Founding Brothers | Joseph J. Ellis

Summary of: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
By: Joseph J. Ellis


Embark on a journey into the past and discover the story of the founding brothers, who transformed the world through the power of republicanism and laid the foundation for the modern United States. In ‘Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation’, Joseph J. Ellis takes you to the year 1775, when thirteen British colonies decided to challenge the colonial yoke and initiate the American Revolution. The book delves into the ideals that inspired the revolutionaries, their debts, the price paid for unity, and the struggles faced by powerful figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Get ready to explore a fascinating period in history and the lives of those who dared to defy the norms and changed the world forever.

Discovering Republic Virtues

History is our way of understanding the present and the forces that shaped our world. Our journey takes us back to 1775, North America, where thirteen colonies defied the British Empire. The founding brothers, influenced by republicanism, believed in a government representing the virtues and collective will of its citizens. Monarchy ruled most of the world; however, the American revolutionaries saw republics as a beacon of liberty in a world of despotism. They banked on the human virtue to protect the republic from would-be tyrants.

To truly appreciate the birth of the United States of America, let’s take a trip down memory lane and find ourselves in North America in 1775. Thirteen colonies, under the yoke of the British Empire, ignite a daring revolution to free themselves from Britain’s oppressive grasp. The odds they faced seemed insurmountable, with the British army and navy demonstrating immense dominance. Nevertheless, undeterred, the American revolutionaries fought against the tide of history with unwavering resolve.

Our founding brothers, the architects of this rebellion, stood united under a common ideal: republicanism. The vision of a republic was one where citizens could rule themselves by electing representatives, essentially a democracy by today’s standards. These citizens were to be the masters of their destiny, capable of replacing their government when needed—a stark contrast to monarchies, where subjects were born to simply obey and governments remained indisputable.

In 1776, the world was shackled by the chains of monarchies, as it had been throughout history. But while the pervading darkness of tyranny engulfed the world, there were a few shining examples of republics, like the ancient Roman Republic, to inspire the American revolutionaries. These exceptional states became their lighthouses of liberty amid a sea of despotism.

However, the existence of republics begged the question—why were they so few and far between? Why did they succumb to the forces of absolutism, as demonstrated by the fall of Rome to tyrannical monarchies? The American revolutionaries turned to the idea of virtue as the answer to this dilemma.

The foundation of any republic lies in the virtues of its citizens, ensuring that potential dictators and despots cannot seize control. By instilling virtue within the very fabric of their nation, the founding brothers of America laid the groundwork for self-governance and democracy—a testament to the power of righteousness in the hearts and minds of the people. With this essential virtue in place, the revolutionary generation set a course toward the vibrant republic the United States of America would become.

The Virtue of Republican Citizens

Unlike despotic rulers, who thrive on obedience through fear and power, republican governments require virtuous leaders and citizens to ensure loyalty and equality. For a republic to succeed, both leaders and citizens must prioritize the common interest, act with integrity, and avoid corruption. Recognizing the fall of historical republics like Rome due to selfishness and corruption, American revolutionaries worked to establish their free republic on virtues, striving to defy history and uphold high standards.

Absolute power is at the core of a despot’s ability to maintain loyalty and obedience—rebellious subjects can be swiftly punished, and a dictator’s will is the law. For despots, virtuous leaders or citizens are not necessary, and it can even be advantageous if they are selfish and corrupt, making them easily manipulated. However, republican governments operate under entirely different principles.

Republican governments must be built on a foundation of virtue to win and retain the loyalty of their citizens. By treating all citizens equally, following the rule of law, and working for the common good, a republican government earns the trust and support of its people. Should the government fail in its virtues, citizens have the right to replace them through elections or even revolutions.

For a republic to thrive, its citizens must also prioritize virtue. If selfishness and corruption permeate society, it will deteriorate the trust necessary for power-sharing, ultimately leading to civil wars and the demise of the republic. Good republican citizens must be deeply patriotic, seeking compromises, and placing the common good above personal interests.

The demanding nature of republics has made despotic monarchies the norm throughout history. Republics’ survival heavily depends on strong moral character and wise judgment from leaders and citizens alike. A lapse in either can lead a republic down a path of ruin, as demonstrated by the collapse of the once-powerful Roman Republic. When Rome’s citizens were virtuous and patriotic, their focus was on the common good; however, corruption and selfish desires led to division and conflict, resulting in Rome’s downfall.

American revolutionaries were well aware of the historical challenges faced by republics. As they established their new nation—a free republic dedicated to liberty and happiness—they knew they were defying history with their unprecedented endeavor. To succeed, they had to remain vigilant against corruption and the decline of virtue. This determination to uphold high standards often led to conflicts, as each misstep potentially represented the first step towards ruin. The success of the American republic ultimately hinged on the unwavering virtue and dedication of its leaders and citizens.

