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Founding Brothers

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Strolling through the library shelves, I found this double-DVD and remembered I had wanted to see it when the History Channel originally broadcast it. For that reason, along with the added benefit that I might learn something of use to pass on to my students when I teach Revolutionary Literature in a week or so, I borrowed Founding Brothers, the companion to Joseph J. Ellis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

This outstanding documentary examines several of the revolutionaries’ impact on the framing of our country. The familiar history is delivered, along with interesting commentary from historical biographers and professors. I found their insights and tangents into lesser-known history very intriguing. Especially informative was the examination of views on slavery. Thomas Jefferson emerges as an enigmatic figure, full of contradictions: outspoken against the evils of slavery, while owning slaves. I found it interesting that the documentary discussed the scandal involving Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but did not mention the DNA testing done several years ago on Hemings’ descendants that indicates they are most likely also descendants of Jefferson himself.

Benjamin Franklin is conspicuous by his near-absence from the program, which chooses to focus on the first few decades after the Revolutionary War. While he was instrumental in the Revolution, Franklin died in 1790, which this documentary would have us believe did not enable him to make much of a mark on the construction of this new government. However, I did learn much about Alexander Hamilton, who is often glossed over in our American History books in school because he wasn’t president. His impact on America was much greater than I had previously realized. Madison is discussed with regard to his support of Jefferson, but no mention of his presidency itself occurs. Perhaps time constraints prevented such details from inclusion, and I admit that I have not read Ellis’s book, which may have mentioned Franklin and Madison in more detail.

With regard to voice characterization, I must single out Rob Lowe as James Madison. He affected a Southern drawl that sounded completely genuine, and imbued Madison with a humble demeanor that I found enchanting. I also enjoyed Michael York’s rendering of Alexander Hamilton. Clearly, that Shakespearean training has been useful for much more than Austin Powers movies!

The most poignant segment in the series was the discussion of the letters exchanged between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson for the last fourteen years of their lives. They had a remarkable friendship, interrupted for a time by political rivalry. As the the voices of James Woods (Adams) and Peter Coyote (Jefferson) related the exchange that followed upon the death of Adams’ wife of 54 years, Abigail, I was moved to tears. Most history buffs may know that Adams and Jefferson died on the same day — July 4, 1826 — on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Many of you may also remember that Adams’ last words were “Jefferson survives.” While this was not true, Adams could not have known, as Jefferson had died only hours before, asking “Is it the fourth?” The narrator of the series remarked that Adams was “wrong for the moment, but right for the ages.”

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