Sep 23

The Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis ★★★★

This book provides vignettes in several chapters of various events and characters from the founding period in USA history. It starts with a chapter on the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, works through a chapter on discussions regarding slavery, and then discusses various interactions, ending with the struggles and resolution of those struggles between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. I can only presume that the author’s intention was to illustrate the disharmony of the founding fathers. He is quite successful, yet in many ways fails in his intentions. As an example, I am left very curious about the true details in philosophy that led many, including Aaron Burr, to so despise Hamilton. 

In spite of its flaws, I appreciated the book for several reasons. First, Ellis brings out a side of the founding years of our nation that isn’t commonly discussed, in that the founders were real people behaving among each other like real people. The characterization of the Continental Congress that a strong sense of unity and concurrence existed is a total myth, which should not be taught. Ellis also is a very fluent writer, making him quite easy to read. There were a number of quotable quotes in the book, and each page compelled the reader on to the next.  It’s a book that I could easily recommend others to read.

The Quartet, by Joseph Ellis ★★★

This book is a sequel to The Founding Brothers, offering glimpses into the founding of the constitution. Ellis’ theme is that if it weren’t for 4-6 people, the quartet being George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, perhaps also including Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris, there never would have been an effective constitution to bind together the 13 states. The articles of confederation were a temporary measure to bind together the thirteen colonies in their struggle for independence, but were highly ineffective in that regard, in that each of the states failed to contribute adequately to the struggle for independence, leaving large unpaid war debts. The chronicles of how these four men led the charge of the federalists for a union that included a strong central government is a fascinating story to behold. Most demanded from many of the states was the expectation for a bill of rights, feeling that the constitution in and of itself was inadequate for the task at hand. It was a close call that many states, including New York and Virginia, had very strong opposition to a central government influencing their decisions. 

Ellis did not shine as well in this book as in the Founding Brothers, though it still is an interesting read. In this book, Ellis’ prejudices are revealed. First, he definitely has a strong feeling against the then contemporary notion of divine providence leading to the acceptance of the constitution by the thirteen states. In Ellis’ defense, even if the constitution did NOT go through, would it not have been divine providence? Secondly, Ellis always falls on the side of the federalists, and fail to give the arguments against a strong central government and the alternatives as provided by the “anti-federalists”.  Thirdly, Ellis uses the issue of much dissension to the constitution and a short statement by Jefferson (who stood strongly AGAINST the constitution), as representing the constitution as a “living” document. Jefferson suggested that the constitution should not be “too sacred to be touched” and that institutions (the constitution) must be kept in step with the times. So be it, yet Jefferson would absolutely have been appalled by the thought of 9 judges on the bench deciding that words mean something totally different from what was plainly written. It is shear balderdash to use the historical context and disagreements to the constitution to make the constitution an illegitimate document save for contemporary “feelings” about how the government should be regulated. Whether or not one was a federalist, there was a fear in 1789 of too strong of government, and why the “living document” advocates would essentially allow for a yet stronger central government who may interpret the principle law of the land and act without a common understanding of constitutional control, remains perplexing to me. The founders provided a means of amending the constitution, and it was NOT via the supreme courts. 

So, Ellis provides a very inadequate story of the history of the constitution as formed between 1783 and 1789. He writes well, but while succeeding as a literary agent, fails miserably as a historian.

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2 Responses to “Two Books by Joseph Ellis”

  1. Bruder Dennis says:

    Ken, I recommend that you read a really insightful book about US origins: Rulers of Evil: Useful Knowledge About Governing Bodies, by F. Tupper Saussy. I can even send you a PDF copy if you want it.
    The founding of the U.S. was not about forming a more righteous govt under Jesus Christ. The colonies had constitutions that put them under JC, the only lord (real) Christians acknowledge as a legitimate sovereign. The founders were part of the landed aristocracy who wanted a strong central power so that they could do what the U.S. has always done: become a hegemonic empire over the world. The rest is details. The U.S. was decidedly not founded as a Christian government, and its subsequent behavior has borne that out with remarkable consistency.

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