The quartet : orchestrating the second American Revolution, 1783-1789

by Joseph J. Ellis

Hardcover, 2015

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Description

"The prizewinning author of Founding Brothers and American Sphinx now gives us the unexpected story--brilliantly told--of why the thirteen colonies, having just fought off the imposition of a distant centralized governing power, would decide to subordinate themselves anew. The triumph of the American Revolution was neither an ideological nor political guarantee that the colonies would relinquish their independence and accept the creation of a federal government with power over their individual autonomy. The Quartet is the story of this second American founding and of the men responsible--some familiar, such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, and some less so, such as Robert Morris and Governeur Morris. It was these men who shaped the contours of American history by diagnosing the systemic dysfunctions created by the Articles of Confederation, manipulating the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Convention, conspiring to set the agenda in Philadelphia, orchestrating the debate in the state ratifying conventions, and, finally, drafting the Bill of Rights to assure state compliance with the constitutional settlement"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member stevesmits
Professor Ellis tells the story of efforts between 1783 and 1789 to establish a national constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. He does this through the involvement of four leaders: Washington, Madison, Hamilton and John Jay. Although the focus is on these four he includes the contributions of others such as Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris who both played significant parts.

The Articles of Confederation, created by the Continental Congress in 1777, did not establish a sovereign national government. The pact was principally a means to collaborate and coordinate the states in their united aim to achieve independence from Britain. The sovereignty of each former colony was individually supreme and the confederation had no power to force any state to conform to necessities for the good of the national war effort. Whether the remitting of taxes or supplying soldiers to continue the war the states could choose to ignore requests from Congress and many did. This was particularly frustrating to Washington whose campaigns against the British were continually weakened by the lack of resources.

Ellis points out that the drive for independence from Great Britain was deeply grounded in revulsion against the centralized authority of the King and parliament. The idea that the states should accept national authority was anathema to them; they were revolting precisely to cast off central authority not to create another version of it.

The indifference of the states to national authority was manifest in the ineffectualness of the Congress. Often there was no quorum to conduct sessions and the states were slow in even designating delegates. In addition to the question of compelling the provision of resources to sustain the war, the necessity of a unified financial plan and of a singular voice in the conduct of foreign policy seemed essential to the “united” states place on the world state. Sensible attempts by Robert Morris to establish a national financial system credit that would open up credit from friendly nations were rejected by the states. Likewise, Jay found it difficult to carry out foreign policy when it was not clear for whom he was negotiating.

If the war saw only grudging cooperation of the states, the cessation of hostilities diminished further any interest in a national government with sovereignty over the states. The nations of Europe held the view that even though the colonies had vanquished the British there was little chance that a new nation state would emerge and thrive. The most likely outcome after the war was a series of independent governments whose self-interest would put them at constant odds with each other.

Faced with the centripetal forces of thirteen states acting mainly for themselves, Washington, Madison, Hamilton and Jay concluded that the continuance of the Articles could not stop the further dissolution of the weak bonds forged by the Revolution. They held that the proper place of the United States on the world stage could be attained only through establishing a nation that governed itself as a whole entity. Moreover, the future clearly foretold that the settlement of the continent westward without a strong unifying core would result in either a multiplicity of disparate political nations (like Europe) or in allowing the European powers to maintain or gain control over parts of the continent.

A critical factor in resolving whether or how a national government could exist was how representative governments legitimately derive and justify their powers. It was universally accepted that the powers of government must stem from the consent of the governed. The individual states could rightly say that their governments’ powers were legitimized via the election of representatives by the people; people closely bound by proximity and shared culture. How, then, could a national government have moral standing to carry out its powers over the states and people? Surely, factions or alliances among several states could enforce decisions on people or their states that were not acceptable to, or in their interests. This question was at the heart of whether a new moral sense of a broader exercise of power could be found; this required essentially a second American Revolution, certainly as profound as the first.

