Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Guest Review: The Quartet

Summary: From Pulitzer Prize–winning American historian Joseph J. Ellis, the unexpected story of why the thirteen colonies, having just fought off the imposition of a distant centralized governing power, would decide to subordinate themselves anew. 

We all know the famous opening phrase of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this Continent a new Nation.” The truth is different. In 1776, thirteen American colonies declared themselves independent states that only temporarily joined forces in order to defeat the British. Once victorious, they planned to go their separate ways. The triumph of the American Revolution was neither an ideological nor a political guarantee that the colonies would relinquish their independence and accept the creation of a federal government with power over their autonomy as states. 

The Quartet is the story of this second American founding and of the men most responsible—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. These men, with the help of Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris, shaped the contours of American history by diagnosing the systemic dysfunctions created by the Articles of Confederation, manipulating the political process to force the 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. 

Ellis has given us a gripping and dramatic portrait of one of the most crucial and misconstrued periods in American history: the years between the end of the Revolution and the formation of the federal government. The Quartet unmasks a myth, and in its place presents an even more compelling truth—one that lies at the heart of understanding the creation of the United States of America. -- Knopf

My dad has read quite a few of Joseph J. Ellis' books, so he was more than happy when I handed over his latest -- THE QUARTET. This book on Early American history isn't exactly my cup of tea, and that's why I love that my dad helps review books on my blog. Here are his thoughts:

In 1776, thirteen American colonies declared themselves independent states. Their plan was to come together temporarily to win the war against Great Britain and then go their separate ways. These independent states had no appetite for a strong central government after throwing off the yoke of the British Empire so the government they created in 1781, called the Articles of Confederation, was nothing more than a pact that gathered thirteen independent states together for purposes of national security.

THE QUARTET, ORCHESTRATING THE SECOND AMERICAN REVOLUTION 1783-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis is the story about the four men who moved the government from this collection of thirteen independent states to one of a united nation. Ellis’ contention is that the United States became a nation not in 1776 but with the adoption of the Constitution in 1789.

Four men were primarily responsible for this transition from the Articles of Confederation: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. Hamilton, Jay and Madison were the authors of the Federalist Papers which presented the case for a strong central government. These four men were supported by Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Jefferson. In general these men recognized the dysfunction of the Articles of Confederation in funding the war effort with money and men, managing a land mass larger than Britain, France and Spain combined and establishing any acceptable form of foreign policy.

According to Ellis, “they diagnosed the systemic dysfunction under the Articles, manipulated the political process to force the calling of the Constitutional Convention, collaborated to set the agenda in Philadelphia, attempted somewhat successfully to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying conventions, then drafted the Bill of Rights as an insurance policy to assure state compliance with the constitutional settlement.” This top down approach to changing the form of government was somewhat contrary to the purpose of the American Revolution and in spite of a strong antifederalist group, the effort succeeded in establishing a Constitution.

However as with any political process, the outcome cannot be one hundred per cent guaranteed and the Constitution finally ratified was not the strong central government the Quartet envisioned but a structure that moved the states toward nationhood while maintaining strong local governments.

THE QUARTET is a well written account of Ellis’ view of the formation of the United States Constitution. I would recommend it to anyone interested in this period of American history.

Thanks to Booking Pap Pap for his review and thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book.

1 comment:

bermudaonion said...

That probably isn't for me either but I have a friend who would love it.