As I’ve scoured the lists of books about revolutionary America for a book to read for my own education, I struggled to find one that covered a variety of people (I love biographies, but I can’t read one about everyone!) and eras (I would love to learn about all eras of the revolution, from the pre-revolution, the actual war years, to the beginning of the republic and later political fall out). At the same time that I’m I’ve been searching for the perfect book about the revolutionary era, I remembered I had picked up a used copy of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis (Vintage Books, 2000) in a previous year’s book sale. I decided it was the book to read right now.
I was expecting Founding Brothers to be a collection of mini-biographies about the “brothers” of the revolutionary generation. Or maybe it would be about the Constitutional Convention and how they all worked together. Honestly, I did not know what it was, but any expectations I did have were far surpassed in Ellis’s complex portrait of the generation that founded the country. His work is both thorough and completely readable.
Ellis carefully delves in to the personalities that seem so elusive and magically gigantic to us today, more than 200 years later. While the chapters are loosely based on significant happenings (“The Duel” of Hamilton and Burr, “The Silence” on slavery, “The Friendship” between Adams and Jefferson, for example), the chapters are each far more than a description of a single event. Each chapter covers multiple people, multiple eras (from pre-Revolutionary to the War of 1812), and multiple places in the world picture (France and England as well as New York, Philadelphia, and Virginia).
Somehow, Founding Brothers also manages to provide those mini-biographies I’d hoped for. I feel that Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and so forth are less complex and more real to me than they were before I read the book. Ellis seems to understand the ideals we have of these people, and his book brings them back to earth. Washington was elusive to his peers, just as much as he is to us today. There are reasons Jefferson reigns triumphant in our modern memories versus Adams.
Founding Brothers is not a light read, because Ellis fully realizes that the issues those people dealt with were not “light.” Their era was full of complexities, and Founding Brothers attempts to bring the complexities into a clear picture. And in this, the book succeeded for me. I say it was “readable” because for me I felt like the process of reading it was bringing a fuzzy image into focus. It was beautifully written, and I didn’t feel anything was extraneous. I read slowly and carefully to get all the details, and I loved how Ellis approached the issues and explained things for me, a lay reader. I am not an historian and this book was very enjoyable. That is a mark of success.
There may be some aspects of the revolutionary era, the personalities involved, and the politics that are still a bit unclear, but as a whole, Founding Brothers has helped me better see the entire picture. It’s a work that I believe I will revisit again in my personal life journey towards understanding history and America. There is a wealth of information packed in the stories and pages, and I know more is left to understand.
Ellis received the Nonfiction Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for this work, and I can whole-heartily endorse that awards committee in their decision. If I had to suggest just one book about the revolutionary era to help one gain a better understanding of it, Founding Brothers is the comprehensive and magnificent work I’d suggest.