Founding Brothers Book Summary - Founding Brothers Book explained in key points
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Founding Brothers summary

Joseph J. Ellis

The Revolutionary Generation

4.6 (220 ratings)
26 mins
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    Founding Brothers
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    1776: A utopian wager

    History is much more than a collection of facts and a record of dates. It’s also our way of illuminating the present. Of finding out how we got here and how our world was made. 

    But the past doesn’t lead inevitably into the present. There are always forks in the road, and not every road leads to Rome. At each turn, our forebears made decisions. They had different paths to choose from, and different futures to discover. 

    So let’s turn back to one of those moments – the year 1775. 

    We’re in North America. Thirteen colonies belonging to the globe’s greatest military power – the British empire – decide to throw off the colonial yoke. They take up arms. A year later, in 1776, they explain their motives in what will become a world-famous document: the Declaration of Independence. Because we know what happened next, it’s hard to appreciate the stakes of this utopian wager. 

    Going up against the British army and navy was an act of almost suicidal defiance. Victory eventually came in 1783, but only after the American revolutionaries had come perilously close to defeat on several occasions. But those revolutionaries weren’t just taking on a superior military force; as they saw it, they were also challenging the very course of human history up to that point. 

    Let’s zoom in on the revolutionary generation – our founding brothers. Before we discuss any individuals, let’s look into something they all shared. It was a way of thinking about the world. A common ideal that illuminated their collective actions. It was called republicanism

    A republic is a state in which the people – the citizens – rule themselves by electing representatives. They are their own masters. They can replace their government, which is an expression of the collective will of all citizens and a servant of the people. Today, we’d call it a democracy. 

    The opposite of a republic is a monarchy – a catchall that describes absolutist states in which there are no citizens, only subjects. These governments cannot be replaced; they must simply be obeyed. 

    In 1776, the world was ruled by monarchies, as it had been for most of human history. There were exceptions to this rule, like the Roman Republic in ancient times, and American revolutionaries loved these exceptions. They were the bright spots of liberty in a sea of darkness and despotism. 

    But, the revolutionaries wondered, why exactly were free states so rare? And why did they inevitably collapse into absolutism? How was it that would-be dictators succeeded in overthrowing republics like Rome and turning them into unfree monarchies? The answer the American revolutionaries came up with hinged on virtue

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    What is Founding Brothers about?

    Founding Brothers (2002) complicates and enriches our understanding of the American revolution. The men who founded America lived and worked in uncertain times. The future was far from certain, and even the truths they held to be self-evident often led to strikingly different conclusions. But they clung to one another – as friends, as rivals, and even as enemies. Together, they formed a fraternity of remarkable minds that could collectively solve the problems each of them on their own could not.

    Who should read Founding Brothers?

    • History buffs
    • Americanophiles 
    • Anyone who loves stories

    About the Author

    Joseph J. Ellis is Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke. Ellis, a specialist in American history, is the author of several award-winning books, including American Sphinx, a study of Thomas Jefferson, and The Passionate Sage, a study of John Adams. 

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