Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

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Overview

In this landmark work of history, the National Book Award—winning author of American Sphinx explores how a group of greatly gifted but deeply flawed individuals–Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Madison–confronted the overwhelming challenges before them to set the course for our nation.

The United States was more a fragile hope than a reality in 1790. During the decade that followed, the Founding Fathers–re-examined here as Founding Brothers–combined ...

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Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

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Overview

In this landmark work of history, the National Book Award—winning author of American Sphinx explores how a group of greatly gifted but deeply flawed individuals–Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Madison–confronted the overwhelming challenges before them to set the course for our nation.

The United States was more a fragile hope than a reality in 1790. During the decade that followed, the Founding Fathers–re-examined here as Founding Brothers–combined the ideals of the Declaration of Independence with the content of the Constitution to create the practical workings of our government. Through an analysis of six fascinating episodes–Hamilton and Burr’s deadly duel, Washington’s precedent-setting Farewell Address, Adams’ administration and political partnership with his wife, the debate about where to place the capital, Franklin’s attempt to force Congress to confront the issue of slavery and Madison’s attempts to block him, and Jefferson and Adams’ famous correspondence–Founding Brothers brings to life the vital issues and personalities from the most important decade in our nation’s history.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Structured like a drama around six key episodes, Founding Brothers presents Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and Burr in the tense interplay of history. Winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize.
From the Publisher
“A splendid book–humane, learned, written with flair and radiant with a calm intelligence and wit.”–The New York Times Book Review

“Lively and illuminating…leaves the reader with a visceral sense of a formative era in American life.”–The New York Times

“Masterful…. Fascinating…. Ellis is an elegant stylist…. [He] captures the passion the founders brought to the revolutionary project…. [A] very fine book.”–Chicago Tribune

“Learned, exceedingly well-written, and perceptive.”–The Oregonian

“Lucid…. Ellis has such command of the subject matter that it feels fresh, particularly as he segues from psychological to political, even to physical analysis…. Ellis’s storytelling helps us more fully hear the Brothers’ voices.”–Business Week

“Splendid…. Revealing…. An extraordinary book. Its insightful conclusions rest on extensive research, and its author’s writing is vigorous and lucid.”–St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Vivid and unforgettable . . . [an] enduring achievement.” –The Boston Globe

Founding Brothers is a wonderful book, one of the best . . . on the Founders ever written. . . . Ellis has established himself as the Founders’ historian for our time.” –Gordon S. Wood, The New York Review of Books

Library Journal
Ellis holds the Ford Foundation Chair in American History at Mount Holyoke College and is the author of American Sphinx, a National Book Award-winning study of Thomas Jefferson. His new book contains six chapters on unconnected events in the formation of the American republic, featuring Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and George Washington as principal characters. Ellis is deeply steeped in the literature, and his style is crisp and full of subtle ironies. He brings fresh insights into such well-worn topics as the Hamilton-Burr duel and Jefferson's feelings about slavery. If there is a central theme that runs through the chapters, it concerns the fragility of the early years of the republic. Ellis calls the 1790s one long shouting match between those, like Hamilton, who championed the power of the central government and those, like Jefferson, who defended the rights of states and individuals. The question of slavery was so explosive that most Founding Fathers avoided discussing it at all. Ellis clearly admires the irascible John Adams. Perhaps surprisingly from the author of American Sphinx, however, the Founding Father who comes off least well here is Jefferson himself. Highly recommended for all academic and large public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/00.]--T.J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Benson Bobrick
A splendid book -- humane, learned, written with flair and radiant with a calm intelligence and wit. Even those familiar with 'the Revolutionary generation' will [find much] to captivate and enlarge their understanding of our nation's fledgling years.
New York Times Book Review
Michiko Kakutan
... as the historian Joseph J. Ellis points out in his compelling new book, the achievement of the American Revolution was considerably more improbable at the time....a lively and illuminating, if somewhat arbitrary book that leaves the reader with a visceral sense of a formative era in American life.
New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375705243
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/5/2002
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 26,906
  • Lexile: 1410L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Joseph J. Ellis is the author of several books of American history, among them Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, which won the 1997 National Book Award. He was educated at the College of William and Mary and Yale University and lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, Ellen, and three sons.

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Read an Excerpt

The Generation
No event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution. On the inevitability side, it is true there were voices back then urging prospective patriots to regard American independence as an early version of manifest destiny. Tom Paine, for example, claimed that it was simply a matter of common sense that an island could not rule a continent. And Thomas Jefferson's lyrical rendering of the reasons for the entire revolutionary enterprise emphasized the self-evident character of the principles at stake.

Several other prominent American revolutionaries also talked as if they were actors in a historical drama whose script had already been written by the gods. In his old age, John Adams recalled his youthful intimations of the providential forces at work: "There is nothing . . . more ancient in my memory," he wrote in 1807, "than the observation that arts, sciences, and empire had always travelled westward. And in conversation it was always added, since I was a child, that their next leap would be over the Atlantic into America." Adams instructed his beloved Abigail to start saving all his letters even before the outbreak of the war for independence. Then in June of 1776, he purchased "a Folio Book" to preserve copies of his entire correspondence in order to record, as he put it, "the great Events which are passed, and those greater which are rapidly advancing." Of course we tend to remember only the prophets who turn out to be right, but there does seem to have been a broadly shared sense within the revolutionary generation that they were "present at the creation."

