I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that Joseph Ellis is my favorite historian. He’s concise and erudite, for me very high praise. I love non-fiction, but I dread being on page 500 of a biography and still haven’t reached the event for which the person is famous. I don’t want to know that much about any event or life, not even my own. Ellis tells the reader the salient facts with the supporting information that’s necessary to understand the person’s life or event, all in an enjoyable narrative. (I liked his biography of Jefferson also, 464 pages for Jefferson’s entire life and I feel like a have a solid working understanding of it). I’ve read many of Ellis’ books, the first and best, in my opinion is Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.
The book looks at six decisive moments in the American Revolution including a dinner party during which the location of the capitol was decided (it’s intentional that our financial center and our political center are separate), the Hamilton Burr duel (juicy with an academic nuance), Washington’s Farewell Address (under Ellis’ pen George doesn’t appear quite so dry), and the friendship between Adams and Jefferson. After reading the book, I’ll never forget that they both died on July 4th, within hours of one another; that’s a relationship deeply entwined with each other and the nation they created.
By providing these six vignettes, Ellis’ book is a lighter read than a slog through a chronological history, but it’s packed with information. I have a renewed appreciation for Adams (I can’t wait to read Ellis’ latest book about John and Abigail) and an understanding that there is nothing new about our current contentious political atmosphere, it is inherent in our system. This is history that comes up all the time in conversation. The roots of our financial system go back to Jefferson and Madison. The underlying issues in race relations are foundational in our system from the time of the Constitution, everyone was well aware of the issue and knew that it was being foisted on future generations. Ellis argues that slavery was the sacrifice to ensure a Constitution and a nation. Every time I’m in DC I think about the dinner party that decided that our nation would be lead from the middle.
Founding Brothers is a history book that is a joy to read and one that I’ve recalled over and over again. Read it and let me know what you think.
And if you’re up a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence, check out this version with several stars including Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Douglas, Kathy Bates and Mel Gibson, it never sounded so good!