Preface: The Generation
The preface of Founding Brothers sets up the historical context and mood for the following chapters, putting an emphasis on the American Revolution, and its significance and inevitability. After the revolutions the astounding success and America’s liberation from Great Britain, no one was certain America could hold its own for long. It had not yet established an active government and was deemed likely by many to fall apart into individual states. However, the founding “fathers” were determined to have America survive as a successful nation, so they initiated the Constitutional Convention in 1787 during which the American Constitution was created.
Chapter One: The Duel
The first chapter of the novel pertains to the battle between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. One morning in the summer of 1804, the two conducted a duel near Weehawken, New Jersey following the code duello. It resulted in the death of Hamilton which consequently tainted Burr’s reputation. Hamilton was shot and killed, although not immediately, by one of two shots that were fired, between which a few seconds elapsed. In the aftermath, two stories where known amongst the public: the Hamiltonian version and the Burr version. The Hamiltonian version is that Burr was the first to fire and Hamilton impulsively fired into the air upon being shot. The Burr version is that Hamilton fired first, deliberately missing, and after about four or five seconds, Burr fired that fatal shot that killed Hamilton, who instantaneously fell to the ground. Although this version was almost undoubtedly incorrect, it was somewhat of a consensus amongst the public. Ironically, the Burr version is more believable because it contains the break between the two shots upon which was both sides agreed, therefore making Hamilton’s reflexive shot highly implausible. Apparently, the duel was the result of Hamilton offending Burr and then refusing to apologize.
Chapter Two: The Dinner
The chapter’s second chapter goes back to 18th century, before the events of the preceding chapter. Ellis tells Thomas Jefferson’s account of a dinner he held at his home in mid-June of 1790. Those he invited were Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to discuss the future location of the nation’s capital. This topic was supplemented by conversations regarding the economic crisis of the times. The dinner led to a compromise between Madison and Hamilton in Madison would not vehemently oppose Hamilton’s financial plan in exchange for Hamilton’s support for the capital’s future location to be along the Potomac River, in order to placate the southern states. However, Ellis proposes that this compromise was not just the result of the single dinner but rather several discussions. Ultimately, George Washington decided that America’s capital would be established east of Georgetown, on the mouth of the Potomac, and was named Washington D.C. after Washington himself. Having originally promised it would be in proximity of the Pennsylvania border, the central street was named Pennsylvania Avenue in order to appease disappointed Pennsylvanians.
Chapter Three: The Silence
The third chapter of the novel involves a prominent dispute that almost broke apart the young nation. This argument was a result of petitions presented to the House of Representatives a few months prior to Jefferson’s dinner by two Quaker delegations calling for the end of the Africa slave trade. Those in favor of maintaining slavery in the United States were mainly the southern states, especially Georgia, represented by James Jackson, and South Carolina, represented by William Loughton Smith. They argued that Congress should ignore the petitions because the Constitution prohibited government action on the slave trade until 1808 anyway (even though emancipation had begun in most of the north) and that it was merely and attempt to achieve emancipation. They even took it so far as to threaten to succeed if the matter was not openly discussed. No one in the House took the initiative to refute the south’s allegations and this silence is what the chapter’s title refers to. In the end, there was no real national result. In order to end this dispute, James Madison passed a vote from the House (29-25) to amend the Constitution so that Congress would have no authority to interfere with slavery.
Chapter Four: Farewell
This chapter focuses on George Washington’s farewell address and thus his formal declination to serve a third term as president. Despite having been partially written in collaboration with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Washington’s farewell address included his and only his hopes for the future of the United States. Amongst the points that he stressed were the need for national unity, the danger of partisanship and party politics, and the foreign policy of neutrality and diplomatic independence from the tumultuous events occur in Europe at the time. Thanks to Washington, leaving office after two terms became customary for succeeding presidents, except for Franklin D. Roosevelt who served three full terms and died during his fourth. In 1951, the 22nd Amendment made it law that a president may only serve at most two terms. America was generally saddened by the retirement of such a great leader as George Washington, for he was seen by the population as a virtually god-like figure.
Chapter Five: The Collaborators
After the retirement of George Washington, the two leading candidates for the presidency were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both good friends and great competitors. However, Adams was a Federalist and Jefferson was a Republican, and the two parties were becoming increasingly antagonistic towards each other. In 1796, John Adams was officially elected president and Jefferson vice-president. At that time there were no “tickets,” the top candidate became president and the second-best candidate became vice-president. Since they were from different parties, they had different agendas for their time in office and which inevitably lead to the demise of their friendship. At dinner with Washington in 1797, Jefferson informed Adams that he was not interested in joining his cabinet and the Republican Party did not intend to partake in the peace delegation Adams was sending to France. From then on Adams never again addressed Jefferson’s inclusion in policy making decisions.
In the 1800 election, the presidency was won by Jefferson with Aaron Burr as the vice-president. This was fundamentally the virtual end to the Federalist Party. After the election, Adams and Jefferson did not speak to one another for 12 long years.
Chapter Six: The Friendship
The book’s concluding chapter once again pertains to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. After 12 extensive years of silence between the two they finally began to reestablish their friendship through letter correspondence initiated by Adams that would last until their deaths. They both put forth a noticeable effort to reconcile and their long-held respect for each other overcame the bitterness from their past disputes. The letter correspondence consisted of 158 letters ending in 1826 when both men died. On the fiftieth anniversary of American independence in 1826, both Jefferson and Adams died respectively within approximately five hours of each other.