These early premonitions of American destiny have been reinforced and locked into our collective memory by the subsequent triumph of the political ideals the American Revolution first announced, as Jefferson so nicely put it, "to a candid world." Throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, former colonies of European powers have won their independence with such predictable regularity that colonial status has become an exotic vestige of bygone days, a mere way station for emerging nations. The republican experiment launched so boldly by the revolutionary generation in America encountered entrenched opposition in the two centuries that followed, but it thoroughly vanquished the monarchical dynasties of the nineteenth century and then the totalitarian despotisms of the twentieth, just as Jefferson predicted it would. Though it seems somewhat extreme to declare, as one contemporary political philosopher has phrased it, that "the end of history" is now at hand, it is true that all alternative forms of political organization appear to be fighting a futile rear-guard action against the liberal institutions and ideas first established in the United States in the late eighteenth century. At least it seems safe to say that some form of representative government based on the principle of popular sovereignty and some form of market economy fueled by the energies of individual citizens have become the commonly accepted ingredients for national success throughout the world. These legacies are so familiar to us, we are so accustomed to taking their success for granted, that the era in which they were born cannot help but be remembered as a land of foregone conclusions.

Despite the confident and providential statements of leaders like Paine, Jefferson, and Adams, the conclusions that look so foregone to us had yet to congeal for them. The old adage applies: Men make history, and the leading members of the revolutionary generation realized they were doing so, but they can never know the history they are making. We can look back and make the era of the American Revolution a center point, then scan the terrain upstream and downstream, but they can only know what is downstream. An anecdote that Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, liked to tell in his old age makes the point memorably. On July 4, 1776, just after the Continental Congress had finished making its revisions of the Declaration and sent it off to the printer for publication, Rush overheard a conversation between Benjamin Harrison of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts: "I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry," said Harrison, "when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead." Rush recalled that the comment "procured a transient smile, but it was soon succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted."

Based on what we now know about the military history of the American Revolution, if the British commanders had prosecuted the war more vigorously in its earliest stages, the Continental Army might very well have been destroyed at the start and the movement for American independence nipped in the bud. The signers of the Declaration would then have been hunted down, tried, and executed for treason, and American history would have flowed forward in a wholly different direction.

In the long run, the evolution of an independent American nation, gradually developing its political and economic strength over the nineteenth century within the protective constraints of the British Empire, was virtually inevitable. This was Paine's point. But that was not the way history happened. The creation of a separate American nation occurred suddenly rather than gradually, in revolutionary rather than evolutionary fashion, the decisive events that shaped the political ideas and institutions of the emerging state all taking place with dynamic intensity during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. No one present at the start knew how it would turn out in the end. What in retrospect has the look of a foreordained unfolding of God's will was in reality an improvisational affair in which sheer chance, pure luck—both good and bad—and specific decisions made in the crucible of specific military and political crises determined the outcome. At the dawn of a new century, indeed a new millennium, the United States is now the oldest enduring republic in world history, with a set of political institutions and traditions that have stood the test of time. 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.

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. All the major accomplishments were unprecedented. Though there have been many successful colonial rebellions against imperial domination since the American Revolution, none had occurred before. Taken together, the British army and navy constituted the most powerful military force in the world, destined in the course of the succeeding century to defeat all national competitors for its claim as the first hegemonic power of the modern era. Though the republican paradigm—representative government bottomed on the principle of popular sovereignty—has become the political norm in the twentieth century, no republican government prior to the American Revolution, apart from a few Swiss cantons and Greek city-states, had ever survived for long, and none had ever been tried over a landmass as large as the thirteen colonies. (There was one exception, but it proved the rule: the short-lived Roman Republic of Cicero, which succumbed to the imperial command of Julius Caesar.) And finally the thirteen colonies, spread along the Eastern Seaboard and stretching inward to the Alleghenies and beyond into unexplored forests occupied by hostile Indian tribes, had no history of enduring cooperation. The very term American Revolution propagates a wholly fictional sense of national coherence not present at the moment and only discernible in latent form by historians engaged in after-the-fact appraisals of how it could possibly have turned out so well.

Hindsight, then, is a tricky tool. Too much of it and we obscure the all-pervasive sense of contingency as well as the problematic character of the choices facing the revolutionary generation. On the other hand, without some measure of hindsight, some panoramic perspective on the past from our perch in the present, we lose the chief advantage—perhaps the only advantage—that the discipline of history provides, and we are then thrown without resources into the patternless swirl of events with all the time-bound participants themselves. What we need is a form of hindsight that does not impose itself arbitrarily on the mentality of the revolutionary generation, does not presume that we are witnessing the birth of an inevitable American superpower. We need a historical perspective that frames the issues with one eye on the precarious contingencies felt at the time, while the other eye looks forward to the more expansive consequences perceived dimly, if at all, by those trapped in the moment. We need, in effect, to be nearsighted and farsighted at the same time.

On the farsighted side, the key insight, recognized by a few of the political leaders in the revolutionary generation, is that the geographic isolation of the North American continent and the bountiful natural resources contained within it provided the fledging nation with massive advantages and almost limitless potential. In 1783, just after the military victory over Great Britain was confirmed in the Treaty of Paris, no less a figure than George Washington gave this continental vision its most eloquent formulation: "The Citizens of America," Washington wrote, "placed in the most enviable condition, as the sole Lords and Proprietors of a vast Tract of Continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the World, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and Independence; They are, from this period, to be considered as Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designed by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity." If the infant American republic could survive its infancy, if it could manage to endure as a coherent national entity long enough to consolidate its natural advantages, it possessed the potential to become a dominant force in the world.

