Skip to main content
PBS logo

Book Review of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
reviewed on + 1775 more book reviews

A book that Dr. Ellis wanted to do as he gradually wound down his career or that is how I see it. The distinguished author, in six chapters about chosen events, explains how the Founding Fathers muddled through during the Federal Era. These are really essays, best read by those with some background knowledge.
I read Chapter Four 'The Farewell' while on the long bus trip from the VA Hospital, where I'd dropped off some nonfiction books, back to East LA. Washington's Farewell Address (never delivered, but printed on the inside page of the American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, 19 September 1796) was of great interest because active politicos had noted signs earlier in the year that he would not run again, but we readers are reminded what short notice he gave; a few weeks before the Electors would be chosen. Dr. Ellis notes that GW subscribed to ten newspapers.
Dr. Ellis shares with readers what these words meant to GW, to his countrymen, to Americans in the 19th C. and to us in recent decades. "The precedent he was setting may have seemed uplifting in retrospect, but at the time the glaring and painful reality was that the United States without Washington was itself unprecedented." His character is succinctly discussed, including shortcomings, but in an age when goverments were royal, his decision not to die in office was vital to the republic.
The author helps readers understand the importance of the points he makes. Note that 'entagling alliances' is from Jefferson's first innagural.
Ellis explains what the caution to avoid foreigners troubles meant to Washington (develop America first!), problems this caused his administration with the Jay Treaty, and to later politicians and editorial writers that cite the Farewell Address.
I urge readers to note his letter to the Cherokees and his thoughts on slavery because Ellis brings forth his thoughts based on decades of research into an issue that was by agreement not then argued in Congress or by the president lest the fragile Union be sundered. However, evidence is cited that GW felt the problem would diminish starting in 1808 and Ellis points out that, unlike his fellow Virginians, GW never spoke in favor of sending Blacks to Africa and "he tended to regard the condition of the Black population as a product of nurture rathen than nature--that is, he saw slavery as the culprit, preventing the development of diligence and responsibility that would emerge gradually and naturally after emancipation." The authors finds it significant that GW's will provided for the emancipation of his slaves upon Martha's death and that "he also made even more elaborate provisions to guarantee that Mount Vernon would be sold off in pieces, part of the proceeds used to support his freed slaves and their children for several decades into the future. His action on this score, as usual, spoke louder than his words."
GW wrote his Address to the Cherokee Nation in late August 1796. He believed that settlers would inexorably move westward and that the hunting and gathering way of life, requiring vast areas of land, was doomed. GW urged that they embrace farming and ranching to forestall ruination.
A week later I was fortunate to read Chapter Three: The Silence. This is about the inability to address slavery lest it shatter the Union and includes the arguments in favor, arguments against, what transpired in the closed discussions when writing the Constitution, and examination of how manumission might be accomplished. Dr. Ellis offers succinct summaries, as usual, and identifies two problems in freeing the slaves. First, where would they go as the British effort in Sierra Leone was very marginal and Spain owned the western areas proposed for Black settlement. Second, how to pay the owners for the loss of their capital. Ellis believes that given a valuation of a hundred to two hundred dollars each, the payment could have been made, noting that with both the Black and White population was rapidly increasing, 1790 was the last chance. It would have tripled the amount already assumed in state and federal debts, but with a sinking fund was possible. He notes that we are looking back, knowing the history, and they were trying to look forward. The federal budget was seven million dollars, five percent of the amount needed to free the slaves.
Given interested students, the entire essay could be read and discussed. Or the whole class could read and discuss the first few pages starting with a troublesome Quaker calling for abolition, breaking the silence, Dr. Ellis laying out the situation as public debate in the First Congress began, and then skipping to the last ten pages or so when Franklin pleads for manumission.
On February 11, 1790, twon groups of Quakers (from NY and Penn.) presented their petitions and the Rep. James Jackson of Georgia urged that they not be accepted. A petition from a Pennsylvania abolition group, signed by Franklin, was submitted the next day. The debate was on as the South did not want the petitions even tabled, which reminds me of J.Q. Adams' future days in Congress. "Franklin's endorsement of the petitions from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society effectively assured that the preferred Madisonian strategy--calmly receiving these requests, then banishing them to the congressional version of oblivion--was not going to work. In fact, the ongoing debate on the assumption and residency was set aside for the entire day as the House put itself into committee of then whole to permit unencumbered debate on the petitions. During the course of that debate, which lasted between four and six hours, things were said that had never before been uttered in any public forum at the national level."
In the end, the can was kicked down the road with the agreement that there would be no debate on emancipation until the slave trade ended in 1808. This resulted in gradual emancipation not being possible. "Whatever window of opportunity had existed to complete the one glaring piece of unfinished business in the revolutionary era was now closed."
Endnotes with citations and comments on the available sources, Index.