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'Brothers' is a brilliant history lesson

FOUNDING BROTHERS: THE REVOLUTIONARY GENERATION; by Joseph J. Ellis; Knopf, 288 pages; $26.

From Joseph Ellis, a historian of rare eloquence with a gift for making history interesting, comes a book made up of six illuminating essays on those who called themselves "a band of brothers." They are John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington, America's first aristocracy.

Ellis focuses on the 1790s as the decisive and "cacophonous" decade of American history in part because it contained the greatest statesmen of their generation, who clearly sensed the historical importance of what they were doing. He presents a fascinating portrait of disparate men who could see each other's strengths and flaws, yet they embraced unfathomable challenges.

As Ellis tells the story, sometimes these men worked in a highly collaborative fashion, and at other times, they were at each other's throats. It is a most realistic look at our republic's often rough, uncertain beginnings. We learn that these men were not only richly talented, but they were taking a major risk, which could have resulted in all of their executions for treason — and they knew it.

Yet, they were cautious enough to put off the resolution of the pesky problem of slavery for another day. "It threatened to disrupt the fragile union just as it was congealing." Ellis says Jefferson and Madison developed a way of referring to slavery with "enlightened obfuscation."

In a conversational, anecdotal style, Ellis closely examines each of these men — their personalities and talents and how their lives intersected.

He cuts Jefferson down to size. While most historians have considered him the most multitalented of the founders, Ellis exposes his cunning.

On the other hand, Ellis sees Washington as a legendary figure in his own time, regal, tall and stately, a man who unmistakably fit the part of what might have been America's first royal figure. Just as British citizens did not criticize George III, Americans were loath to find fault with their own George.

Ellis' favorite is John Adams, who could have easily written the Declaration of Independence but assigned it to Jefferson. In Ellis' expansive view, Adams was the most fascinating single character of his time, a man of great breadth. Yet Ellis also reveals him to be enormously self-centered, and in later years, furious that he had not been given his just place as the greatest of all early Americans.

Burr, while still notably lacking in character, stands higher in Ellis' estimation than that of most historians. Hamilton, the great financial mind of his time, also had a predilection for dueling, and he bears as much responsibility for his own death as does Burr.

Benjamin Franklin, who excelled as an inventor, diplomat, politician, writer and thinker, was also morally flawed.

And James Madison, tiny in stature, yet richly innovative, has forever remained in Jefferson's shadow.

Most fascinating of all, Adams and Jefferson — whose shaky friendship was ruined by the events of revolution — began a fascinating correspondence in their later years that shows the depth and breadth of each of their intellects, as well as their dependence upon and respect for each other. Opposite in politics, philosophy and temperament, they were the most complementary figures of the Revolutionary generation.

In Ellis' words: "Beyond sheer verbal volume, the punch so evident in the Adams prose reflected his more aggressive and confrontational temperament. The Jefferson style was fluid, lyrical, cadenced and melodious. Words for him were like calming breezes that floated across the pages. The Adams style was excited, jumpy, exclamatory, naughty. Words for him were like weapons designed to pierce the pages or explode above them in illuminating airbursts."

Ellis has combined these figures within their times in a most instructive way. While he takes them to task for their mistakes, he lauds them for their brilliance and their dedication to a cause — and he does it with his own brilliance and flair very much in evidence.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com