On the nearsighted side, the key insight, shared by most of the vanguard members of the revolutionary generation, is that the very arguments used to justify secession from the British Empire also undermined the legitimacy of any national government capable of overseeing such a far-flung population, or establishing uniform laws that knotted together the thirteen sovereign states and three or four distinct geographic and economic regions. For the core argument used to discredit the authority of Parliament and the British monarch, the primal source of what were called "Whig principles," was an obsessive suspicion of any centralized political power that operated in faraway places beyond the immediate supervision or surveillance of the citizens it claimed to govern. The national government established during the war under the Articles of Confederation accurately embodied the cardinal conviction of revolutionary-era republicanism; namely, that no central authority empowered to coerce or discipline the citizenry was permissible, since it merely duplicated the monarchical and aristocratic principles that the American Revolution had been fought to escape.

Combine the long-range and short-range perspectives and the result becomes the central paradox of the revolutionary era, which was also the apparently intractable dilemma facing the revolutionary generation. In sum, the long-term prospects for the newly independent American nation were extraordinarily hopeful, almost limitless. But the short-term prospects were bleak in the extreme, because the very size and scale of the national enterprise, what in fact made the future so promising, overwhelmed the governing capacities of the only republican institutions sanctioned by the Revolution. John Adams, who gave the problem more concentrated attention than anyone except James Madison, was periodically tempted to throw up his hands and declare the task impossible. "The lawgivers of antiquity . . . legislated for single cities," Adams observed, but "who can legislate for 20 or 30 states, each of which is greater than Greece or Rome at those times?" And since the only way to reach the long-run glory was through the short-run gauntlet, the safest bet was that the early American republic would dissolve into a cluster of state or regional sovereignties, expiring, like all the republics before it, well short of the promised land.

The chief reason this did not happen, at least from a purely legal and institutional point of view, is that in 1787 a tiny minority of prominent political leaders from several key states conspired to draft and then ratify a document designed to accommodate republican principles to a national scale. Over the subsequent two centuries, critics of the Constitutional Convention have called attention to several of its more unseemly features: the convention was extralegal, since its explicit mandate was to revise the Articles of Confederation, not replace them; its sessions were conducted in utter secrecy; the fifty-five delegates were a propertied elite hardly representative of the population as a whole; southern delegates used the proceedings to obtain several assurances that slavery would not be extinguished south of the Potomac; the machinery for ratification did not require the unanimous consent dictated by the articles themselves. There is truth in each of these accusations.

There is also truth in the opposite claim: that the Constitutional Convention should be called "the miracle at Philadelphia," not in the customary, quasi-religious sense, whereby a gathering of demigods received divine inspiration, but in the more profane and prosaic sense that the Constitution professed to solve what was an apparently insoluble political problem. For it purported to create a consolidated federal government with powers sufficient to coerce obedience to national laws—in effect, to discipline a truly continental union while remaining true to the republican principles of 1776. At least logically, this was an impossibility, since the core impulse of these republican principles, the original "spirit of '76," was an instinctive aversion to coercive political power of any sort and a thoroughgoing dread of the inevitable corruptions that result when unseen rulers congregate in distant places. The Antifederalist opponents of the Constitution made precisely these points, but they were outmaneuvered, outargued, and ultimately outvoted by a dedicated band of national advocates in nine of the state ratifying conventions.

The American Revolution thus entered a second phase and the constitutional settlement of 1787-1788 became a second "founding moment," alongside the original occasion of 1776. The first founding declared American independence; the second, American nationhood. The incompatibility of these two foundings is reflected in the divisive character of the scholarship on the latter. Critics of the Constitution, then and now, have condemned it as a betrayal of the core principles of the American Revolution, an American version of France's Thermidorian reaction. Strictly speaking, they were and are historically correct. Defenders of the Constitution, then and now, have saluted it as a sensible accommodation of liberty to power and a realistic compromise with the requirements of a national domain. That has turned out, over time, to be correct, though at the time, even the advocates were not sure.

