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Vivian Chen

AP U.S. History
Summer Assignment
Historiographic Essay on Founding Brothers

By examining the character, motivations and priorities of each figure involved in shaping
the early United States, historian Joseph Ellis manages to combine both factual information and
insight in his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Rather than sequencing
the events by chronological order, the story is composed by six sub-stories, each an important
stage and turning point in the founding of the US. Opening with an engaging re-telling of the
classic Burr-Hamilton duel, Ellis presents the fight not as an idealized historical event but rather
the result of clashing political ambitions by flawed men. This continues throughout the next
chapters, as history is perceived through the lenses of political figures and their relationships
with one another, including Burr, Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Washington. The
infant nation that had broken free from British control was extremely fragile; the opinions of the
men were considered unconventional and revolutionary at the time. The eventual stability of the
US was the product of compromises, hostilities and even death, in the Burr-Hamilton case.
Ellis’ approach towards the founding history is that the men who are revered today as
great heroes of America were in truth flawed, realistic human beings who were not always on a
friendly basis. According to events outlined in the book, they often disagreed more than they
agreed. The separate visions and desires of each founding father initiated a chain of events that
led to the outcome of the stable US nation. This supports an overarching claim that as its leaders
were imperfect, so was the fledging nation, as it struggled with controversial issues such as
slavery. Gaining independence from Britain meant nothing if they failed to maintain their
political order. A tone of humor and wit is employed while describing the founding fathers. It is
as if Ellis avoids defining them in the light of their accomplishments and impact on history in
favor of their personalities and character. Unlike some historians who overlook Abigail Adams,
Ellis succeeds in acknowledging her as an influential figure that contributed to the success of the
nation. As Joseph Ellis’s writing is a product of his time, it must be read with a critical eye.
Naturally, his own experiences and lifestyle shapes the way he has come to perceive the
founding generation. Born shortly after WWII, having experienced the anxiety and tension of the
Cold War and teaching at Mt. Holyoke, a prestigious university for women’s education, Ellis
articulates his rather liberal and democratic views in writing his novel.
Born in 1943, Ellis was too young to have been directly influenced by the brutality of
WWII, but surely felt its aftermath, the Cold War. Although he did serve as a soldier in WWII,
the post-war period was one of hopelessness and pessimism. A loss of faith in the political
institutions that were once the pride of the Western world defined the latter half of the 20th
century. Raised in this atmosphere of economic, social and political instability, Ellis may have
developed a great respect for political unity and strong leadership, as it was lacking during the
years of his youth. Capitalism vs. communism, democracy vs. dictatorship—these were the core
principles that set the Soviets and US apart during the Cold War, fought through proxy battles
and the possibility of nuclear weapons. Ellis, as an American, most likely favored a liberal
sentiment as opposed to communist mentality, out of pride for his country. US propaganda
condemned communism, depicting it as a system of government that would inevitably lead to
destruction.
An article from the History News Network states that Ellis lied about his service in the
Vietnam War.1 He falsely recounts his experiences in Vietnam to his students and claims that he
participated in a civil rights movement afterward. Although this is an example of dishonesty on
the part of Ellis, it is interesting to note that he wanted to been seen as a veteran and antiwar
activist. Perhaps this illustrates his liberal political leanings that are exemplified in Founding
Brothers. Characterizing the influential men and their efforts as a model for representative
government, Ellis features chapters about collaboration and compromise. In the chapter titled
The Dinner, Jefferson holds a dinner in which the rivals Hamilton and Madison settle on an
agreement regarding the Hamilton’s proposed fiscal plan and Madison’s choice of the capital
location. Just as a historian has the choice to omit details, he has the power to choose what
information goes into supporting his arguments. Further emphasizing Ellis’s democratic political
leanings, Capitalism Magazine suggests that he compares President Obama with the founding
fathers, in that he "is in accord with the most heartfelt and cherished version of our original
intentions as a people and a nation."2 Given, there are similarities between these male US
leaders; however, it is inaccurate to compare them because of the major time gap. There is no
way of assuming that the founding fathers would support Obama’s plans for the nation because
the major issues today did not exist during the fathers’ time, such as oil spills, universal
healthcare and education cuts. Anyhow, it would be a fallacy to make that assumption.
Educated at Yale University and College of William and Mary, Ellis clearly has a strong
scholarly background. Judging from his occupation as a professor, success as a Pulitzer Prize
historian and multiple degrees in education, it is safe to conclude that Joseph Ellis is of a high
social class. Specializing in topics concerning American history, he has written a series of
biographies on Jefferson, Washington and others. Because Ellis seems quite passionate about
teaching, the intended audiences of Founding Brothers are those who wish to expand their
knowledge of American history, whether it is a student or an adult. Since he is well qualified and
experienced as a teacher, he understands how to absorb the reader into the novel. Instead of
including dates, timelines and numbers, Ellis pieces his novel together in an anecdote-like
fashion, knowing that it will appeal to a student audience. As mentioned earlier, Ellis’s writing
reflects his modern liberal values. In general, it is considered liberal to promote gender equality,
as traditional cultures view women as inferior, domestic beings. Ellis teaches at Mt. Holyoke,
which is a women-only university, which may offer explanation as to why he considers Abigail
Adams as an influential figure in history. However, it is interesting to note that Abigail is not
pictured on the front cover along with the men, which may or may not indicate any prejudices.
Although Ellis is certainly not an advocate of feminism, he is accepting of women’s rights in
political affairs.
Though historians strive to approach their writing as a science, it is usually affected by
historicism, or the way a person’s environment and life shapes the way they perceive things.
History is always in constant revision; documents, artifacts and other primary sources are the
only window we have into a previous time. It follows the cycle of the Hegelian dialectic: history
is the argument between and accepted thesis and an antithesis, which challenges the conventional
thesis. This argument finally synthesizes into a new argument, or a new thesis, and the cycle
restarts. Joseph Ellis is of man of modern times, therefore implying modern values in his writing.
As a historian, however, there are moments when Ellis allows his subjectivity to take over in
language choice. Though his writing style is appreciated in that it differs from a history textbook,
his descriptions of the founding fathers seem somewhat unreliable. For example, he describes
Madison as “diminutive, colorless, sickly—he was also paralyzing shy.” Ellis provides no
written evidence of Madison’s appearance, and the description itself is subjective by nature, as it
is one’s opinion that someone appears sickly or colorless. Nevertheless, the text was entertaining
to read because of the descriptions, as they bring life and personality to historic figures. As for
biases regarding certain events in history, Ellis succeeds in presenting both sides of the
argument. The detailed analysis of the rivalry between Burr and Hamilton is especially
impressive. There are parts where Ellis writes about how the Americans viewed Burr as a traitor
to the republic, but other times when he presents evidence of Hamilton’s insults to Burr. This, I
believe, is a skill that historians should use to improve the reliability of their work.
1
Bonnie Goodman, “Has Scandal Taken its Toll on Ellis?” History News Network, November 21st, 2004,
http://hnn.us/articles/8656.html.
2
Alexander Marriott, “Barack Obama, Joseph J. Ellis and The Founding Fathers,” January 20th, 2008,
http://www.capitalismmagazine.com/politics/elections/5099-Barack-Obama-Historian-Joseph-Ellis-and-The-Founding-
Fathers.html.