The title Founding Brothers foregrounds the relationships between the Founding Fathers, indicating that the Joseph Ellis’ nonfiction book will depict these relationships rather than simply focusing on the men as individuals. Founding Brothers highlights that these relationships were both personal and political, a fact that was true of rivalries as much as it was true of allegiances. Major rivalries were rarely the result of purely political disagreements, as personal issues were usually involved as well, while seemingly personal rivalries often had political underpinnings, too. This confluence of the personal and political made running the country a challenging and touchy exercise for the Founding Fathers. At the same time, Founding Brothers emphasizes that the friendship between these seven “brothers” was an enormous source of strength to the nation’s leadership and thus to America as a whole.
Throughout the book, Ellis emphasizes how disputes and rivalries had both personal and political origins. The conflict between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton resulting in the duel in which Hamilton was killed grew out of Burr’s political disappointments, part of which he blamed on Hamilton’s ongoing negative comments about his personal character. Similarly, the tensions between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington that emerged toward the end of Washington’s presidency were a blend of the personal and the political: “Beyond the purely personal dimensions of their estrangement […] this episode provides an invaluable clue to the larger and more impersonal political concerns that were on Washington’s mind when he sat down to compose the Farewell Address.” Ellis also points out that the long hostility between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson following Jefferson’s election as president, though underpinned by political tensions, was stoked by Abigail Adams’ attack on Jefferson’s personal character. In each of these cases, rivalries and disagreements among the men were rooted in both political and personal concerns.
While the book straightforwardly asserts that each of the major rivalries depicted had both personal and political elements, the question of whether friendships could survive political disagreements is more complex. Ellis explores this idea in particular detail through the depiction of the complicated relationship between Jefferson and Adams. Ellis argues that the two men were an unlikely pair due to their sharp political disagreements, but that, for example, during the long period in which Jefferson and Adams did not speak, Jefferson insisted that there was only one instance in which Adams had behaved in a manner that was objectionable on a personal level—all the rest of their differences were ideological. (However, Abigail Adams then disputed this, suggesting that Adams’ political disagreements with Jefferson were much more intertwined with personal issues than Jefferson might have presumed.)
On the other hand, the reconciliation between Jefferson and Adams suggests that while friendship across political difference might be difficult, it is possible. Ellis explains that “once they no longer had to pose as partners,” Jefferson and Adams were eventually able to resurrect their friendship, and that the correspondence between the two men that lasted until the end of their lives is testament to the powerful, intimate nature of their friendship. In this correspondence, the two friends looked forward to an afterlife in which they would be able to reunite with their fellow “founding brothers” and enjoy each other’s company without the political pressures that dominated their lives on earth. This rather moving vision of fraternal harmony suggests that there was indeed a deep and fundamental personal bond between the men, even if it was at times damaged by political disagreements and rivalries.
The Personal vs. The Political ThemeTracker
The Personal vs. The Political 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.