Uncertainty, in fact, was the dominant mood at that moment. Historians have emphasized the several compromises the delegates in Philadelphia brokered to produce the constitutional consensus: the interest of large versus small states; federal versus state jurisdiction; the sectional bargain over slavery. The most revealing feature in this compromise motif is that on each issue, both sides could plausibly believe they had gotten the best of the bargain. On the all-important question of sovereignty, the same artfully contrived ambiguity also obtained: Sovereignty did not reside with the federal government or the individual states; it resided with "the people." What that meant was anyone's guess, since there was no such thing at this formative stage as an American "people"; indeed, the primary purpose of the Constitution was to provide the framework to gather together the scattered strands of the population into a more coherent collective worthy of that designation.
This latter point requires a reflective review of recent scholarship on the complicated origins of American nationhood. Based on what we now know about the Anglo-American connection in the pre-Revolution era—that is, before it was severed—the initial identification of the colonial population as "Americans" came from English writers who used the term negatively, as a way of referring to a marginal or peripheral population unworthy of equal status with full-blooded Englishmen back at the metropolitan center of the British Empire. The word was uttered and heard as an insult that designated an inferior or subordinate people. The entire thrust of the colonists' justification for independence was to reject that designation on the grounds that they possessed all the rights of British citizens. And the ultimate source of these rights did not lie in any indigenously American origins, but rather in a transcendent realm of natural rights allegedly shared by all men everywhere. At least at the level of language, then, we need to recover the eighteenth-century context of things and not read back into those years the hallowed meanings they would acquire over the next century. The term American, like the term democrat, began as an epithet, the former referring to an inferior, provincial creature, the latter to one who panders to the crude and mindless whims of the masses. At both the social and verbal levels, in short, an American nation remained a precarious and highly problematic project—at best a work in progress.
This was pretty much how matters stood in 1789, when the newly elected members of the federal government gathered in New York City and proceeded to test the proposition, as Abraham Lincoln so famously put it at Gettysburg, "whether any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure." We have already noted some of the assets and liabilities they brought along with them. On the assets side of the historical ledger, the full list would include the following: a bountiful continent an ocean away from European interference; a youthful population of nearly 4 million, about half of it sixteen years of age or younger and therefore certain to grow exponentially over subsequent decades; a broad dispersion of property ownership among the white populace, based on easy access to available land; a clear commitment to republican political institutions rooted in the prowess and practice of the colonial assemblies, then sanctified as the only paradigm during the successful war for independence in the state constitution; and last, but far from least, a nearly unanimous consensus that the first chief executive would be George Washington, only one man, to be sure, but an incalculable asset.

On the liability side of the ledger, four items topped the list: First, no one had ever established a republican government on the scale of the United States, and the overwhelming judgment of the most respected authorities was that it could not be done; second, the dominant intellectual legacy of the Revolution, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, stigmatized all concentrated political power and even, its most virulent forms, depicted any energetic expression of governmental authority as an alien force that all responsible citizens ought to repudiate and, if possible, overthrow; third, apart from the support for the Continental Army during the war, which was itself sporadic, uneven, and barely adequate to assure victory, the states and regions comprising the new nation had no common history as a nation and no common experience behaving as a coherent collective (for example, while drafting the Declaration in Philadelphia in June of 1776, Jefferson had written back to friends in Virginia that it was truly disconcerting to find himself deployed at that propitious moment nearly three hundred miles from "my country"); fourth, and finally, according to the first census, commissioned by the Congress in 1790, nearly 700,000 inhabitants of the fledgling American republic were black slaves, the vast majority, over 90 percent, concentrated in the Chesapeake region and points south, their numbers also growing exponentially in a kind of demographic defiance of all the republican rhetoric uttered since the heady days of 1776.

If permitted to define a decade somewhat loosely, then the next decade was the most crucial and consequential in American history. Other leading contestants for that title—the years 1855-1865 and the 1940s come to mind—can make powerful claims, to be sure, but the first ten years of our history as a sovereign nation will always have primacy because they were first. It set the precedents, established in palpable fact what the Constitution had only outlined in purposely ambiguous theory, thereby opening up and closing off options for all the history that followed. The Civil War, for example, was a direct consequence of the decision to evade and delay the slavery question during the most vulnerable early years of the republic. Similarly, America's emergence as the dominant world power in the 1940s could never have occurred if the United States had not established stable national institutions at the start that permitted the consolidation of the continent. (From the Native American perspective, of course, this consolidation was a conquest.) The apparently irresistible urge to capitalize and mythologize as "Founding Fathers" the most prominent members of the political leadership during this formative phase has some historical as well as psychological foundation, for in a very real sense we are, politically, if not genetically, still living their legacy. And the same principle also explains the parallel urge to demonize them, since any discussion of their achievement is also an implicit conversation about the distinctive character of American imperialism, both foreign and domestic.

A kind of electromagnetic field, therefore, surrounds this entire subject, manifesting itself as a golden haze or halo for the vast majority of contemporary Americans, or as a contaminated radioactive cloud for a smaller but quite vocal group of critics unhappy with what America has become or how we have gotten here. Within the scholarly community in recent years, the main tendency has been to take the latter side, or to sidestep the controversy by ignoring mainstream politics altogether. Much of the best work has taken the form of a concerted effort to recover the lost voices from the revolutionary generation—the daily life of Marsha Ballard as she raised a family and practiced midwifery on the Maine frontier; the experience of Venture Smith, a former slave who sustained his memories of Africa and published a memoir based on them in 1798. This trend is so pronounced that any budding historian who announces that he or she wishes to focus on the political history of the early republic and its most prominent practitioners is generally regarded as having inadvertently confessed a form of intellectual bankruptcy.

Though no longer a budding historian, my own efforts in recent years, including the pages that follow, constitute what I hope is a polite argument against the scholarly grain, based on a set of presumptions that are so disarmingly old-fashioned that they might begin to seem novel in the current climate. In my opinion, the central events and achievements of the revolutionary era and the early republic were political. These events and achievements are historically significant because they shaped the subsequent history of the United States, including our own time. The central players in the drama were not the marginal or peripheral figures, whose lives are more typical, but rather the political leaders at the center of the national story who wielded power. What's more, the shape and character of the political institutions were determined by a relatively small number of leaders who knew each other, who collaborated and collided with one another in patterns that replicated at the level of personality and ideology the principle of checks and balances imbedded structurally in the Constitution.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Preface: The Generation 3
Chapter 1 The Duel 20
Chapter 2 The Dinner 48
Chapter 3 The Silence 81
Chapter 4 The Farewell 120
Chapter 5 The Collaborators 162
Chapter 6 The Friendship 206
Notes 249
Index 279
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Introduction

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Joseph Ellis's Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. We hope they will enrich your experience of this Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the intertwined lives of the founders of the American republic—John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.