Much of the success of the Constitutional Convention was achieved strategically and tactically; lofty ideas and high principles, while underpinning the deliberations, alone would never have sufficed. The first and perhaps most crucial tactical move was to enlist Washington to be a delegate and chair the proceedings. Washington was so revered by his countrymen that his presence alone would lend enormous credibility to the undertaking. Though reluctant to re-enter public life Washington, with compelling persuasion by Madison and Hamilton, agreed to take part. Another artful move was to hold the sessions in secret and to bind the delegates to confidentiality. If proposals deliberated were released to the public the opponents of change certainly would initiate undermining activities.

Clearly, Madison was the driving contributor to the discussions. He held firm to the imperative that any new compact must grant supreme authority to a national government. His first overture – the Virginia Plan – would have given the federal executive the power to nullify state laws. In light of the sensitivity of many in the states to local authority this plan was not well received. The key question was whether there could be a practical demarcation between national and state sovereignty. Could there be room for both in some sort of sovereignty-sharing arrangement? The founders did not achieve complete clarity on this balance, a matter whose definition has been sought ever after. Another attempt to justify national authority was to accommodate legitimacy sanctioned via popular representation and the place of the states relative to each other in national affairs. Madison first proposed that each state’s delegation would be proportional to their populations in the House and Senate. Fearing being overwhelmed by the large states, the small states opposed this idea. The compromise, that we are now so familiar with, established population-based apportionment of seats in the House and equal representation for each state in the Senate.

The fears of an autocratic executive like the King ran deeply among the delegates. Hamilton, a vigorous proponent of strong executive, proposed that the executive be chosen for life; this got no support branding Hamilton thereafter as a closet monarchist. Another early proposal was to have the executive chosen by the national legislature, a parliamentary style arrangement. The alternative finally adopted gave a greater connection to the people and the states by granting electors to each state equal to their representatives in both houses. While each state could determine its manner of choosing electors the people had a say in their selection.

Another deeply divisive issue was slavery. The South was determined that slavery would not be compromised by the terms of the new agreement. In contrast, other states’ delegates held a perspective that slavery was inherently incongruous with the principles of freedom expressed by the Declaration of Independence. All seemed aware, however, that the existence of slavery in the unified polity could not be definitively resolved in the new document. The compromise skirted around the dilemma by allowing the slaveholding states to count 3/5 of their slave populations toward their allotted representation in the House and by banning the import of slaves twenty years hence. One senses that the delegates surmised that the matter of slavery would continue to plague sectional cohesion they were seeking to establish.

Ellis gives a complete description of the ratification process. It was a fortunate stroke to get agreement that nine states’ ratifications were enough to adopt the Constitution. Support for ratification was quite weak in New York and Rhode Island. Virginia, first thought by Madison to be strongly favorable for ratification, turned out to be a sharply contested fight pitting Madison against the great orator Patrick Henry. Madison correctly intuited that if Virginia ratified many other states would follow. In New York, Hamilton and Jay lead a strong campaign against the allies of Governor Clinton and in the end achieved a narrow victory.

The attention given to Madison in this book seems appropriate and warranted. Ellis suggests that Madison is often considered a political theorist but, while he certainly was well-versed in political philosophy of the Enlightment, his greatest skills were political. Unquestionably he was the principal conductor of the quartet that played out a masterful plan to establish an entirely new and potent nation.

