Study Questions

Joseph J. Ellis
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

According to the acknowledgments, what is Ellis trying to do in this book?

How did the revolutionary generation view its position in history? What dilemma faced Americans concerning their long-term and short-term prospects after the war? What explains the uncertain mood regarding America's second "founding moment"? Describe the assets and liabilities of the new government in 1789. Why was the first decade of government under the Constitution so important? Why does Ellis justify writing about white, male political leaders? How does he propose to take a new approach? What four themes run through the chapters?

What happened (probably) in Alexander Hamilton's famous duel with Aaron Burr? What prompted the duel? What was the state of mind of both? Describe the history that the two men had with each other. To Hamilton, what made Burr so dangerous (and not just to him)?

According to Jefferson, what happened at the famous dinner about Hamilton's debt plan and the location of the capital? What was at stake? Describe James Madison and his role. Why was Hamilton's report on credit so controversial? How did Hamilton respond, and why? What was Jefferson's perspective on the issue? Describe the controversy over the location of the capital. What negotiations led up to the famous dinner? How was the agreement put into effect? What crisis did the agreement avert?

How did slavery arise so early as an issue the new government had to deal with? What was the position of Georgia and South Carolina? The northern states? Virginia? How did the debate end? How did slavery fare in various states? What illusions did people have about it? How did all this shape the way the Constitution dealt with it? What proslavery arguments were provoked by the petitions and what was their significance in the long term? What were the strengths of the proslavery argument? What were the antislavery argument and solutions? What was Benjamin Franklin's impact? How did other major leaders react, especially Madison? What would be Congress's solution and what was its impact and significance?

What were the circumstances of Washington's "Farewell Address"? [Note: "vine and fig tree" is a reference to the Bible, I Kings 4:25.] List the main themes of the address. How did Washington's experiences shape these themes? Why did Washington adopt neutrality? Why was Jay's Treaty so conversial? What explains Jefferson's opposition? How did his version of "neutrality" differ? How did Washington and Jefferson become estranged? How did this estrangement echo a larger, growing political divide? How was the address a response to all this? What were Washington's hopes for the nation? How did slavery and Indians figure into his views? Describe the reception of the address and Washington's retirement.

Describe Jefferson and Adams's friendship. What drove them apart? Describe the relationship between John and Abigail Adams (the "collaborators"). How did Adams feel about the vice-presidency? (Ellis misremembers the quotation. John Vance Garner once called the office "not worth a bucket of warm piss," but you often see "spit" instead of "piss.") How did Adams get elected President and Jefferson Vice President? What did Adams propose to Jefferson and why was he turned down? What were the "Quasi War" and the "XYZ Affair"? How did Adams try to balance politically between Republicans and radical Federalists? How did he handle the quasi war and the XYZ affair, and with what success? How did Jefferson and Madison work to oppose him? What were the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions? What was the impact of the Sedition Act? Describe the election of 1800 and its results.

Describe how Adams and Jefferson felt about each other in the years after Jefferson's election. When, how, and why did they reconcile? Characterize the letters of both men. What were the major arguments and themes in their correspondence? What were their concerns about slavery? In which directions did their corresondence turn as they grew older? Describe the coincidence of their deaths.