Thursday, January 7, 2010

Review: Founding Brothers

Author: Joseph J. Ellis
Format: hardcover 246 pgs w/additional 30 pgs notes
Subject: Revolutionary war personalities
Setting: US 1790-1825
Genre: Historical vignettes
Source: My shelves

I was hoping this book would be a 'refresher' to bring me back up to snuff on the most telling issues of the American Revolution. I am rejoining the US Presidents' challenge, having read bios of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson several years ago, and didn't want to have to go back.

Ellis presents us six essays which are alternately entertaining, enlightening, and brutally boring. He seems to think that if 100 words would do, 500 are much better. I had a hard time in several places staying awake.

Interestingly, he begins with the Hamilton-Burr duel, and seems to feel a lengthy lesson in economics is needed to explain the enmity built up between these two.

Then he gives us a chapter entitled "The Dinner" at which Thomas Jefferson, the host, is reputed to have brokered a deal between Hamilton and Madison to allow for federal assumption of all states debt in exchange for allowing the federal capital to be situated in Virginia. We got page upon page of background, but I had a hard time finding the dinner.

The third chapter "The Silence" I found the most interesting, but also the most difficult to read. It refers to the decision of the Founders to avoid a discussion or decision about the question of slavery.

Next up is "The Farewell" a elucidation of Washington's famous address in which he puts forth his (and many claim Hamilton's) thoughts on the party system, the need for the country not to form alliances, etc. Again, enlightening, but pedantic.

"The Collaborators" I found the hardest of all to follow. To me it was a series of short paragraphs describing various friendships, alliances and relationships that helped patch together diverse policies.

And finally, "the Friendship". The most cogent of the chapters where Ellis gives us a condensed look at the magnificent letter writing that took place over the last 14 years of the lives of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

If you are a true history buff, you'll love this book. It is extensively researched, and well footnoted. If you are looking for a quick fill in, this might not be the book for you. I'm glad I read it, but I won't be pulling it off the shelf to re-read anytime soon.

Challenges: Read from My Shelves 2/20, US Presidents (background reading)


  1. The author might not agree, but I found this review both enlightening and amusing!

    This one is not for me, but my bro is a true history buff. Reads books whose titles put me to sleep. He might actually like it.

  2. I am reading a US history book right now (though really large- Team of Rivals) and while I enjoy it, I'm struggling somewhat. So I can completely relate to your review!

  3. My hubby has this on his nightstand. Now I know why I've never picked it up. I love history but tend to read at night--if I needed help falling asleep then maybe this would be the book for me.

  4. I always struggle when I have to write a review for a book like this...I feel like I ought to like it and tout it, and there's nothing really WRONG with it, but it just didn't resonate with me.


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