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Foreword

1. The anecdote that Benjamin Rush liked to repeat about an overheard conversation between Benjamin Harrison and Elbridge Gerry on July 4, 1776, makes clear that the signers of the Declaration of Independence felt some doubt about their chances of surviving their revolutionary act. As Ellis points out, if the British commanders had been more aggressive, "The signers of the Declaration would . . . have been hunted down, tried, and executed for treason, and American history would have flowed forward in a wholly different direction" [p. 5]. Why is it so difficult to grasp this notion of the new nation's utter fragility? How successful is Founding Brothers in taking the reader back in time, in order to witness the contingencies of a historical gamble in which "sheer chance, pure luck" [p. 5] were instrumental in determining the outcome?

2. Ellis has said, "We have no mental pictures that make the revolutionary generation fully human in ways that link up with our own time. . . . These great patriarchs have become Founding Fathers, and it is psychologically quite difficult for children to reach a realistic understanding of their parents, who always loom larger-than-life as icons we either love or hate." How does Founding Brothers address this problem, and how does it manage to humanize our image of the founders? How does the book's title relate to this issue?

3. What was really at stake in the disagreement and duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton? If Hamilton felt that the disparaging statements he had made about Burr were true, should he have lied in order to save his life? Was this merely a war over words? Did wordshave more significance then than they do now? What role did newspapers play in the drama, and how is the media's role different or similar today?

4. In congressional debates in 1790 about the possible abolition of slavery, Georgia representative James Jackson attacked the abolitionist Quakers as "outright lunatics" [p. 97] and went on to say, "If it were a crime, as some assert but which I deny, the British nation is answerable for it, and not the present inhabitants, who now hold that species of property in question" [p. 98]. Does Jackson's refusal to name "that species of property" point to his own moral discomfort with owning enslaved human beings? To what degree were the founders complicit in this deliberate refusal to name and acknowledge the moral problem of slavery?

5. Because of the founders' refusal to press for abolition, the slavery question was bequeathed to Abraham Lincoln to solve—and the Civil War illustrated just how divisive the issue was. How accurate was George Washington's belief that "slavery was a cancer on the body politic of America that could not at present be removed without killing the patient" [p. 158]? Should the nation's leaders have pressed harder, given that "the further one got from 1776, the lower the revolutionary fires burned and the less imperative the logic of the revolutionary ideology seemed" [p. 104]? What difference might it have made in the racial currents of contemporary American life if slavery had been abolished in the early days of the nation?

6. What does Ellis mean when he says that the public figures on which he focuses in this book were "America's first and, in many respects, its only natural aristocracy" [p. 13]? In what sense is this true?

7. How does the character of George Washington come across, as Ellis presents him and in the quoted extracts of the farewell address? How does Washington measure up to the mythology that surrounded him even in his own time? What qualities made Washington so indispensable to the new nation?

8. Ellis focuses more intensively on the plight of the slaves than that of the Indians, but he does point out that Washington addressed their situation with the suggestion that they abandon their hunter-gatherer way of life and assimilate themselves into the general population as farmers [p. 159]. Was this a viable solution, or merely a pragmatic one? What other solutions might have been offered at the time?

9. What is most surprising about Thomas Jefferson's character, as presented by Ellis? Which aspects of his personality, or which particular actions or decisions, seem incongruous in the man who wrote the idealistic words of the Declaration of Independence?

10. What is most impressive about Abigail Adams's intervention on her husband's behalf in his quarrel with Thomas Jefferson? Is it possible to compare the political partnership of John and Abigail Adams with, for example, that of Hillary and Bill Clinton?

11. Ellis has said of Founding Brothers, "If there is a method to my madness in the book, it is rooted in the belief that readers prefer to get their history through stories. Each chapter is a self-contained story about a propitious moment when big things got decided. . . . In a sense, I have formed this founding generation into a kind of repertory company, then put them into dramatic scenes which, taken together, allow us to witness that historic production called the founding of the United States." Does his focus on creating separate narrative units succeed in making the complex history of the founders simpler to penetrate and understand? Are there any drawbacks to presenting history this way?

12. Ellis says that the founders were always self- conscious about how posterity would view their decisions and their behavior. For instance, Adams's efforts on behalf of a "more realistic, nonmythologized version of the American Revolution" were partly motivated by his wounded vanity, his effort to get rid of versions of the story that "failed to provide him with a starring role in the drama" [p. 217]. How similar or different are more recent presidents' efforts to shape the historical portrayal of their own terms in office, as with presidential libraries and such?

13. Ellis notes that his ambition with Founding Brothers was "to write a modest-sized account of a massive historical subject . . . without tripping over the dead bodies of my many scholarly predecessors." In search of a structure in which "less could be more" Ellis takes as a model Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918). Strachey wrote that the historian "will row out over the great ocean 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" [p. ix]. How does this approach differ from other historical narratives or biographies of historical figures that you have read, and how does it affect your reading experience?

