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“Founding Brothers” by Joseph J. Ellis Alfred A Knopf; 288 pages; $26 In Scott Turow’s 1996 novel, “The Laws of Our Fathers,” the best-selling author offers, as usual, a compelling legal drama that captures the essence of a courtroom and the personalities of the people who inhabit it. Unlike his other books, however, “The Laws of Our Fathers” includes a plot line with a strong link to a specific historical period and event, weaving direct connections between the courtroom and personal drama of the present with the political clashes of the 1960s. The layers of history that Turow unwraps serve to enhance both his characters and the overall story. I begin this review of Joseph Ellis’ nonfiction work “Founding Brothers” with this reference to Turow’s book, not because both have familial references in the title, but because Turow’s decision to bring history into his storytelling in that novel (an approach for which he was criticized by many reviewers) highlights the challenge of capturing the essence of history in dramatic and enticing language. It is an achievement that few writers can pull off. As difficult as it is to integrate historical facts into a work of fiction, it is at least as challenging, and I would suggest more important, to make storytelling a part of a work of nonfiction. That’s a large part of why a writer like David McCullough had such success with his biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams, and why Robert Caro’s multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson is so astounding and gripping (although in both cases, meticulous research and a thorough understanding of the subject also played a significant role). Joseph J. Ellis, a history professor at Mount Holyoke College, has demonstrated this ability as well, but has done so with even more historically distant figures, first with his masterful biographies of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and now with “Founding Brothers,” which recently won the Pulitzer Prize. The title alone — “Founding Brothers,” rather than the more traditional “Founding Fathers” — reveals much about Ellis’ approach. Like that slight adaptation to the familiar phraseology, Ellis has sought to adapt the perceptions we have of a number of easily identifiable characters and events from the earliest years of our nation, figures with whom most Americans have at least vague familiarity. He reaffirms much of what we know or think we know about these people, but then builds upon that knowledge, turning them into multidimensional figures who actually interact with each other, rather than sit dryly and solitarily on isolated pages in our history books. Working from a premise as dramatic as any novelist could create — a group of overmatched colonists taking on and successfully defeating one of the most powerful military forces in the world in what would turn out to be the first successful rebellion against imperial domination in history — Ellis needed only a few good characters as the final ingredients to the recipe for a truly compelling story. This task proved a relatively simple one. For, as Ellis notes: “[T]he central players in the drama were not the marginal or peripheral figures, whose lives are more typical, but rather the political leaders at the center of the national story who wielded power. What’s more, the shape and character of the political institutions were determined by a relatively small number of leaders who knew each other, who collaborated and collided with one another in patterns that replicated at the level of personality and ideology the principle of checks and balances imbedded structurally in the Constitution.” Even more fascinating is that the historical debate over the Revolutionary War era, that is, the way in which historians interpret and tell the story, is, as Ellis explains, a debate that echoes the fights that the revolutionaries had among themselves. Whether considering the power of the national government, the questions of slavery and racial equality, or the extent of the role that politics should play in a civilized society, each of the figures that Ellis focuses his story around are, in large part, fighting the same battles that have plagued this nation during the 212 years since that story took place. Especially masterful is the way in which the author has captured the bigger picture of national development through his portrayal of the relationships and disputes among the seven Founding Fathers — John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. At the outset, readers might wonder how and whether the pieces will fit together. By the time they reach the final pages, however, they will be fulfilled in their knowledge of the individual characters and of the interrelationships of the many issues and conflicts, personal and ideological, in the Republic’s infancy. The first chapter is as good an example of Ellis’ storytelling as any, with its concise, yet thorough, discussion of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Most Americans are familiar with the peculiar battle that killed the second-ranking official in the U.S. government and tarnished the career of the most prominent figure in the Federalist Party. But they probably don’t understand its significance. Ellis not only recounts specific facts, but also points out that the duel was unique because it “represented a momentary breakdown in the dominant pattern of nonviolent conflict within the American