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The Quartet: A book review by Bob Morris

QuartetThe Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789
Joseph J. Ellis
Knopf (2015)

A brilliant analysis of “arguably the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history”

Many people still do not as yet know that that after the Declaration of Independence, and then winning a war, the thirteen colonies then had to win a peace during the years 1783-1787 if the new nation were to survive. Signing the Treaty of Paris signaled the successful conclusion of the first war. According to Joseph Ellis, there were four founders who helped to win what he characterizes as “the second American Revolution.”

As he explains, “a political quartet [Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison] diagnosed the systemic dysfunctions under the Articles, manipulated the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Congress, collaborated to set their agenda in Philadelphia, attempted somewhat successfully to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying convention s, then drafted the Bill of Rights as an insurance policy to ensure state compliance with the constitutional settlement. If I am right, this was arguably the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Ellis’s coverage:

o Slavery (Pages 9-11, 106-107, and 144-147)
o George Washington (16-28, 104-114, 139-142, 196-200, and 213-215)
o Continental Congress (17-18 and 69-72)
o Robert Morris (36-37 and 39-46)
o James Madison (46-47, 127-128, 135-138, 142-144, and 147-151)
o Alexander Hamilton (47-47, 61-63, 97-98, 142-144, 146-149, and 163-168)
o John Jay (69-74, 84-90, and 103-105)
o Articles of Confederation (111-114, 117-119, and 123-125)
o Continental Congress: Philadelphia 1787 (123-153)
o House of Representatives (204-209 ad 233-237)
o U.S. Senate (209-211 and 233-237)
o U.S. Congress (233-245 and 238-240)

Near the down area here in Dallas, there is a Farmer’s Market at which some merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that spirit, I offer these brief excerpts:

“Although most of the prominent founders, and all of the men featured here, fully recognized that slavery was incompatible with the values of the American Revolution, they consciously subordinated the moral to the political agenda, permitting the continuance and expansion of slavery as the price to pay for nationhood.” (Page xix)

“One of the reasons Hamilton found the word [begin italics] democracy [end italics] so offensive was because he realized that the vast majority of American citizens had not the dimmest understanding of what he was talking about.” (63)

“Despite what had become a multilayered series of defense mechanisms, Washington was vulnerable to entreaties from Jay and Madison because he was also on record, at least privately, advocating precisely the political agenda they were now proposing.” (108)

“Madison’s emerging political stature defied his physical appearance, since ‘little Jemmy Madison’ was, at five foot four and 120 pounds, a diminutive young man, forever lingering on the edge of some fatal ailment.” (115)

“No less a figure than Washington fervently believed that the failure to create a sovereign national government would represent a repudiation of everything he had fought for. What was at stake, then, was nothing less than what the American Revolution meant, or had come to mean, and that was how all the most prominent nationals thought about it.” (142)

“No president in American history wanted to be president less than Washington. And yet, as Hamilton made clear to him, no man in America was so essential to enhance the prospects for success of the emerging nation.” (197)

Readers will welcome the provision of “The Articles of Incorporation and Perpetual Union,” “The Constitution of the United States,” and “The Bill of Rights” in three appendices. They offer substantial evidence of what the four founders and their colleagues achieved when winning the “the second American Revolution.” Of course, significant challenges remained and the one most prominent among them was not resolved until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and a subsequent victory in the Civil War that preserved the Union.

It seems to me especially appropriate that Ellis allows Thomas Jefferson to have (almost) “the last word” when suggesting that “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered…institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors.”

In fact, Ellis has the last word when noting that most prominent members of the revolutionary generation “did not regard their political prescriptions as sacred script.” They strongly opposed any doctrine of “original intent.” That said, it should be added, “they all wished to be remembered, but they did not want to be embalmed.”

I learned more from this book than from any of Joseph Ellis’s previous works and I also enjoyed reading it more than I did any of them. He shines a bright light on colonial years that had been until now, at least for me, in shadows, if not total darkness. I offer a heartfelt “Thank you!”

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