14. In the conflict between Republicans and Federalists described by Ellis throughout the book, readers can understand the origins of party factionalism that is a strong factor in American politics to this day. If, as Ellis writes, "The dominant intellectual legacy of the Revolution, enshrined in the Declaration of Indepen-dence, stigmatized all concentrated political power and even . . . depicted any energetic expression of governmental authority as an alien force that all responsible citizens ought to repudiate and, if possible, overthrow" [p. 11], what compromises were made in order to bring a stable national government to fruition? Does the apparent contradiction between Republican and Federalist principles still create instability in the American system?

15. In recent years historians have tended to avoid focusing on such issues as leadership and character, and more is being written about popular movements and working people whose lives exemplify a sort of democratic norm. Ellis clearly goes against this trend in offering Founding Brothers as "a polite argument against the scholarly grain" [p. 12]. Does he effectively convince his readers that the founding of the American nation was, in fact, largely accomplished by a handful of extraordinary individuals?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. The anecdote that Benjamin Rush liked to repeat about an overheard conversation between Benjamin Harrison and Elbridge Gerry on July 4, 1776, makes clear that the signers of the Declaration of Independence felt some doubt about their chances of surviving their revolutionary act. As Ellis points out, if the British commanders had been more aggressive, "The signers of the Declaration would . . . have been hunted down, tried, and executed for treason, and American history would have flowed forward in a wholly different direction" [p. 5]. Why is it so difficult to grasp this notion of the new nation's utter fragility? How successful is Founding Brothers in taking the reader back in time, in order to witness the contingencies of a historical gamble in which "sheer chance, pure luck" [p. 5] were instrumental in determining the outcome?

2. Ellis has said, "We have no mental pictures that make the revolutionary generation fully human in ways that link up with our own time. . . . These great patriarchs have become Founding Fathers, and it is psychologically quite difficult for children to reach a realistic understanding of their parents, who always loom larger-than-life as icons we either love or hate." How does Founding Brothers address this problem, and how does it manage to humanize our image of the founders? How does the book's title relate to this issue?

3. What was really at stake in the disagreement and duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton? If Hamilton felt that the disparaging statements he had made about Burr were true, should he have lied in order to save his life? Was this merely a war over words? Did words have more significance then than they do now? What role did newspapers play in the drama, and how is the media's role different or similar today?

4. In congressional debates in 1790 about the possible abolition of slavery, Georgia representative James Jackson attacked the abolitionist Quakers as "outright lunatics" [p. 97] and went on to say, "If it were a crime, as some assert but which I deny, the British nation is answerable for it, and not the present inhabitants, who now hold that species of property in question" [p. 98]. Does Jackson's refusal to name "that species of property" point to his own moral discomfort with owning enslaved human beings? To what degree were the founders complicit in this deliberate refusal to name and acknowledge the moral problem of slavery?

5. Because of the founders' refusal to press for abolition, the slavery question was bequeathed to Abraham Lincoln to solve—and the Civil War illustrated just how divisive the issue was. How accurate was George Washington's belief that "slavery was a cancer on the body politic of America that could not at present be removed without killing the patient" [p. 158]? Should the nation's leaders have pressed harder, given that "the further one got from 1776, the lower the revolutionary fires burned and the less imperative the logic of the revolutionary ideology seemed" [p. 104]? What difference might it have made in the racial currents of contemporary American life if slavery had been abolished in the early days of the nation?

6. What does Ellis mean when he says that the public figures on which he focuses in this book were "America's first and, in many respects, its only natural aristocracy" [p. 13]? In what sense is this true?

7. How does the character of George Washington come across, as Ellis presents him and in the quoted extracts of the farewell address? How does Washington measure up to the mythology that surrounded him even in his own time? What qualities made Washington so indispensable to the new nation?

8. Ellis focuses more intensively on the plight of the slaves than that of the Indians, but he does point out that Washington addressed their situation with the suggestion that they abandon their hunter-gatherer way of life and assimilate themselves into the general population as farmers [p. 159]. Was this a viable solution, or merely a pragmatic one? What other solutions might have been offered at the time?

9. What is most surprising about Thomas Jefferson's character, as presented by Ellis? Which aspects of his personality, or which particular actions or decisions, seem incongruous in the man who wrote the idealistic words of the Declaration of Independence?

10. What is most impressive about Abigail Adams's intervention on her husband's behalf in his quarrel with Thomas Jefferson? Is it possible to compare the political partnership of John and Abigail Adams with, for example, that of Hillary and Bill Clinton?

11. Ellis has said of Founding Brothers, "If there is a method to my madness in the book, it is rooted in the belief that readers prefer to get their history through stories. Each chapter is a self-contained story about a propitious moment when big things got decided. . . . In a sense, I have formed this founding generation into a kind of repertory company, then put them into dramatic scenes which, taken together, allow us to witness that historic production called the founding of the United States." Does his focus on creating separate narrative units succeed in making the complex history of the founders simpler to penetrate and understand? Are there any drawbacks to presenting history this way?

12. Ellis says that the founders were always self- conscious about how posterity would view their decisions and their behavior. For instance, Adams's efforts on behalf of a "more realistic, nonmythologized version of the American Revolution" were partly motivated by his wounded vanity, his effort to get rid of versions of the story that "failed to provide him with a starring role in the drama" [p. 217]. How similar or different are more recent presidents' efforts to shape the historical portrayal of their own terms in office, as with presidential libraries and such?