revolutionary generation.” At a time when political parties were virtually nonexistent, the Burr-Hamilton battle represented a hatred and distrust more characteristic of today’s political scene. (Perhaps a few isolated duels between bickering members of Congress might help put an end to some of the political games and posturing that too often fills the halls of our modern legislature.) Ellis points out that Hamilton’s primary charge against Burr, which ultimately led to the duel, was that Burr was “wholly devoid of any principles at all.” The author then explores the legitimacy of this charge and compares the two men, concluding that Hamilton’s fear of Burr was due at least in part to the fact that he saw much of himself in Burr. But, concludes Ellis, while Burr embodied Hamilton’s daring and energy, it was in a form “run amok in apolitical culture still groping for its stable shape.” The volume’s other chapters do not focus on as specific an event as the Burr-Hamilton duel, but prove just as compelling in terms of their description and development of character and events. “The Silence” is a stunning discussion of the virtual pact that our forebears made to keep slavery off the legislative map. Ellis outlines all of the positions and discusses how each of the politicians of the day addressed this lurking issue, even as the Constitution had highlighted the evasive way in which representatives had dealt with it. The legislative maneuverings on this issue are especially dramatic and tragic given the hindsight that readers have of subsequent historical events. Other chapters focus more on individuals and relationships than issues. For example, “The Farewell” offers an excellent summary of George Washington, the man who came as close as any this country had ever had to being king. But, instead of focusing, as so many biographies of Washington have done, on the many achievements of his life (though he does include enough to remind us why Washington was “the American Zeus, Moses, and Cincinnatus all rolled into one”), the author pinpoints the latter stages of Washington’s public life, and his multiple decisions to retire from it. He explains, in what many will find a surprise, that by the final decade of the 18th century, Washington’s physical and mental capabilities had declined significantly, and he was even being criticized by newspaper editorials. Ellis reports that his loyal vice president, John Adams, felt that Washington often seemed “dazed and wholly scripted at certain public ceremonies, like an actor reading his lines or an aging athlete going through the motions.” But instead of highlighting Washington’s shortcomings in later life, Ellis focuses on his impressive exit from the public stage, what the author calls “a veritable virtuoso of exits” that were the natural conclusion to his life of greatness and leadership. He became “the supreme example of the leader who could be trusted with power because he was so ready to give it up.” The two most stunning chapters, at least from the standpoint of character development, are “The Collaborators,” which examines the shifting relationships and alliances between Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison, and “The Friendship,” which captures succinctly and poignantly the ups and downs of the long relationship between Jefferson and Adams, who was ably assisted in this aspect of life, as in every other aspect, by his wife and partner, Abigail, who is really the eighth major character in Ellis’ tale of history. Adams and Jefferson, joined in history and in life through the events they participated in and shaped, took distinctly different approaches to the historical undertakings. (And Ellis makes clear that they knew that much of what they were writing was being done for posterity.) These differences, captured and explained so expertly by Ellis, unfold like a mounting battle between two soap opera divas. Jefferson’s view of history and the American Revolution came from an inspirational plateau, a more rarified and rhetorical approach where, as Ellis explains, “all answers were self-evident and no real choices had to be made.” In contrast, Adams lacked the “floating optimism” of Jefferson. For Adams, the Revolution “was still an experiment.” And as Adams knew, much to his frustration throughout his life, the Jeffersonian version of the story would triumph in the history books. (Although Adams’ reputation is ascendant today.) In bringing to life these larger-than-life figures, Joseph Ellis has done what a good historian should do — capture the personalities and possibilities in the figures and periods studied. And he has done it in a way that is both entertaining and applicable to modern society. It doesn’t take much, for instance, to imagine a Merchant-Ivory film on the Jefferson-Adams relationship. Of course, “Founding Brothers” is by no means a complete history of the revolutionary period. Some historical figures are barely mentioned. For instance, legal scholars may be disappointed to find little about John Marshall. But these missing pieces are the natural outgrowth of the Ellis approach, focusing as it does on a few primary characters and their interactions. And, ultimately, it is a compliment to his writing rather than a criticism of it to say that we want to read more about these characters and this period. Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and writer Alexander Wohl is a frequent contributor to Legal Times.

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