I've always been interested in history, but in high school I found American history to be incredibly boring. It was often presented as a black and white affair, completely scrubbed of any nuance. It was only after discovering the true complexity of our history that I began to find it fascinating. And there are few who portray this complexity as well as historian Joseph Ellis. This meant that his newest book, “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution,” was an immediate must-read. Ellis, the author of numerous books on U.S. history, takes on the story of how we came to have our Constitution. This development was far from inevitable, he asserts, and would have been an unlikely outcome after the Revolutionary War had it not been for the efforts of four individuals. George Washington, future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Monroe all worked both publicly and behind the scenes to ensure that the Constitution came into being.
Both during and after the Revolution, many in the thirteen states were opposed to a strong national government, and with good reason. Throwing off the yoke of British rule only to replace it with an American version of Britain's hated ministers would have been unthinkable. Instead, the Articles of Confederation, our first governing document, vested most powers with the states, leaving a national government with no authority to tax and no executive branch. Because of their fear of a new tyranny, a government too weak to do much of anything had resulted.
While many histories of the United States gloss over the period under the Articles, Ellis traces the myriad failures of the document. He even goes so far as to assert that the inherent weakness in our initial government needlessly lengthened the Revolutionary War. These continuing dysfunctions led some of the Founders to believe that a change was essential, or the end of the Republic would result. Ellis doesn’t shy away from the fact that some of the actions of the Quartet were devious and underhanded, while still being absolutely necessary for eventual passage of the Constitution. In the face of heavy odds against the development of a stronger national government, a little bit of deception was a small price for victory.
Ellis' great strength is illustrating the full depth of the disorder the Articles enabled, and his writing style ensures that the story is never dull. While past historians have revered the Founders as nearly godlike, “The Quartet” argues that we do ourselves a disservice to believe the founders were infallible. They argued, split themselves into factions, and often couldn't agree, leading to a governing document grounded in compromise. Partisan division, rather than being a modern invention, has been a feature of our country from the very beginning.
“The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789” by Joseph J. Ellis is published by Knopf.
Reviewer Brady Clemens is the district consultant at Schlow Regional Library.