In the final decades of the eighteenth century, the Founding Fathers made a radical assertion of American values through the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, sending a message that had a profound impact on the world at large and resonated for many years to come. At the same time, Founding Brothers depicts a contradiction between this decisive assertion of American principles and a reality that was defined by confusion and conflict over what these principles actually were. The creation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution may have helped solidify a sense of Americanness, but—as Ellis points out—some major aspects of the republic, most notably slavery, violated these principles. Furthermore, many of the values that were at the core of the new American republic were abstract, leading to confusion over how they should actually be implemented. At a time when the nation was still vulnerable, it was vital that its leaders proved themselves to be patriotic beyond doubt. Yet the book identifies an irony in this, due to the fact that it involved showing loyalty to values that were very much still hotly disputed and, in some cases, in conflict with reality.
The book demonstrates that certain political leaders from this era were associated with American values to an absolute degree. Ellis calls Benjamin Franklin the “prototypical American,” and mentions that people associated George Washington with the new nation so much that they feared that if Washington died, the republic would die with him. To some extent, Franklin and Washington set a somewhat impossible standard to which the other Founding Fathers then scrambled to meet. Being the earliest leaders of a new nation meant there was a great deal of pressure to embody the values of that nation, even when those values were still being defined and developed. This sometimes took absurd proportions, such as when Thomas Jefferson hopefully asked if he was indeed dying on July 4 (although he asked the question on July 3, both he and John Adams did indeed both die on July 4).
At the same time, there is also a question over whether even the ultimate American leaders Franklin and Washington embodied Americanness in every way. For example, Adams thought that Franklin was “naïve about French motives,” which he believed were in fact not sufficiently “pro-American.” Meanwhile, the fact that Washington arguably became a king-like leader of the American republic was itself a contradiction in terms. How could a country that had defined itself by rejecting the monarchy then invest its identity so intensely with a single leader?
Examples of such contradictions proliferate throughout the book. Again, one of the biggest examples of such contradiction is slavery. All the Founding Fathers professed to believe in the fundamentally American principle that “All men are created equal,” and that they have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” yet none took decisive action in ending the institution of slavery. Instead, the revolutionary generation chose to put aside the issue of slavery, leaving the problem for future generations to deal with. It is difficult to reconcile this truth with the idea that the Founding Fathers truly embodied American values, considering how severely their behavior violated the words that they themselves had written. Although the book doesn’t explore this issue fully, it briefly considers the prospect that despite the professed thoughts of the Founding Fathers and the words of the Declaration of Independence, slavery had in fact become part of American identity. Ellis mentions “the realistic recognition that slavery had been grafted onto the character of the southern states during the colonial era and had become a permanent part of American society south of the Potomac,” thereby suggesting that the contradiction between the values professed by the Founding Fathers and the reality of American culture was perhaps more profound than we might assume.
To some extent, the book declines to resolve the issue of how the Founding Fathers may or may not have violated the American values that they themselves helped to define. At the same time, it does show that internal conflict and disagreement did not solely pose a threat to the new republic but was actually vital in defining its values. Ellis points out that the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were “designed to deport or disenfranchise foreign-born residents, mostly Frenchmen, who were disposed to support the Republican party” and made it a crime to publish any “false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the Government of the United States” were “unquestionably the biggest blunder of [John Adams’] presidency.” Enforcing patriotic obedience was an unwise move precisely because demanding loyalty to American values goes against American values. In this sense, the book suggests that while there were certainly contradictions and complexities in defining American values during this era, these values were no less meaningful and powerful as a result.
Patriotism and American Values ThemeTracker
Patriotism and American Values Quotes in Founding Brothers
No event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution. On the inevitability side, it is true there were voices back then urging prospective patriots to regard American independence as an early version of manifest destiny. Tom Paine, for example, claimed that it was simply a matter of common sense that an island could not rule a continent […] Several other prominent American revolutionaries also talked as if they were actors in a historical drama whose script had already been written by the gods.
Hindsight, then, is a tricky tool. Too much of it and we obscure the all-pervasive sense of contingency as well as the problematic character of the choices facing the revolutionary generation. On the other hand, without some measure of hindsight, some panoramic perspective on the past from our perch in the present, we lose the chief advantage—perhaps the only advantage—that the discipline of history provides, and we are then thrown without resources into the patternless swirl of events with all the time-bound participants themselves.
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.
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.
In fact, Jefferson’s headache coincided with a veritable plague that seemed to descend on the leadership of the Virginia dynasty. Madison was laid up with dysentery, Edmund Randolph remained in Virginia to care for his wife, who had nearly died delivering a stillborn baby, and, most ominously of all, George Washington came down with the flu and developed pulmonary complications that the physicians considered life-threatening. "You cannot conceive the public alarm on this occasion," Jefferson reported to William Short, his former secretary in Paris, adding that Washington's demise would in all probability have meant the abrupt end of the whole national experiment.
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.
What Voltaire was to France, Franklin was to America, the symbol of mankind’s triumphal arrival at modernity. When the two great philosopher-kings embraced amid the assembled throngs of Paris, the scene created a sensation, as if the gods had landed on earth and declared the dawning of the Enlightenment. The greatest American scientist, the most deft diplomat, the most accomplished prose stylist, the sharpest wit, Franklin defied all the categories by inhabiting them all with such distinction and nonchalant grace.
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.
For that city and the name it was destined to carry, symbolized the conspiracy that threatened, so Jefferson and his followers thought, all that Virginia stood 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.