Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, associated with turkey, stuffing, football, and time with family and friends. This year for me, it is also a time to remember some American history about the founding of the republic.
Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers is a Pultizer Prize winning book detailing some of the more important incidents in the founding years of America. Ellis relates to the reader several stories that show how men like Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others all worked together to form the American experiment. Sometimes those efforts were in harmony with one another, at other times, not so much. Such tales include the infamous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and the story of how George Washington issued his famous “Farewell” address after serving as America’s first president.
I normally review books that have theologically-minded content, whereas Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation is mostly political history. But theological potent topics are not avoided by Ellis. The story of how the debate over slavery nearly divided the early American republic is carefully handled by Ellis, as appeals to the Bible were part of that contentious debate. That “revolutionary generation,” from Adams to Jefferson, was not able to resolve the issue, and they essentially agreed not to talk about it, preferring that the next generation handle the matter.
Ellis’ insights into the “founding brothers” reveals a wide-breadth of research. For example, I gained a better understanding as to how Thomas Paine, the author of the American Revolution’s most popular pamphlet, loaded with arguments from the Bible, Common Sense, became increasingly unpopular as a political critic. When Washington announced that he would no longer serve as president, due to failing health, Paine caustically wrote a newspaper article asking if Washington had become a traitor to the cause of the Revolution. Paine also prayed for the President’s imminent death! Wow. This little nugget of information helps to explain why Paine had the boldness to wage a full-scale attack against historically orthodox Christian faith, with his book promoting Deism, The Age of Reason.
George Washington has been remembered as someone who was “untouchable,” but the division between Washington and Paine illustrate the beginnings of partisanship that still plague our 2-party political system today, Washington being on the more “conservative” side and Paine on the more “liberal” side.
My favorite part of Founding Brothers was Ellis’ description of the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, during the early years of the American experiment. Adams and Jefferson, who eerily died the same day, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, were originally close friends during the Revolutionary War period. But their friendship broke apart when Adams served as President and Jefferson served as Vice President. It would take close to a decade before their friendship would begin to mend, through a series of letters shared back and forth between the two men, in the waning years of their lives.
My biggest take away from Founding Brothers was in realizing just how much these “founding brothers” had in common. Though very few of them would have considered themselves as fully embracing an historically orthodox commitment to the Christian faith, they nearly all largely held to a common Judeo-Christian worldview, with respect to the importance of public virtue and in sharing similar moral values. For example, while both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson viewed the Christian notion of the afterlife as being nothing more than a metaphor, both men embraced the moral teachings found within the New Testament as being foundational for the success of American democracy. It is difficult to imagine how the American experiment could ever be successfully re-created in our day, when so many fundamental assumptions linked between Western culture and Christianity are under contention, in popular discourse.
If you like learning about the history of the “Revolutionary Generation” you will enjoy Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers.