Saturday, August 9, 2008

Founding Brothers by, Joseph J. Ellis

Recommendation: YES! This is another great US history book.

This book won the Pulitzer Prize, and is only 248 pages long. Don't be fooled! It is well-written, but really made me concentrate to understand what was being said. Here's an example I've been showing people of how wordy Ellis can be, "...the very presumptiveness of the revolutionary rhetoric served to obfuscate the quite palpable reality that slavery, no mantter how anomalous in purely ideological terms, was still deeply imbedded in the very structure of American society at multiple levels or layers that remained impervious to wishful thinking and revolutionary expectations." WHEW! I ended up holding a bookmark underlining the words as I read to help me focus. But it is completly readable. I didn't even pull out my dictionary, although I probably should have. I don't want to turn you away from the book, just warn you.

What I loved:
Joseph Ellis took a specific event or theme for each chapter. Because of the way it is organized, I think it flows really well. Each chapter could stand alone, but they do overlap and intertwine with each other. One cool theme that he referred back to several times is how hindsight affects history and how we read and write it. How events or famous quotes are only poignant because of what we know happened next. It was a very interesting concept, and one that made alot of sense in the context of these stories.

Another thing that the characters mention more than once that is so fascinating to me, is that it was really a miracle that our nation stayed together in the early years. There were so many times that even the men fighting (figuratively and literally) to keep the United States together, really didn't think it would make it.

"If hindsight enhances our appreciation for the solidity and stability of the republican legacy, it also blinds us to the truly stunning improbability of the achievement itself."

"Though there have been many successful colonial rebellions against imperial domination since the American Revolution, none had occured before."

Reading this again puts me in awe of these men (and their wives) that made it happen.

My favorite sections:

I got a little bogged down in the chapters The Dinner and The Silence. But even those were interesting! I ended up writing down some reminders to myself of who was with the Federalists and who was with the Republicans. That helped some.

The Collaborators and The Friendship were my favorites. It's so sad to me that John Adams was right that he would not be credited nearly as much as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington for his role in founding the nation. I really am drawn to him and will HAVE to read to read his bio now. One thing that Ellis mentioned was that he told Abagail to save all his letters. He knew that they would provide history. In fact it seems obvious that his last few years of letters to Jefferson were part of his attempt to write history as he had experienced it.

The Silence deals with how slavery was treated politically in the 1790's. I had no idea how long the debates were going. At first I thought it was very irresponsible for congress to have a "no talking" policy about it. But I guess that we often avoid things that we know are wrong, but are too embarrassed or dependant upon to change. Reading the different arguments that were circulating was very interesting.

When John Adams was vice-president, he describes the job as "the most insignificant office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived." To make matters worse, after his first debate, the Senate decided that the vice president was not permitted to speak. Can you imagine the torture of listening to these political debates and being able to participate? Sounds like torture to me!

Things I didn't know about before reading this:

Jay's Treaty, Consumption, Capitol on the Potomac, the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. A lot more. But to my history teachers' credit, I have forgotten most of what I once learned.

Some great quotes/concepts from the book:

"...slavery was a cancer on the body politic of America that could not at present be removed without killing the patient."

"The Adams style was to confront, shout, rant and then to embrace. The Jefferson style was to evade, maintain pretenses, then convince himself that all was well."

"No one present at the start knew how it would turn out in the end."

"The basic framework for all these institutions and traditions was built in a sudden spasm of enforced inspiration and makeshift construction during the final decades of the eighteenth century."

"...the office would routinely outlive the occupant, that the American presidency was fundamentally different from a European monarchy, that presidents, no matter how indispensable, were inherently disposable."

On page 209, a letter from Jefferson to Abagail Adams is quoted, and Ellis inserts parenthetical comments that are very funny to me.

And lastly, in a letter to Benjamin Rush, John Adams says he knew a French barber in Boston who used the phrase "a little crack," meaning slightly crazy. He uses it to describe some philosophers, then says, "I must tell you that my wife, who took a fancy to read this letter upon my table, bids me tell you that she 'thinks my head, too, a little crack,' and I am half of that mind myself." HILARIOUS!!! I think that might be my new catchphrase. And again, how can you not love John and Abagail Adams.

Now, please read this book and comment in the space provided.


Julie E. said...

Have you read anything by David McCullough? If so, did you like this more less?

Kammy said...

I started John Adams YEARS ago, and just kept not reading and then having to re-read to remember what was going on. I renewed it 3 times then gave up. I think this is more of a summary, definetly shorter, but like I said it was still kind of hard to get through.

kim said...

kam, this is another book i've really been wanting to read, but haven't gotten around to it. i love finding good books about history, makes you almost feel like you're there. thx for the great summary of it!