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The Shot Heard 'Round the World

FOUNDING BROTHERS The Revolutionary Generation By Joseph J. Ellis; Alfred A. Knopf: 288 pp., $26

April 29, 2001|ERIC FONER | Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University, a past president of the Organization of American Historians and the author of numerous books, including "The Story of American Freedom."

The American Revolution and the longevity of the political system it created appear in retrospect so inevitable that we sometimes forget what remarkable achievements they actually were. No republican government had ever before consolidated its authority over so vast a geographical area. The statesmen of the revolutionary generation deserve enormous credit for the success of the American experiment in nation-building and self-government. This, at least, is Joseph J. Ellis' argument in "Founding Brothers," which was recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history.

Ellis, who teaches at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, is best known for "American Sphinx," his study of Thomas Jefferson, and for publicly changing his opinion about Jefferson's purported relationship with his slave Sally Hemings when DNA evidence indicated that he had fathered at least some of her children. (Like most Jefferson scholars, Ellis was initially skeptical, but in this book, he reiterates that Jefferson's paternity has been established "beyond any reasonable doubt.") Loosely modeled on Lytton Strachey's classic "Eminent Victorians," 'Founding Brothers" is less a history of the revolutionary era than a series of "stories" meant to illustrate the characters and beliefs of the period's most prominent political leaders, among them John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington. But although Strachey's title was ironic and his sketches deconstructed, as it were, his subjects' pretensions and reputations, Ellis has composed a valentine to the founders.

Human that generation certainly was, with prejudices, passions and blind spots. Those who turn from our own sordid politics to seek in the past a pristine time of disinterested statesmanship will not find much support in this book. During the 1790s, Ellis points out, "the political wheeling and dealing inside Congress" reached such epidemic proportions that Madison acquired the unofficial title "Big Knife" because of his success in cutting deals. The political culture was intensely partisan and political invective even more scurrilous than during Bill Clinton's presidency.

On the other hand, Ellis' abundant quotations from his subjects' writings--notably the exchange of letters between Adams and Jefferson that began in 1812 and ended with their deaths in 1826--stand in sharp contrast to the political prose of our own era, when leaders seem incapable of producing a grammatical sentence, let alone a speech of soaring rhetoric. And his "stories" make the point that the founding era, unlike ours, was a time when American statesmen debated questions that went to the root of the society's present and future. The era's passions reflected, above all, profound differences about how the fruits of independence should be secured and what kind of nation the new United States should be.

"Founding Brothers" begins less than auspiciously, with a detailed account of the maneuverings leading up to the 1804 duel with Aaron Burr that cost Hamilton his life. Though interesting in its own right, the chapter seems to have little purpose other than to demonstrate Burr's recklessness. But when Ellis moves on to the other founders, his careful exposition of events and controversies illuminates the politics of the early republic.

Ellis uses a famous 1790 dinner--at which Jefferson brokered a political bargain whereby Southerners accepted Hamilton's plan for federal assumption of state debts in exchange for the establishment of a permanent capital on the banks of the Potomac River--to explore rival visions of America's economic future. Hamilton believed that the new nation must mobilize its resources under the guidance of the federal government and tie its economic future to the self-interested energies of its most dynamic business leaders: bankers, merchants and other members of the urban elite. Jeffersonians believed the future lay with westward expansion and the consolidation of an agrarian republic, not with commerce and manufacturing. They feared that Hamilton's fiscal plan was creating the very institutions--a national bank, national debt and all-powerful national state--that had led Britain down the road to tyranny and corruption.

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