Ellis’s work is always enjoyable because his analysis is so accessible and his writing is so good.
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LibraryThing member PaperDollLady
The Quartet is a narrative on how America got from the Articles of Confederation to the United States Constitution by focusing on the efforts of those four signers that the book's author, Joseph Ellis, deems most responsible--G. Washington, A. Hamilton, J. Madison, and J. Jay. Some supporting players also get mentions, like G. Morris, considered the US Constitution's editor. Throughout, a number of to-and-fro letters quoting, not only the foursome, but also some men not directly involved -- such as Jefferson and Lafayette, both overseas in France at the time. The four proponents main objective was not to merely revise the Articles, they ardently hoped to replace the Confederation with a stronger and more secure union. Debts needed to be paid, and any taxes due from the individual states were considered by those states as voluntary, not mandatory. Huh? In what manner and means used by the four men, two from Virginia (Washington and Madison) and two from New York (Hamilton and Jay), to persuade and convince others, and then to ultimately achieve the necessary framework to form a nation makes a fascination story. Especially, in the way it was presented. In seven concisely written chapters, the narrative builds to a story-like climax in Chapter 6, titled, THE GREAT DEBATE. In Virginia, addressing the elected delegates gathered for a vote on the ratification of the Constitution, James Madison, argues for, making the case for yay votes, while the famous orator, Patrick Henry, argues against, urging nays. Here's a quote (pg. 186) that summarizes it: "Henry had argued that the Constitution created a consolidated federal government that rode roughshod over the power of the states. Madison argued that Henry did not know what he was talking about, that the political architecture created in Philadelphia mandated shared sovereignty between the federal government and the states." As the saying goes, the rest is history. In this chapter there is also a chronology chart giving each states ratification dates and the yay/nay vote count, noting too which states wanted amendments. The amendments--Bill of Rights--written by James Madison, is covered in the closing chapter.

My aim in selecting QUARTET was to refresh what little I knew about the time period surrounding the writing of The Federalist Papers, authored by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay. Instead of the revisit I expected, I felt catapulted back and came away with a better understanding of that time in American history.
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LibraryThing member Doondeck
Ellis has the unique ability to make history come alive with all its drama. I strongly suggest that the Justices Roberts, Alito, Thomas and Scalia (aka "RATS") read this book especially its references to "original intent" and the origins of the second amendment
LibraryThing member gbelik
The years from the end of the revolutionary war to the signing of the constitution are covered in this book. The focus is on four individuals who guided the transition from individual states roughly confederated and who were reluctant to cede any power to the United States, organized under the Constitution. Washington, Hamilton, Madison and John Jay are the main. though not the only, focus of his story; these individuals assessed the disfunction of the Confederation and worked to create a constitution and thus a government which would be workable and lasting. It's an amazing story and told well in this short book.… (more)
LibraryThing member mrmapcase
One of the biggest misconceptions about the United States is that after the Revolutionary War, we became a country. Ellis shows in a concise manner how this country went a loose confederation of states to the constitution bound country and the men behind it all.

Free review copy.
LibraryThing member jerry-book
But for Madison, Washington, Hamilton, and Jay the author says there would have been no Constitution and no USA. Ellis makes a convincing case that these were the four that orchestrated the second American Revolution overthrowing the Articles of Confederation. It is hard looking back to think the USA almost did not happen. When you find out that Mass. had its own foreign policy you realize no one thought of themselves as Americans after the Revolutionary War. Even though Washington did not author any of the Federalist Papers, Ellis shows how he was the indispensable man. In reading this book I do wonder where was John Adams? I know Jefferson was in France.… (more)
LibraryThing member JeffV
All of today's political leaders would do well to read this book and understand what it's like to negotiate and compromise for the greater good when opposing ideologies stand in the way. The crafting of the US constitution was not something done off the cuff with unanimous approval. The wording of various phrases were meticulously written to both say certain things, and not say certain things. The major players are George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. There is much here about the "founding father's" ideology, the differences already manifest between the north and south, and the struggle to create a viable nation that was not merely an association of thirteen independent states. Already an invisible federal government was proving to be a bad idea, during the war, states frequently ignored requests for levies and money to fund our troops. Some states were creating their own diplomatic and trade treaties that would be against the interests of a whole nation. But it took a lot of persuasion to get delegates of the Constitutional Congress on board to pass something for the common good of the American people, something without which there would be no United States.… (more)
LibraryThing member PaperDollLady
The Quartet is a narrative on how America got from the Articles of Confederation to the United States Constitution by focusing on the efforts of those four signers that the book's author, Joseph Ellis, deems most responsible--G. Washington, A. Hamilton, J. Madison, and J. Jay. Some supporting players also get mentions, like G. Morris, considered the US Constitution's editor. Throughout, a number of to-and-fro letters quoting, not only the foursome, but also some men not directly involved -- such as Jefferson and Lafayette, both overseas in France at the time. The four proponents main objective was not to merely revise the Articles, they ardently hoped to replace the Confederation with a stronger and more secure union. Debts needed to be paid, and any taxes due from the individual states were considered by those states as voluntary, not mandatory. Huh? In what manner and means used by the four men, two from Virginia (Washington and Madison) and two from New York (Hamilton and Jay), to persuade and convince others, and then to ultimately achieve the necessary framework to form a nation makes a fascination story. Especially, in the way it was presented. In seven concisely written chapters, the narrative builds to a story-like climax in Chapter 6, titled, THE GREAT DEBATE. In Virginia, addressing the elected delegates gathered for a vote on the ratification of the Constitution, James Madison, argues for, making the case for yay votes, while the famous orator, Patrick Henry, argues against, urging nays. Here's a quote (pg. 186) that summarizes it: "Henry had argued that the Constitution created a consolidated federal government that rode roughshod over the power of the states. Madison argued that Henry did not know what he was talking about, that the political architecture created in Philadelphia mandated shared sovereignty between the federal government and the states." As the saying goes, the rest is history. In this chapter there is also a chronology chart giving each states ratification dates and the yay/nay vote count, noting too which states wanted amendments. The amendments--Bill of Rights--written by James Madison, is covered in the closing chapter.