Hamilton’s Unwavering Federalism

The American Revolutionary War, a seemingly impossible fight, culminated in victory with the British surrendering in 1783. This marked the beginning of the American republic, and its founders were tasked with navigating the challenges that arose in a post-war society. Among these figures, Alexander Hamilton stood out as a tenacious advocate for federalism – a system that emphasizes a strong central government with a direct influence on the economy. Despite his meager beginnings and complex past, Hamilton’s unwavering belief in industry and urbanization as keys to America’s success shaped the nation’s future.

The birth of the American republic brought forth new challenges as the nation traversed uncharted territory. Bearing admiration for Rome, the founders recognized the impossibility of stepping back in time to mirror the ancient republic. Instead, they sought their own unique solutions, though their shared ideals often spawned divergent perspectives and plans.

In the early republic, Thomas Jefferson, a notable statesman, postulated that each generation was sovereign and conceived the idea of laws expiring after 20 years. While Jefferson eventually deemed this idea anarchic, it demonstrated that the future of the United States was far from predetermined.

Enter Alexander Hamilton, a staunch advocate for federalism – a doctrine advocating a strong central government, significantly involved in governing the economy. Dubbed the “little lion of federalism,” Hamilton stood at just five foot seven, but his aggressive demeanor and unyielding spirit were characteristic of a lion. A brave and inventive soldier in the revolutionary army, Hamilton showcased these traits similarly in his political life. He relentlessly confronted obstacles and launched fierce attacks against political adversaries, evoking admiration from his allies and animosity from his opponents.

John Adams, a founder and future president, belonged to this opposing camp, calling Hamilton the “bastard brat of a Scotch peddler.” This derogatory comment held some truth; Hamilton was born on the West Indian island of Nevis to an impoverished Scottish merchant father. However, his humble beginnings fueled his desire to excel in all endeavors. His life took a decisive turn when he moved to New York, where he rose through social ranks working for merchants, bankers, and industrialists – the urban business elite. They lacked the aristocratic attitudes typical of plantation-owning revolutionaries, preferring creation over conservation.

Hamilton’s admiration for these men steered him to believe they embodied America’s future. At the core of his federalist ideology was the conviction that cities, as the epicenter of industry and commerce, would ultimately shape the nation’s destiny.

Hamilton’s Debt Strategy: Assumption

Facing a financial crisis in the 1780s, America was crippled by debt, and unity among the thirteen states seemed near impossible. To overcome this challenge, Alexander Hamilton introduced the concept of assumption, proposing the federal government take responsibility for all states’ debts, consolidating them into one ledger. James Madison, however, opposed Hamilton’s plan, citing unfairness and fearing a new form of tyranny.

In the 1780s, the United States was in the grips of a financial crisis, struggling with massive debts accumulated during the lengthy war for independence. With $80 million owed to creditors alongside dismal revenues, states were left to handle their debts individually, causing vast discrepancies in their financial stability. Alexander Hamilton, a key figure in US politics, saw this as a crucial opportunity to strengthen the nation.

He identified the disjointed approach to debt repayment as a major factor causing rifts between states and hindering national unity. For instance, while Virginia was in a position to repay its debts, Rhode Island teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. In order to sway investors to have faith in the fledgling United States as a whole, Hamilton proposed a bold plan called assumption.

Assumption would involve the federal government assuming responsibility for the debts of all thirteen states, resulting in a single financial ledger. With the central government’s resources at their disposal, investors would be more confident in repayment prospects, leading to lower interest rates, increased access to credit, and overall growth.

While Hamilton believed his plan would benefit the nation, James Madison, a Virginian gentleman and representative, fervently disagreed. Physically frail but with a shrewd mind, Madison held immense influence over his peers. Madison’s primary concern was that assumption was unfair to states like Virginia, which had already paid off their debts, and now would be forced to contribute to the repayment of other states’ debts as well.

Beyond the economic argument, Madison’s opposition to assumption ran deeper, calling into question the political implications of Hamilton’s plan. Assumption placed the federal government in full control of individual states’ economies, a situation that Madison likened to the British rule over America as a tax colony. He feared that requiring states like Virginia to contribute taxes to a distant government, in this case that of New York, could be considered a new form of tyranny.

Despite Hamilton’s intention to unite the nation and foster financial stability, Madison’s strong opposition laid bare the nuances and complexities surrounding assumption. The differing perspectives on debt repayment and the role of the federal government in governing states’ economies demonstrated the contentious nature of creating a stable foundation for the United States in its early years.

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