“Founding Brothers” by Joseph J. Ellis
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In his book Founding Brothers, Joseph J. Ellis explains in detail the interactions between the Founding Fathers, their friendships, and their means of addressing polarizing issues as they pertain to the formative years of the United States. There were times when political differences caused strain on the men of the revolution, but, political differences in the Continental Congress were seldom the cause of personal differences. Ellis even went so far as to say one such event would serve “as the exception that proves the rule” (Ellis, 18).
The Founding Fathers were intimate with one another. They did not simply share in matters of political relevance, but personal as well. This is what Ellis means when he titled his book Founding Brothers, rather than fathers looking down on their children these men are brothers looking to one another (sometimes for help or advice and sometimes to argue and squabble). The men of the revolution do well to separate politics and pleasure, but also often allow for their intimacy with one another to shine through when that is beneficial to the cause. The Founding Brothers’ views on external issues were nearly unanimous in saying that America did not wish to be a part of any foreign conflicts, which allowed the Continental Congress to focus on domestic issues of the revolutionary era and address them in constructive ways thanks in part to their intimacy with one another.
Individuals in the Continental Congress rarely came to simple conclusions with one another. Many individual’s ideologies and thoughts clashed with those of the others which caused some issues to seem like a decision would never be reached. Two such issues were that of the location of the permanent capital of the United States, and whether the national government should assume the war debts of all the states. These issues cause the Congress to be at a complete standstill, unable to proceed with a decision on either Jefferson fears could cause the complete failure of the new republic (Ellis, 50).
It is because of this that Thomas Jefferson hosts Alexander Hamilton (who champions the assumption cause) and James Madison (who champions the cause to move the capital to the Potomac River) for a dinner to discuss the two issues. In the end, a compromise is made that neither would stand in the other’s way of gaining support for their cause, and each proposition is eventually approved by slim margins. While Jefferson admits that he regrets making this compromise in secrecy (Ellis, 51), and the aftermath of the assumption legislation to many southern citizens was dire at best (Ellis, 80) this event shows at the very least that these political rivals are willing to share a table with one another to discuss their opinions and reach a conclusion.
There were few things in the Continental Congress that went unsaid, one of its strongest assets was its ability to talk about nearly any issues or grievances that arose. This is not true for all issues, however, and tension that lies at the heart of these unspoken issues helps to inform us of the limits of the Continental Congress as well as the perceived strength of the union itself. The glaring issue that was so intentionally ignored was slavery. The practice was decidedly not in line with the ideals the revolution was built upon but was so controversial that the constitution itself prohibited legislation regarding it to be put in place for the following twenty years.
Technically, slavery was considered in Congress, but this was due only to Benjamin Franklin endorsing a petition to abolish the practice of slavery in the United States (Ellis, 82-83). With a name carrying such weight as Franklin’s the issue had to be discussed, at least to some extent, but in the end no decision could be reached, and the national Congress essentially resolved to stay silent on the matter while states dealt with it on their own accord, so as not to send the nation into a frenzy. The Continental Congress’ strategy of dealing with slavery (or lack thereof) exemplifies the discretion that the Founding Fathers took when handling the still fragile America. As we know the issue comes to a head in the form of civil war about eighty years after this, and in hindsight, it seems wise of these men to postpone this war until the United States had its foundation in place.
Problems for the new republic were not confined to the Homefront. Although many issues that were taken on by the Continental Congress were regarding the kinks and problems with their new form of government, the world outside of the United States did not, in fact, cease to exist until America’s problems were ironed out. Here in the realm of foreign policy for early America, Washington did not want to be on anyone’s bad side or anyone’s good side, so he decidedly chose no sides at all and created the Proclamation of Neutrality (1793). Adams followed in Washington’s footsteps as a staunch believer in maintaining a neutral foreign policy regarding the conflict in Europe (Ellis,184). In pursuit of this, Adams seeks to ask his old friend Thomas Jefferson (who is a leader on the opposite side of the political spectrum from Adams) to lead his plan to send a delegation to France to prevent potential war (Ellis, 180-181). This is displayed when it appears a war with France is fast approaching, Adams attempts to negotiate peace rather than take up arms against one of the European powers thereby decidedly siding themselves with England, the other.
Focusing in on the relationships between the Founding Fathers we can see some grand friendships including most famously Adams and Jefferson. These men were staunch opponents on the political front, but their friendship was not compromised by this for a relatively long time. Ellis describes them as “soul mates. . . They were charter members of the ‘band of brothers’ who had shared the agonies and ecstasies of 1776 as colleagues” (Ellis, 163-164). While Adams and Jefferson had a storied past, their friendship was cut short in the end due to political differences. Neither Adams nor Jefferson was altogether pleased with this outcome, but we see here one of the few times in the revolution that personal relations are called into question by political ones. Jefferson speaks of Adams’ turn to monarchical thoughts regarding Davila which was known to be written by Adams (Ellis, 169).
This calls their friendship into question as Jefferson knows that Adams does not wish for a monarchical America. This is exacerbated when Jefferson rejects Adams proposal to have Jefferson act as a diplomat (Ellis, 186). The falling out of these two men falls in line with the growing rift between the two parties (Republicans and Federalists), of which they were the unofficial leaders. It is apparent that Washington was holding the opposing groups together, but in his absence after stepping down the American Brothers bicker as brothers will do. This was possibly inevitable, but certainly, it was not aided by growing belief among all men at the Congress, that those who opposed them did not believe in the spirit of ‘76. This belief is the final nail in the proverbial coffin for the friendship of the political rivals of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Before Jefferson and Adams exemplified the larger party dispute that was occurring during the Adams stent as president, Jefferson was also at the center of the critics that were unhappy with Washington during his second term regarding his foreign policy and Jay’s Treaty. He, however, was not going to challenge Washington directly as this was the surest way for anyone to destroy their political careers in the eyes of the public. Jefferson attributes blame for this to Hamilton, his most bitter political rival. Jefferson does not mention Washington likely out of fear of political suicide, but surely it was in his mind that Washington was aware of the Anti-Republican threat that loomed over America in Jefferson’s mind due to this treaty.
Both Washington and Jefferson wished for a neutral foreign policy but their differences in ideas on how that should look were decidedly different (Ellis, 142), and this was the difference of opinion that caused the largest divide between the two. Jefferson circulated rumors behind closed doors of Washington’s failing mind in his old age, Washington caught onto this and allowed Jefferson and us a peek into his complex mind which was swirling with righteous fury (Ellis, 144). Hamilton then accurately represents all the men who opposed the American identity that was George Washington. Simply put, they were unsuccessful and wholly outnumbered by the opposition.
The Founding Brothers’ views on external issues were nearly unanimous in saying that America did not wish to be a part of any foreign conflicts, which allowed the Continental Congress to focus on domestic issues of the revolutionary era and address them in constructive ways thanks in part to their intimacy with one another. The people of the American Revolution display themselves to be just that, people, with all the imperfections that come with it. Often people think of these men as perfect beings who could do no wrong, and that the outcome of a prosperous America was assured beyond doubt, but each of these men (and some women) had a story and only when each of their voices can be heard will history reveal itself.