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Founding Brothers

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Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. By Joseph J. Ellis. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

In Founding Brothers, Ellis looks at the nation's formative years following the ratification of the Constitution, and examines the personalities involved and the actions taken that were involved in keeping the ship of state afloat. This book is not an exhaustive biography of a single figure but rather a series of essays that describe the era. As Ellis says in his forward, "It is not by the direct method of scrupulous narration that the explorer of the past can hope to depict a singular epoch. If he is wise, he will adopt a subtler strategy. He will attack his subject in unexpected places; he will fall upon the flank and rear; he will shoot a sudden revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over the great oceans of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity." The episodes that Ellis chronicles take place in the turbulent 1790's, at a time when the outcome of the revolution was still unpredictable. His chief cast of characters is comprised of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. All of them were of a generation, knew each other, shared goals and were aware that the eyes of the world were upon them. The events deal with the character and relationships of the most eminent members of the Revolutionary Generation. Their objectives often clashed, but when it came to the bigger picture, they mostly bargained together.

The first of the six chapters or essays is The Duel. This chapter looks at the events surrounding and leading up to the famous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. In The Dinner, Thomas Jefferson brokers a deal between Alexander Hamilton, who wanted the federal government to assume state debts after the Revolution, and James Madison who wanted to ensure the new federal capital would be on the Potomac River. The Silence explores how the Northern states proposed not to address the slave trade for twenty years in order to get Southern states to ratify the Constitution, but three years later, Quakers petitioned the new Congress to abolish the practice. The Farewell is story of Washington's Farewell Address, which was meant to set the course for the future of America. The Collaborators brings to light the personal and political relationships between the parties that succeeded Washington in the presidency. The Friendship examines the re-establishment of friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Ellis begins his exploration by looking at an instance when things did not go well at all in the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1755 - July 12, 1804) was one of the United States' most prominent early constitutional lawyers. He was an influential delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention and the principal author of the Federalist Papers, which successfully defended the U.S. Constitution. He also put the new United States of America onto a sound economic footing as its first and most influential Secretary of the Treasury, establishing the First Bank of the United States, public credit and the foundations for American capitalism. Hamilton founded the Federalist Party, the first political party in the United States, which he dominated until his death in the duel. The Federalist Party advocated the principles of a strong centralized federal government and loose interpretation of the Constitution that would become the hallmark of the early Republic. This was due to his support of strong national defense, strong business institutions, regulated capitalism, and a commitment to economic growth through protectionist tariffs, subsidies to industry, and other measures recommended in his Report on Manufactures to the U.S. Congress. Aaron Burr, Jr. (February 6, 1756 - September 14, 1836) was the third Vice President, under Thomas Jefferson, but is remembered more for his duel with Alexander Hamilton and his trial and acquittal on charges of treason. Hamilton was Burr's main rival for dominance of the New York bar. Burr served in the New York State Assembly from 1784 to 1785, but he became seriously involved in politics in 1789, when George Clinton appointed him Attorney General of New York. In 1791, he defeated a favored candidate, Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law, General Philip Schuyler, for a seat in the United States Senate, and served in the upper house of the US Congress until 1797. Burr was not reelected to the Senate in 1797, and instead went into the New York state legislature, serving from 1798 through 1801. Burr loosely associated himself with the Democratic-Republicans, though he had moderate Federalist allies. Burr quickly became a key player in New York politics, more powerful in time than Hamilton. Because of his control of the New York legislature, Burr was placed on the Republican presidential ticket in the 1800 election with Jefferson. At the time, state legislatures chose the members of the U.S. Electoral College, and New York was crucial to Jefferson. Though Jefferson did win New York and the election, so did Burr; they tied with 73 electoral votes each. It was well understood that the party intended that Jefferson should be President and Burr Vice President but the responsibility for the final choice was that of the House of Representatives. The attempts of a powerful faction among the Federalists to secure the election of Burr failed, mostly because of the opposition from Hamilton who favored even his rival Jefferson over Burr. Ultimately, the election devolved to the point where it took three days and thirty-six ballots before Jefferson's election as President. When it became clear that Jefferson would drop Burr from his ticket in the 1804 election, the Vice President ran for the governorship of New York as a Federalist instead. Burr lost the election, and Hamilton also opposed Burr, because he believed that Burr had entertained a Federalist secession movement in New York. But Hamilton exceeded himself at one political dinner, where he expressed a "still more despicable opinion" of Burr. After a letter regarding the incident circulated in a local newspaper, Burr sought an apology from Hamilton. After a lengthy correspondence, in which Hamilton refused to back down from the alleged slight, Burr finally issued the challenge to a duel. In many ways the Hamilton/Burr duel was a window on the political disagreements of the period. Ellis places the duel in the context of early 19th century society as he discusses how the illegal code duello tradition related

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