question would have to be put on hold until a later date. While this decision is to some degree framed as a compromise in the book, it was also a capitulation to the pro-slavery side, as slavery was allowed to proliferate while the issue was “tabled.”
Founding Brothers shows that the post-Revolutionary period was riddled with conflict, which was fueled not only by genuine ideological disagreement but also by practical issues, personal and political rivalries, uncertainty, and rumor. The post-Revolutionary moment was particularly characterized by conflict due to the fact that, after the struggle against the British was won, the leaders of the United States were no longer united in common struggle: “Bound together in solidarity against the imperialistic enemy, the leadership fragments when the common enemy disappears and the different agenda for the new nation must confront its differences.” Following this loss of a “common enemy,” conflicts that had been ignored, suppressed, or simply hadn’t existed prior to the birth of the independent American nation suddenly materialized in full force. The legacy of the Revolution itself became a highly contested topic, as conflicts between Federalists and Republics turned into “ideological warfare” and certain leaders, such as John Adams, were accused of betraying the Revolution by favoring monarchical-style government.
The book emphasizes that the Founding Fathers should be admired for their ability to achieve compromise under these extraordinarily difficult circumstances. One of the examples of a successful resolution of conflict detailed in the book is the Compromise of 1790, in which Alexander Hamilton achieved his aim of the federal government assuming state debts, while Jefferson and Madison were granted their desire to have the nation’s capital in the South. The conflicts leading up to this compromise were extremely serious and threatening to the republic, and at times a solution seemed so unlikely as to appear ludicrous (as is demonstrated by the example of congressmen who joked that the capitol needed to be put on wheels and moved from place to place). However, through discussion, bargaining, and mutual trust, the leaders reached a compromise that is “most famous for averting a political crisis that many statesmen of the time considered a threat to the survival of the infant republic.”
On the other hand, Ellis also argues that the Compromise of 1790 “exposed the incompatible expectations concerning America’s future that animated these same statesmen.” While the Founding Fathers may have possessed extraordinary skill in achieving harmony between warring sides, in certain cases, such harmony could not be achieved because the visions and desires of these different sides were simply “incompatible.” This is particularly true in the case of slavery. The Founding Fathers’ decision to “table” the issue of slavery and revisit it at a later date left a sizable stain on the revolutionary generation’s legacy. Not only did this decision allow the horror and brutality of slavery to continue for many more years, it also laid the groundwork for the Civil War. The lesson of this is that conflict—particularly a conflict as fundamental as the issue of slavery—will never disappear simply by being ignored. Even if the conflict appears to momentarily subside, it will return in full force at a later date.
Ellis acknowledges that the Founding Father’s decision to dodge the question of slavery helped the United States survive its first decades as an independent nation. Yet Founding Brothers also stresses that it was not only for pragmatic reasons that the issue of slavery was put to one side. The Founding Fathers themselves faced internal conflict regarding the issue of slavery, as is made clear by their contradictory and evasive statements and actions on the matter. While most were united in condemning slavery as a moral evil, many avoided and suppressed serious discussion of abolition. Madison, for example, argued that the consideration of abolition was “premature, politically impractical, and counterproductive.”
Founding Brothers portrays a group of leaders able to reach agreement and compromise in the most unlikely circumstances, in a climate defined by passionate ideological disputes and uncertainty about the future. At the same time, the “evasiveness” of the Founding Fathers when it came to the issue of slavery was so problematic that it is difficult to straightforwardly praise their ability to compromise without centering this enormous caveat.
Conflict vs. Compromise ThemeTracker
Conflict vs. Compromise Quotes in Founding Brothers
The central players in the drama were not the marginal or peripheral figures, whose lives are more typical, but rather the political leaders at the center of the national story who wielded power. What’s more, the shape and character of the political institutions were determined by a relatively small number of leaders who knew each other, who collaborated and collided with one another in patterns that replicated at the level of personality and ideology the principle of checks and balances imbedded structurally in the Constitution.
Strictly speaking, Hamilton’s concession should have been the end of it. Affairs of honor were supposed to involve only personal charges. Political or ideological disagreements, no matter how deep, lay outside the field of honor on which a gentleman could demand satisfaction. Hamilton’s distinction between personal and political criticism was designed to change the dispute with Burr from an affair of honor to a political difference of opinion.
The hyperbolic tone of Hamilton’s anti-Burr comments derived not so much from intense personal dislike per se as from his intense fear that the precarious condition of the infant nation rendered it so vulnerable to Burr’s considerable talents. Burr embodied Hamilton’s daring and energy run amok in a political culture still groping for its stable shape.
The Compromise of 1790 is most famous for averting a political crisis that many statesmen of the time considered a threat to the survival of the infant republic. But it also exposed the incompatible expectations concerning America’s future that animated these same statesmen.
The permanent residence of the capital on the Potomac institutionalized political values designed to carry the nation in a fundamentally different direction. It was also symbolic in a personal sense for Jefferson and Madison. For the Compromise of 1790 signaled the resumption of their political partnership after five years of separation. Now, “the great collaboration" was truly an alliance worthy of its name.
Hindsight permits us to listen to the debate of 1790 with knowledge that none of the participants possessed. For we know full well what they could perceive dimly, if at all—namely, that slavery would become the central and defining problem for the next seventy years of American history; that the inability to take decisive action against slavery in the decades immediately following the Revolution permitted the size of the enslaved population to grow exponentially and the legal and political institutions of the developing U.S. government to become entwined in compromises with slavery’s persistence; and that eventually over 6oo,ooo Americans would die in the nation's bloodiest war to resolve the crisis, a trauma generating social shock waves that would reverberate for at least another century.
Any attempt to take decisive action against slavery in 1790, given all these considerations, confronted great, perhaps impossible, odds. The prospects for success were remote at best. But then the prospects for victory against the most powerful army and navy in the world had been remote in 1776, as had the likelihood that thirteen separate and sovereign states would create a unified republican government in 1787. Great leadership had emerged in each previous instance to transform the improbable into the inevitable. Ending slavery was a challenge on the same gigantic scale as these earlier achievements. Whether even a heroic level of leadership stood any chance was uncertain because—and here was the cruelest irony—the effort to make the Revolution truly complete seemed diametrically opposed to remaining a united nation.
The very notion of a republican king was a repudiation of the spirit of '76 and a contradiction in terms. Washington’s presidency had become trapped within that contradiction. He was living the great paradox of the early American republic: What was politically essential for the survival of the infant nation was ideologically at odds with what it claimed to stand for.
Lacking a consensus on what the American Revolution had intended and what the Constitution had settled, Federalists and Republicans alike were afloat in a sea of mutual accusations and partisan interpretations. The center could not hold because it did not exist.
Jefferson's position on political parties, like his stance on slavery, seemed to straddle a rather massive contradiction. In both instances his posture of public probity—slavery should be ended and political parties were evil agents that corrupted republican values—was at odds with his personal behavior and political interest.
For at the highest level of political life in the early republic, relationships remained resolutely personal, dependent on mutual trust, and therefore vulnerable to betrayals whenever the public and private overlapped.