Before reading this book, my internal snapshot of what the founders of the U.S.A. did was a fuzzy but stable picture. Most of these images came from what I was taught in school and my trips to places like Mount Vernon and Monticello. I had inklings that my picture was neither accurate nor complete. But reading this book made many fuzzy sections much clearer.
Part of growing up is learning that things are seldom straightforward. People are complicated; therefore, the situations they find themselves in are anything but tidy. I have never encountered a book that makes that fact as evident as this one does.
Historian Joseph J. Ellis writes not as much about the founders themselves as about the situations that developed our national mythos. Starting with the infamous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, Ellis examined what happened and why it happened. He presents past interactions that led to this deadly confrontation and the character traits (and flaws) of both men. Finally, he speculates on the outcome of the duel for the nation and posterity.
From this dramatic start, he moves on to the complicated arguments over the Constitution and whether the federal government or the states should be more powerful. The economic interests of the south, especially in Virginia, had an outsized influence on the outcome, which resulted in some issues remaining unsolved. He covers crucial issues ranging from slavery, George Washington’s legacy as President, and the battle between the Republicans like Madison and Jefferson (who generally favored individual independence and states’ rights) and the Federalists like Washington and Adams, who saw the need for a strong national government and a united effort.
I was surprised to find myself pleasantly swept up in the questions Ellis explores. He made it possible to grasp the issues with minimal effort. I tip my hat to him as a historian and a writer. My eyes tend to cross when learning about politics, government, and law, but he did a masterful job of making it understandable and interesting. If you want to increase your understanding of the revolutionary period, I’d pick another book to start learning. It would be an excellent choice once you have a grip on the events and the issues at stake.