My aim in selecting QUARTET was to refresh what little I knew about the time period surrounding the writing of The Federalist Papers, authored by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay. Instead of the revisit I expected, I felt catapulted back and came away with a better understanding of that time in American history.
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LibraryThing member annbury
A wonderful book. Ellis explains how four individuals: Washington, Hamilton, Jay and Madison were so essential to the drafting of the Constitution and the birth of the US. The only complaint that I have, and it is small, is that the author does not explain how much the land was worth at the beginning of the country. It was worth a ton, obviously. Madison eventually hooked up with Jefferson and went against everything he had argued for. He is the real hero of the book. The author argues against original intent very well.… (more)
LibraryThing member annbury
During and after the Revolution, the thirteen former colonies were bound together under the Articles of Confederation -- an arrangement that Joseph Ellis argues was not the blueprint for a single nation, but for a confederation of independent states. In the eyes of much of the political elite of the time, the Articles proved to be a profoundly unsatisfactory blueprint. For one thing, it did not provide for any reliable financing; for another, it created no overall approach to foreign policy. Ellis argues that four members of the elite were particularly important in moving our governing framework to the next level -- that of a single nation.

In so doing, he makes the history of the first years after the Revolution fascinating, not the dull and blurry period I studied in high school. The Constitution, rather than a foreordained consequence of the Revolution, was an audacious proposal that in many ways contradicted the key goals of the Revolution, proposing a central government with many of the powers (including taxation) of the hated British government. How the proposal arose and how it was shepherded into being is a fascinating story. Clearly, Ellis' view contradicts some other approaches to the history of the constitution, but I found it convincing.

