In concept, this is a great book: A look into the personalities and politics of roughly the first decade of the United States, as the men who would become known as the Founding Fathers struggle to turn the new nation into a functioning concern.

In structure, it is a set six incidents that come in for examination. Ellis starts at the end, with the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. He starts with the basic facts, goes into some controversy/unknowns, then goes into a nice dive into the background of both to show how they came to have a duel in the first place. Then he circles back and attempts to resolve the unknowns of the actual duel. (His thoughts are plausible, but something still seems off to me.)

The remaining chapters are more looks at the evolving national government, the increasing split between proponents of strong and minimal central governments, and the infighting that came with that. He ends with a chapter on the later correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and the slow mending of their friendship as they talked to each other, and quite self-consciously, posterity.

In execution, its a bit mixed. In general, it’s readable and fairly informative. I think he presents the political world of these few years fairly well, and I came out of it with a better appreciation of what was going on. The focus on a few ‘incidents’ keeps it from being as complete a narrative as I might like, but keeps the book well focused, and prevents it from ballooning out of control. However….

The biggest problem is that he occasionally says something that in the context of what he’s talking about is correct, if you remember to apply that context. However, the term has a completely different meaning today, and Ellis throws out no signs that the first thing a reader will think of is the wrong answer. The example that caught my immediate attention was the use of the term “American Southwest”, which means the region roughly from Texas to California. Which is nonsense in 1800, and he’s really talking about the southwestern part of the then-US, namely the rough area of modern Mississippi and Alabama. But if you aren’t grounded a bit in the period… well I wouldn’t blame you for getting the wrong idea (especially since he even capitalizes it, really implying the modern term). However, more seriously, Ellis throws around the term “Republican” (as in the political party) a few times, which, for the people involved, is shorthand for the “Democratic-Republican” party, which through splits and such can be considered ancestral to both modern major US parties, but more directly precedes the Democrats than the Republicans. Not that either party today would be recognizable to someone in 1860 (where we at least have the modern names already), much less back in 1800. So its possible to get a completely wrong idea from terms that are technically correct, because Ellis is extremely careless with them on occasion.

Other than that warning, the writing is good, it’s an entertaining popular history book, and does a good job helping bring these people to life. I recommend it, but you do need to read with some appropriate caution.