Thursday, March 29, 2018

Review of Joseph Ellis, The Quartet

At the close of the Revolutionary War Americans tended to view themselves as citizens of sovereign states that were organized into a loose cooperative, not as citizens of a new nation composed of united states. That understanding was codified into the Articles of Confederation. Any hint of a united nation was anathema to the colonists-turned-revolutionaries: that sort of unity smelled like the monarchy they’d just spent precious blood and treasure to escape. Nationhood was the farthest thing from their mind, something viewed with suspicion, not favor.

It was the prescient knowledge of the “quartet,” the four uniquely talented patriots of whom Ellis writes that foresaw coming disaster if the thirteen states failed to unite firmly into a national government worthy of the name. The Philadelphia Convention of 1787 was called by the Confederation Congress to correct the deficiencies of the Articles that had by this time become glaringly obvious. These four men, with the help of several others, hijacked the Convention and wrote a wholly new constitution. Their action—which went far beyond the commission granted by Congress—was technically illegal and constituted a second American revolution.

This is the thesis of Joseph Ellis’s remarkable book, and using primary sources he builds an airtight case for it. Heavily documented but so engagingly written it reads like a novel, the book traces the upbringing and early careers of the quartet: George Washington, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Ellis manages to explain—very believably, I might add—how their backgrounds influenced these four to think and act as they did. The author points out the flaws in the Articles of Confederation, but also explains the political temperature of the populace so we can understand why the Articles came to have such short-comings. Ellis does a great job tracing the sometimes secretive and circuitous means by which three of the four principals managed to put together a convention that would take the radical step of replacing rather than revising the Articles. Along the way they also faced the difficult task of convincing the fourth, George Washington, to throw his considerable political clout behind the effort.

Ellis treats us to the best of the debates and behind-the-scenes maneuvering as the Convention squabbles its way through the creation of a blueprint for a strong federal government capable of administering the massive continent of North America, while leaving a great deal of sovereignty in the hands of the states.

Having recently read The Federalist Papers, this book greatly added to my understanding of the crucial moments and movements of that important post-war period. In closing I should also say that Ellis boldly resists the modern error infecting much contemporary historiography. He refuses to judge the Founding Fathers by the canon of contemporary post-modern “correct” behavior. Ellis evaluates them by their own times and morals and avoids the trap of turning the Founders into either semi-divine saints or slave-holding devils. He has a refreshing objectivity and offers the reader a much more accurate account of late eighteenth-century America than will the politically-correct pieties of many modern historians. I highly recommend this book.