Given all the other tomes on my bookshelf, I surprised myself by checking out from the library, The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis (2015), the author of Founding Brothers and American Sphinx, about Thomas Jefferson.
The subtitle, Orchestrating The Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, informs how George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, along with others such as Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris (not related), got the thirteen colonies, who had fought off the British, came to accept another centralized government.
A lot of reviewers noted, and it was my experience as well, that our American history courses in high school presented the narrative of the last quarter of the 18th period woefully incompletely. There was the revolutionary fury of the Declaration of Independence and the war, which was reasonably well laid out. The Articles of Confederation -they failed, but why? – followed. Then the Founders came up with the Constitution – but how? – including the Bill of Rights.
In fighting the American Revolution, the colonists were cohesive in that limited battle against the British. However, the notion that these 13 nation-states would then relinquish their independence to accept the creation of a powerful federal government was no guarantee. Certain visionaries diagnosed that structure created by the Articles of Confederation was doomed to fail. They suggested conventions, purportedly to amend the Articles, but ultimately to throw them out.
As Newsday noted: Ellis’ account of the run-up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the subsequent state-by-state ratification process is so pacey it almost reads like a thriller. New Yorker Hamilton, fearful that anarchy was looming, developed a national vision first; Madison was just a bit behind. Jay, serving as foreign affairs secretary, was trying to fashion coherent foreign policy. But all agreed that if their efforts were to succeed, a reluctant Washington, who had retired to Mount Vernon, had to be on board. Washington’s revolutionary credentials were unassailable.
“In 1780, most Americans, having thrown off the fetters of a faraway central power, would have thought the kind of national government envisioned by Washington and Co. as peculiar in the extreme. Some historians have viewed the Constitution as a betrayal of the American Revolution by a cabal of elites who crushed an emerging democracy. Ellis, however, reminds us that democracy was viewed skeptically in the 18th century; he prefers to see the efforts the quartet as ‘a quite brilliant rescue’ of revolutionary principles.”
I totally agree that, for a topic that could be very dry, I found the book surprisingly engaging. Ellis explains how the Founders, even those opposing slavery such as Hamilton, essentially ducked the question for the cause of federalism, hoping the topic would be addressed down the road, which it was, decades later.
I should mention that I got the large-print version of The Quartet because that happened to be the edition near the checkout. I didn’t NEED it, but I’m not complaining about it either.