Saturday, March 21, 2015

A review of the “Founding Brothers” documentary



What happened to the Founding Fathers after the Revolution was over?

Most people have some cursory knowledge of what happened during the American Revolution, and what the Founding Fathers did during this period. But what happened to them after the Revolution? What did the Founding Fathers do when the war was over, and the Constitution ratified? These are the questions that a documentary by the History Channel attempts to address, and they follow in the footsteps of a Pulitzer-Prize-winning book by Joseph Ellis - a book called "Founding Brothers," the same title as this History Channel program - and the results are more surprising, more interesting, and more moving than what you 'd think possible.


What did the Founding Fathers disagree with one another about?

If you're interested in what happened to the Founding Fathers - in the issues they disagreed over, the quarrels between them, and their postwar accomplishments - then this is the best documentary to see. It covers the administrations of our first three presidents - George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson - and does not shy away from depicting Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison as well. These guys are much more interesting than the paintings we have of them, with powdered wigs and foreign clothing; and the way they handled the early days of the Republic set the precedents for all of the democratic dialogue we've had since then. The government had been created, but it had not yet been given a trial run, and no one was quite sure how it would work in practice.




George Washington

How the capitol was moved to the District of Columbia (which is its present location)

The Northern states were deep in war debt when Washington took office, while the Southern states - further removed from the main actions of the war - had already paid what few they had incurred. Alexander Hamilton, Washington's secretary of the treasury (and right-hand man), wanted the federal government to assume responsibility for war debts incurred by the states; something Jefferson and Madison (both Southerners) did not want the federal government to take responsibility for. The Southern states, on the other hand, wanted to move the American capitol from Philadelphia to a more central location, closer to their own home ground; and the Northern states wanted to keep it up north in Philadelphia. A compromise between them was settled at, of all places, a dinner - a secret dinner between Alexander Hamilton on the one hand, and Jefferson and Madison on the other. The federal government would assume responsibility for the remaining war debts (satisfying the North), and the capitol would be moved to a new District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.), which was closer to the South. Thus the capitol was moved to where it is today.


Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin's opposition to slavery

You wouldn't think a dinner would make for interesting documentary coverage; but the importance to the country is crystal-clear, and the dinner and its setup actually make for a very interesting historical story. This isn't the only event depicted in "Founding Brothers," but it is one of the most important ones; and another interesting one is Benjamin Franklin's opposition to slavery - something he did in his old age, which went far beyond the opposition of other major Founders. It set off something of a crisis over slavery, which almost provoked an early Southern attempt at secession; and could have started the Civil War decades before it actually happened - perhaps with somewhat different results. This is another event of interest in this documentary.


Alexander Hamilton

Struggle of economic visions: Do we need a national bank?

Other events depicted include the struggle of economic visions, with Hamilton and Washington favoring a national bank, and Jefferson and Madison opposing it. Alexander Hamilton would win this fight, and create an early form of central banking. I tend to agree more with Jefferson and Madison here, because I am an opponent of central banks like the U.S. Federal Reserve - an opinion formed in an economics class called money and banking which has been well thought out, but which is open to change. Jefferson and Madison seem to have been better followers of Adam Smith, who believed in minimal government involvement in the economy, and as much market freedom as possible.


Storming of the Bastille in 1789,
the event that began the French Revolution

The massive war between Britain and France: The biggest issue of this time

But the greatest event of the Washington presidency - and one that would be vitally important for the other three Founding Father presidents - was the massive war between Britain and France, the two major superpowers of that time. It all started with the French Revolution, which began during Washington's administration - a revolution praised by some Founding Fathers (like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson), and greatly distrusted by others (like George Washington and John Adams). Washington had no attachments to either side, and neither did John Adams; but Thomas Jefferson favored the French cause, and Washington accused him of having more attachment to France than to his own country. Jefferson saw a noble revolution with inspiring ideals, where Washington and Adams saw a network of unthinking mobs (the correct assessment); and avoided any actions to support France.


John Adams


Naval engagement in the "Quasi-War"

Neutrality under George Washington, Quasi-War with France under John Adams

Washington worked hard to stay neutral in the war between Britain and France; and when Adams succeeded him, he worked hard to do the same. But there was an undeclared naval war on the high seas after Adams took office, with the French making raids on American shipping; and John Adams tried hard to keep it from escalating. He did not want it to grow into a full-scale war, but wanted to keep us out of European affairs. When Napoleon Bonaparte took office in France in 1799, Napoleon quickly moved to make peace with America, and prevent France from fighting America and Britain at the same time. The Quasi-War was thus ended; but the news of the peace came too late to save the Adams presidency, and he lost the election of 1800 to his old friend Thomas Jefferson.


Napoleon Bonaparte


Thomas Jefferson

Louisiana Purchase and Lewis & Clark expedition under Thomas Jefferson

Fortunately for the country, Jefferson had come around by this time to see the French Revolution for what it was, with no love of the new French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte; and continued his two predecessors' policies of trying to stay neutral. But the method he chose - a full embargo on both British and French trade - hurt the United States more than it hurt Britain or France, and was an unmitigated disaster. He did have some major successes, though, when he purchased the heartland of the continent from Napoleon in the Louisiana Purchase - thus doubling the size of the country. There is also some mention of his sending out the Lewis and Clark expedition, to explore the territory that America had just bought; but the documentary completely ignores the presidency of James Madison, the last Founding Father to inhabit the White House. Perhaps they did not want to depict the War of 1812 - the major war with Britain that erupted after Madison took office; but the ignoring of the Madison presidency is undoubtedly the greatest omission of the documentary, and one wonders why they chose to ignore it. (If one wants to see the War of 1812 depicted, I recommend a documentary by PBS, which I link to here.)



James Madison

Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (James Madison is omitted)

They also show the deaths of all of these Founding Fathers except Madison, including the infamous duel between Hamilton and Burr (quite an event to depict); and they end with the simultaneous deaths of Adams and Jefferson on the Fourth of July - fifty years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was signed! This is the emotional climax of the documentary, and it is a good note to end on. Adams and Jefferson had opposed each other for political office, and had been bitter political enemies; but died as the best of friends on that glorious Fourth of July day.


Conclusion: "Founding Brothers" tells an interesting story here

So that's a little about the "Founding Brothers" documentary. It's more surprising, more interesting, and more moving than what you'd think possible; and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in our Founding Fathers.

Other posts about the Founding Fathers


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