13. Ellis notes that his ambition with Founding Brothers was "to write a modest-sized account of a massive historical subject . . . without tripping over the dead bodies of my many scholarly predecessors." In search of a structure in which "less could be more" Ellis takes as a model Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918). Strachey wrote that the historian "will row out over the great ocean 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" [p. ix]. How does this approach differ from other historical narratives or biographies of historical figures that you have read, and how does it affect your reading experience?

14. In the conflict between Republicans and Federalists described by Ellis throughout the book, readers can understand the origins of party factionalism that is a strong factor in American politics to this day. If, as Ellis writes, "The dominant intellectual legacy of the Revolution, enshrined in the Declaration of Indepen-dence, stigmatized all concentrated political power and even . . . depicted any energetic expression of governmental authority as an alien force that all responsible citizens ought to repudiate and, if possible, overthrow" [p. 11], what compromises were made in order to bring a stable national government to fruition? Does the apparent contradiction between Republican and Federalist principles still create instability in the American system?

15. In recent years historians have tended to avoid focusing on such issues as leadership and character, and more is being written about popular movements and working people whose lives exemplify a sort of democratic norm. Ellis clearly goes against this trend in offering Founding Brothers as "a polite argument against the scholarly grain" [p. 12]. Does he effectively convince his readers that the founding of the American nation was, in fact, largely accomplished by a handful of extraordinary individuals?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 184 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2010

    WORST AP United States History Assignment EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Okay, this book was my summer reading project. This snooze fest of a book literally made me cry of boredom. In my opinion, Joseph Ellis' first draft of the novel was written in a way NORMAL Americans could understand...THEN Mr. Ellis decided to go back to his original draft and then added every insignificant FLUFF word he could think of. If this book was giving as a punishment it is pretty much guarantied the punished individual would never misbehave again. I hate this book and only read it because it was required for my class, and I have absolutely no idea why a sane person would read this novel for pleasure.

    7 out of 26 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 15, 2010

    So How Did It All Turn Out?

    Silly Question,you say, but in Joseph Ellis's capable hands, we come to understand that the great American experiment in democracy was very much in doubt for several years after the U.S.Constitution was ratified. Ellis is endlessly fascinating as he displays the early days of our Republic and the brilliant, flawed, dedicated, wise, sometimes simply wrong political leaders. Yet, they held it all together in the end. They didn't lose the dream of freedom that had urged so many men to risk everything, even their lives, for a chance to live that dream..

    If, like me, your understanding of American history is little more than that fast trip through high school history, this is delicious reading. Ellis is a seductive story teller who brings the Americon icons like Washington, Adams, and Jefferson to life with all their splendor and warts showing. Somehow, you think more highly of them and their accomplishments, often against staggering odds, because they were not perfect, but simply men who carried a shared vision that meant everything to them.

    I recommend you not miss this chance to know them well.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2012

    For those who enjoy history...for pleasure

    Ellis is more than capable to deliver excellent material and this great work is no different. If history puts you to sleep, go back to watching "The Kardashians" an perhaps a book of 'it' will make better summer reading! As far as my personal regard, Ellis' book is insightful, well researched and passionate yet stylistically calm and accesible...excellent for those who enjoy reading history for pleasure.







    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2008

    A reviewer

    Ellis's book is very knowledgeable and many of the topics he brought up throughout the book were interesting and made me contemplative. It is very well written and it's far more detailed on parts of the revolution than the normal textbook would be. However, unless you're a complete lover for history / American history, it may either fry your brain or put you to sleep (one or the other)!

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 13, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    See the Founders Play Politics

    Founding Brothers was an interesting read. The overall point of the book was to humanize these men who are looked up to like gods today. The best thing was the ideological struggle among these men who stood together for independence but gradually became adversaries as the dust settled. Anyone who thinks that the so-called partisan politics or attack ads of today are a new phenomenon needs to read this book. Each chapter details a few events of a founders life that illustrate some point in the continuing struggle to define what America is. Founding Brothers is a quick but informative read.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 23, 2010

    Unique Perspective on American History

    Taking a significant moment in each of the lives of John Adams, George Washington, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Ellis develops a fascinating discussion of what led up to that moment and its influence on and importance to American history.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2013

    Turn the History Around and Live It as The Founders Did.

    This most fascinating book on the Revolutionary Generation in the Age of Enlightenment views these men as they viewed each other, as brothers, in the context of their time. Mr. Ellis engineers a revision of past perception to make these men reliant, devoted, curios, needing, all too human "brothers" who, through reliance on each other build the Nation we know today. With particular focus on sets of competitive relationships, Mr. Ellis makes the past "current" in a way I've never experienced in any other history.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 27, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Real History

    This is a wonderful view of the founders of our country. It goes beyond the history books and looks at several of our country's founders influences and actions.

    A little slow to start, but well worth the effort.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2011

    Loved it

    Sparked my new found love for our founders and our great nation. Worth buying & sharing.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 21, 2009

    Was not my favorite.