He also writes an entertaining book that is a pleasure to read. He brings his four central characters -- Washington, Madison, Jay, and Hamilton -- to life, strengthening the narrative and creating human interest. (Washington, in particular, steps down from his pedestal and comes alive). And many other characters appear, sharply drawn and set in the political context of the time. All in all, a terrific book.
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LibraryThing member Waltersgn
Excellent study on what the author states as the "Second American Revolution", the development and ratification of the Constitution. Ellis puts the main proponents of the Constitution as well as the document itself in an historical perspective.
LibraryThing member annbury
well written and good
LibraryThing member msaucier818
Another great book on the Founding period by Joseph Ellis. I have read most of his books at this point, and they never disappoint. This book looks at four of the major figures of the period who were most responsible for promoting the idea of a nation as opposed to separate colonies and states. The four were George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. It also looked at other important figures like Robert Morris and Gouvernor Morris who played key roles. The overall thesis of the book that most of the leaders and states had no interest in becoming a nation was not entirely new, but it was presented in a thought-provoking way and there were many nuggets of information that were new for me. Recommended for any lover of the period.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jarratt
A clear and concise book focusing on the creation and ratification of the US Constitution. As you would expect, "The Quartet" highlights the four Founders (Washington, Madison, Jay, and Hamilton) who were at the head of getting the Constitutional Convention off the ground, seeing the resulting document to fruition, then encouraging the various states to ratify it. Ellis' writing at times was a bit too academic for my tastes, but the information therein more than made up for the several times I had to re-read rather long winding sentences.… (more)
LibraryThing member Dorritt
From the guy who brought us the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Founding Brothers” comes this “sequel,” as it were, to the American Revolution, telling the tale of how 13 separate and fiercely independent states were grudging prodded into forming a centralized government, which centralized government became the foundation upon which the United States of America was constructed.

Ellis's contention is that the Revolutionary War was just the first, arguably lesser step, in the process of forging our new nation. Sure, we were free of England, but we were also – despite having just fought a war together - very much a confederation of separate states, and would have stayed that way had it not been for the nation-building impetus of The Quartet: Washington, who witnessed at first-hand during the war the political and financial dysfunction of a “confederation of states,” each of which remained free to construe “federal” demands for $$ and troops as requests rather than requirements (and who routinely dismissed those requests as inconvenient, delaying the outcome of the war by years); Jay, who as a diplomat and financier understood that the “United States” would soon be the laughing stock of Europe if each state continued to conduct its own financial and foreign policy; Madison, the scholar, who perceived that the current “confederation of states” – unless united – must surely suffer the fate of all other such loose confederations and collapse into chaos; and Hamilton, the visionary, who saw that the United States might become a formidable power if the states were could just be brought into harness under a centralized system. Ellis isn’t trying to be controversial – anyone who has studied the American Revolution at a college level would, I believe, unhesitatingly agree with his hypothesis; his point is that most Americans who haven’t studied the American Revolution at the college level probably don’t realize just how close we came to never becoming a nation at all.

The American Revolution has been the subject of some pretty entertaining fare: David McCullough’s 1776, a certain hip-hop musical, etc. While Ellis is a competent storyteller, however, writing to entertain isn’t his métier, at least not here: this never stops sounding like the extended version of a scholarly paper. You can practically underline the hypothesis of each chapter and number off the supporting details. As a scholar myself, I didn’t have a problem with this approach: in fact, the organizational structure proves quite helpful in keeping sorted the “subplots” that inevitably become entangled in the larger tale – and these subplots are voluminous, given that the “quartet” were trying to herd 13 fiercely independent and stubborn entities – each characterized by a wholly unique set of local personalities, perspectives, and priorities - towards an outcome towards which most of them were stubbornly opposed (suborning local/states rights to an overarching federal structure). How each state was maneuvered into ratifying a Constitution to which most of them remained opposed may have something to do with awakening patriotism, as many Americans probably believe, but - Ellis convincingly argues - a LOT more to do with the shrewd political instincts of these gifted men.

Ellis’s scholarly prose, by keeping readers at a distance, tends to dampen some of the emotional intensity of the drama being played out in these pages. But I believe he more than makes up for this by presenting us with a narrative that cuts through generations of accumulated mythology, hagiography, and historical misinterpretation to present the events as they actually happened. And if Ellis never quite achieves the storytelling genius of a Joyce Kearns Goodwin, his historical interpretation of events shares Goodwin’s conviction that, at critical junctions in our nation’s history, we were saved not by luck or by divine intervention, but by the determination, conviction, and political shrewdness of gifted political leaders.
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LibraryThing member davevanl
This portion of US history should be the main thrust of high school social studies, not just glanced over as it generally is.

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