An exceptional book is like an exceptional teacher; an academic career may only provide one or two memorable teachers, while books because of their constant renewal offer many opportunities for memorable Authors/Teachers. Mr. Joseph Ellis has produced just such a literary rarity with his work, "Founding Brothers". The events surrounding The American Revolution are familiar in generalities to most, and the information is generally romanticized beyond recognition. The Author has a very informative as well as a strong, appealing narrative style that communicates a wealth of facts but does not induce the drowsiness of many historical works whose pages turn as if made of lead.
Some have taken issue with the Author's style as being too loose or informal, and by implication arguably less than accurate. The notes at the book's end are not normally an area I spend a great deal of time with, however in this instance the Author shares his philosophy toward providing "sensible" documentation to his book. I believe this is refreshing and answers any critics. Firstly, a complete listing of references would be longer than the book, and a completely honest disclosure would require that he dredge up every piece of information that he has read and been influenced by for 30 years. Finally, he comments on those sources he has found to be particularly useful to his work, and they were interesting enough for a reader to enjoy as well.
Everyone will have their favorite from amongst the six sections of the book. I believe they all are uniformly excellent, however two were of greater interest to me.
"The Duel" that took place between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton in 1804 is an oft-mentioned bit of this Country's History. I have read many accounts of the event and none approach the level of detail and perceptive commentary that Mr. Ellis has presented. This death of one man, and the death of another's career is a vastly complicated event. It is true the actual discharging of weapons took only a moment, and that is usually where the analysis stops, and then the consequences that follow are listed. Happily in this work this is not the case as the Author brings nearly 2 decades of acrimony between these two men to bear on why they eventually found themselves in mortal conflict. This background is documented with depth but also with restraint, all the information without needless additional commentary. Mr. Ellis writes very well. He can enjoy an economical use of words, as he does not suffer from the impairment of being fascinated with the sound of his thoughts.
"The Friendship" has to be one of the most eloquent expositions of the final years of relations between 2 former Presidents, Adams and Jefferson. They may have been writing to one another, however they also documented their ideas of what the Revolution was for and what it meant, that the two men were polar opposites, from their style of speech, to their politics, personal conduct, and what they believed they had done for History, only makes the reading all the better. Again the Author communicates grand theories of these men, without getting tangled in minutiae.
The Author clearly knows his subjects and he shares and expands his reader's knowledge with the skill that he employs with his pen. He is not a man who suffers from hero worship, nor is he a revisionist. Mr. Ellis does not present these Revolutionary players with the façade of Patriotism hiding faults, nor does he lack the objectivity to present all the players with scholarly detachment.
If more Historians wrote in this style we would not be subject to the surveys that routinely demonstrate how Historically illiterate our Children and many adults are. History can be fascinating, or lethally dull. Those who present it will determine what we will know of our past, and happily Mr. Ellis is at the forefront of documenting History with style that is enticing to read, and with content that is meticulous and objective.