The Greatest Generation

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Joseph J. Ellis

The Creation of America: Through Revolution to Empire

Francis Jennings
Cambridge University Press, 340 pp., $54.95; $19.95 (paper)


Not so long ago the generation that fought the Revolution and created the Constitution was thought to be the greatest generation in American history. The Founding Fathers, or the “Founders,” as our antipatriarchal climate now prefers, were generally considered to be without parallel in American history. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, wrote Henry Steele Commager in 1961, America “boasted a galaxy of leaders who were quite literally incomparable.” Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and the other revolutionaries, said the historian Adrienne Koch in 1965, “were a cluster of extraordinary men such as is rarely encountered in modern history.” Until recently few Americans could look back at these revolutionaries and constitution-makers without being overawed by the brilliance of their thought, the creativity of their politics, the sheer magnitude of their achievement. They used to seem larger than life, giants in the earth, possessing intellectual and political capacities well beyond our own.

But not anymore, at least not in the eyes of some professional historians. The American revolutionaries and the framers of the Constitution are no longer being celebrated in the way they used to be. Even our recent electoral mess, according to the former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler, can be attributed to the mistakes of “the boys in the powdered wigs” who “didn’t get this one right.” In the eyes of some recent historians there doesn’t seem to be very much that the Founders did get right; in fact, they are being held responsible for nearly everything that is now deemed wrong with American culture and society.

Of course, traditional appreciation for the great men of the Revolution has not ceased, nor will it. Every year we will continue to get books that honor one or another of the Founders or, as in Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers, analyze their relationships with one another and their extraordinary contributions to the new nation.

Probably no historian has done more to concentrate attention on the Founders during the past few years than Ellis. With two very sensitive earlier studies of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and now with this new collection of essays on a half-dozen of the leading Founders (George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, in addition to Adams and Jefferson), Ellis has established himself as the Founders’ historian for our time.

Instead of writing a long, detailed narrative of the period, Ellis has tried to select and highlight certain episodes or relationships involving the leading Founders during the first decade or so following the creation of the new national government. He has used these episodes or relationships to reveal both the characters of the major figures and the contingencies that surrounded their nation-building efforts. The result is a remarkable set of very engaging stories that can be read independently of one another. The first, though the last in time, describes the duel between Burr and Hamilton. The second deals with the Jefferson dinner in 1790 at which Madison and Hamilton worked out the compromise…

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