    The book for me wasn't a good choice. I loved the first chapter and it kept me interested every page I turned. It was well written and didn't repeat itself too much. After the first chapter is where I started to not like the book so much. The second chapter about "The Dinner" I felt was a little confusing to understand the way it was written. If you are a true die hard history lover you will love this book. I am not a die hard history lover so I felt this book was extremely hard to make it through. Also I felt the last two chapters were repeating themselves over and over again for about 100 pages. It didn't get to the point which i was hoping would happen. I would not reccommend this book to anyone who does not have interest in history or has a little interest in history. You must LOVE history to be able to read this book cover to cover with no complaints. I hope everyone liked this book much more than I did but I do not reccommend this book.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 18, 2011

    For history junkies only

    I had to read this book for my american history class..i myself love the americam revolution but this book was a little to complicated for me...you have to pay attention to every word to be able to understand it...interesting stories though

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 8, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Enthralling if Brief

    This book is an excellent exposition of the travails encountered by individuals Americans know so well from history textbooks. The founding of the USA was frought with external and internal difficulties, with contributions by many of those whom we as Americans regard as mere statuary (stone faced, with little personality and no negative qualities). This book attempts to add color, texture, and movement to these great figures all to often perceived as immovable among the black and white text of history. It talks of personality and power clashes - I was especially interested in Thomas Jefferson's determination to be a partisan thorn in the side of John Adams while simultaneously serving as President Adams' Vice Presidenct (before the days of Prez and VP being on the same partisan electoral ticket). Tidbits like this keep this book enthralling without resorting to revisionist shock-value and/or partisan rhetoric. The only down-side was that it was too short!! <BR/><BR/>I definitely recommend for anyone who is looking for a relatively quick read with a fresh perspective on issues and historical figures we have long since chiseled on the one-dimensional plane of classroom history.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2007

    It was okay

    The founding brothers is for history buffs. If you dont enjoy history , enjoy learning about the past and the great heroic leaders don't open the book. you've been warned. I suppose that this book is worth reading i feel its weakness are that its structure and diablocle words.In a way you can get into the book by simply looking for summeries on the internet, but you must be of higher knowledge. I think that Mr. Ellis should be comdemmed for his work and should be proud that he was able to put people to sleep with the first three pages. The book started off with no bang , or another. It waws a tidious task that was done and therefore im expressing my fellings on the book. I adore history and this book makes me wish i was illetrate.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2007

    A Fascinating Outlook on the Beginning Of Our Nation's History

    Joseph Ellis displays a masterpeice in this book, as he unveils the true reasons and meaning behind seven of the most beloved men in out nation's history attempt to gain independence for a land in turmoil and strife. I loved how Ellis allows the reader to get down to a personal level that shows how these men really were, and what they went through to obtain and conquer their goal of freedom. This book didn't mask or give false ideas that the American revolution was inevitable, but instead demonstrates the crucial moments and fragile line these men crossed during the most important decade in our nation's history. These six crucial moments included the Secret Dinner where the nation's capital was changed to Washingtion, D.C. in exchange for support on Hamilton's financial plan called 'Assumption' where the national government would collectively take over state debts, Washington's Farewell Address which warned Americans about the future of the country, John Adams and his wife's strong marriage, Benjamin Franklin's idea to end slavery that was stopped by James Madison, Burr-Hamilton's Duel which established Hamilton as a martyr for the Federalists, and finally John Adams and Thomas Jefferson once friendship that turned into a bitter rivalry as they disagreed on many critical principles of the government. These events opened my eyes to the fact that it wasn't easy and there were times where they wanted to quit, but these men never gave up and compromised for the common good of the United States. Ellis showed me how hard it was for these men, and the twists and turns they constantly faced over the fragile nation they were trying to build. Thank you Joseph Ellis for writing this masterpiece that is a vital book for everyone to read, as it uncovers the true reality and struggle in American poltics, and the persistence of our Founding Fathers to give us a land of freedom that did not come at an easy price.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2007

    Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

    This book brilliantly displays the intricate thoughts and motivations of seven of our country's most highly thought of, influential men. I found it incredibly interesting to discover the mind processes of the men that had arguably the most impact on our nation's government. I thoroughly enjoyed the vivid and capturing details of the dual between Hamilton and Burr. Arguements such as that are commonly discussed in high school text books, yet never brought to life like as in this book. Another part I enjoyed learning more about was the relationship between John Adams and his wife. They loved each other but also had a political partnership his wife definitely spoke her mind on prominent issues in governement. I've always wondered why slavery was kept around so long in America's history and this book helped me to understand more about the subject. In general the founding fathers did not even want slavery to be allowed, but because of the pressing importance of union throughout the states, they disregarded the differences in opinions to keep from any splitting off of opposing states. There was an endless amount of vital issues in that important decade of America's history, and reading about them from the perspective of the men most involved brought all the details to life.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2006

    History teachers only

    Had a really hard time staying awake through this one. Would have stopped by the second page if I didn't have to read it for summer work. Ellis has some good points to make, but most of them are so skewed by big words and tangents, it's a long, hard slog. There's a sentence in The Silence where there are at least seven words that are either really long or completely baffling or both. Is that really necessary? We know you're probably pretty intelligent, Mr. Ellis, we don't need to have you inform us all the time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2014

    Cheetahgirl

    If you need me on your staff im a good adviser. I have a LOT of people who like my posts in certain areas. No one has ever hated what i advise!! Please respond 'to cheetahgirl'. Thanks!!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2014

    Terrible

    Worst book I have ever read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2014

    I just finished this book and enjoyed it. Writing style is a li

    I just finished this book and enjoyed it. Writing style is a little hard to get used to, but I got used to it. This book is pretty short and it covers 6 major events that shaped the revolutionary period. It is a good way for someone to get their feet wet in a biography written like a novel covering this period. I am reading George Washington: His Excellency next. This will be a year of biographies for me.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2014

    CRYSTALGIRL

    Ok

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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