An accomplished historian and biographer seeks nothing less than to frame the Framers, bringing into clear focus the personalities and human dynamic that shaped and defined the early republic.
During the last quarter of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th, a single group of men—some born patriots, others converts to the cause, still others using American sovereignty as a platform for their own agendas—created an entirely organic form of government. Or did they? The realization by the Framers that a republican form of government existed, at least as an abstraction, as long a humans congregated, is but one of the many salient points of this exceptional account. Historian Ellis (American Sphinx, 1997, etc.) travels up and down the pantheon revealing all the real motivations behind the now-famous actions of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Monroe, Hamilton, Burr, and others. We learn that, yes, these guys did indeed “develop a keen sense of their own historical significance even while they were still making the history on which their reputations would rest.” This revelation casts in a whole new light the acts of the ruling elite. Personal motivations aside, the Framers had a tough row to hoe. The defining issue of the day, of course, was the controversy over central authority. Pitted on one side were the Federalists, advocates of strong central authority, in which camp resided John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. On the other side were the Republicans, proponents of states’ rights, particularly when it came to the hot-button issue of the day, slavery. How these gods and demigods of the republic acted, on which side of the issues they stood, and how they interacted with each other opens a new window into a period of American history most often shrouded by reverence and sentimentality. As the kid-gloves treatment of slavery suggests, there are some problems too knotty even for those who reside atop Olympus. But the discourse over slavery and other issues did indeed frame the republic, for better or worse (mostly better).
An exceptionally readable work, one that infuses life and order into the study of the early republic.