Book review: The Quartet

I continued re-acquainting myself with the founding of the United States through Joseph Ellis’ latest book, The Quartet. The Quartet is an excellent companion to his previous book, Revolutionary Summer. In fact, Ellis briefly revisits some of the history that he covered in Revolutionary Summer in order to set the historical context for The Quartet.

Revolutionary Summer covers five crucial months during the start of the American Revolution. During this time, the Continental Army and Continental Congress experienced first-hand the deficiencies of a confederation. The Quartet covers several years after the War of Independence was won, when the United States was floundering as a confederation.

A loose collection of states in the form of a confederation turned out to be insufficient. Experiences during the war bore that out, such as the inability of Congress to require states to contribute troops and money. After the war, the new country needed a consolidated government above the states to oversee items that required collective action, such as the regulation of westward expansion, rules governing interstate commerce, the collection of taxes to pay down debts, and the exercise of a coherent foreign policy.

Revision of the Articles of Confederation would not be enough. The confederation needed to be replaced by a national government. A constitution was needed.

George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—the quartet—were the main actors who realized the profound need for a national government and worked to make it a reality. The supporting cast included Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, and Thomas Jefferson.

Ellis pulls data together from various sources such as letters and diaries to weave an historical account about how these men saw the struggles of the nascent nation and the need for a national government, without which the new republic would quickly die and the revolution would have been in vain. He discusses the personalities and motivations of those who were the driving force behind the creation of a national government, a constitution, and a bill of rights.

Washington lent his name and reputation to the enterprise. Although reluctant to emerge from retirement, he realized that his legacy and the existence of the states were at stake. Washington steps back on the public stage as a larger than life figure, filling the shoes of his mythic persona.

Robert Morris was roped into performing the thankless task of setting up the financial system. His story was fascinating. A successful businessman, he used his own credit on the international stage to establish credit for an American national government. His plan to attain solvency for the fledging nation was the creation of a national bank, impost (duties on imports), the establishment of taxes (land tax, poll tax, excise tax on whiskey—as an aside, Washington was a huge whiskey producer), and the assumption of state debts by the Confederation Congress. He even used his own funds during the closing days of the war to pay for such things as provisions for the troops. And when Congress reneged on its promise during the war to provide the officers with pensions, Morris stepped up and paid for their pensions!

Hamilton was a vehement advocate for a national government. He was the major contributor to The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays aimed at swaying the New York populace towards ratifying the Constitution. When Morris passed the financial baton by resigning—thwarted by the lack of a national government and the power that emanates from it, Hamilton eventually picked up the baton, setting up almost the exact same financial plan that Morris had outlined.

John Jay was the ever-composed negotiator. He disobeyed orders from Congress when he was negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the War of Independence. He not only managed to secure our independence from Britain but also all land east of the Mississippi River and navigation rights on the river. He was almost solely responsible for the New York constitution. Unsurprisingly, Congress made him the secretary of foreign affairs. However, like Morris, he was thwarted by the lack of a consolidated national government.

James Madison was the impetus behind the Constitution, organizing the Constitutional Congress, setting the agenda, and hosting behind-the-scenes strategy sessions. Madison actually believed that he failed with the Constitution and the Constitutional Congress. Why? Because he was unable to resolve the sovereignty question. Where does ultimate sovereignty reside? In the federal government or in the states?

Rather than being a failure, the unresolved sovereignty question, Ellis argues, is Madison’s greatest success. The debate between federal and state sovereignty lives on today. The Constitution is a living document (which contradicts those who wish to interpret the “original intent” of the Constitution); each age debates the question anew.

Most early Americans did not see the larger picture and the need for a federal government. They were happy with the status quo and the contradictory Articles of Confederation. The government at the state and local level was what mattered to them. That was where they lived and interacted with their representatives. The states, the representatives, and the people in them focused on their own local interests to the detriment of a common good. (Kind of like today…a point I encountered again and again in Ellis’ description of the pre-federal government stage of the United States.)

The quartet needed to convince those happy with a confederation that doom awaited.

A federal government smacked of the British yoke that the American people just threw off. How to convince Americans (or at least the power makers) that a federal government was necessary? The federalists succeeded through an organized and consistent strategy and the control of the rules at the Constitutional Congress. The Constitution would be adopted after only nine states ratified it. States could only vote for the Constitution or against it; there was no third option of changing it.

While states could not qualify their ratification of the Constitution based on amendments to it, the Congress did accept suggestions. The states overwhelming noted the conspicuous lack of a bill of rights. Madison quickly drafted a bill of rights based on some of the suggestions from the states. (It is notable how quickly what probably became the most important part of the Constitution—the Bill of Rights—was created.)

Interestingly, the states saw the need of a bill of rights to limit federal power into private lives. Jefferson exemplified the position that government is the threat to our rights. Madison exemplified the opposite, that the populace in the states is the threat to our rights.

I realized that I do not see the Bill of Rights as necessarily limiting federal power (the Jeffersonian position) but rather as limiting states power into my private life (the Madisonian position); the Bill of Rights ensures that I will have these same rights regardless of which state I inhabit. The states are the enemy to me, with their narrow, provincial viewpoints controlled by representatives that cater to the whims and vagaries of the electorate.

The sovereignty question—whether government should be local or national—resonates today. I hear echoes in the recent anti-government arguments of our elected politicians. (Unlike Ellis, I am not quite sure that I see this ambiguity in the Constitution as a strong point.) The anti-federalist view, focused on local, provincial interests over national interests and a common good, currently is in the ascendant.

Given the recent election, I wish that Ellis would have expanded on the electoral college in The Quartet. Instead, he briefly touches on it and then moves on. The Virginia Plan, which was presented at the Constitutional Congress, describes a President being selected by the legislature, in essence a parliamentary system. Instead, those at the Constitutional Congress decided to use an electoral college to select the President.

Intriguingly, after the Constitution was ratified, Madison did an about-face and became an anti-federalist. He started advocating for states rights and even arguing some points that Patrick Henry had raised in his debate with Madison over the ratification of the Constitution. Ellis is coy about the reasons behind the surprising change in the man who architected the creation and ratification of the Constitution. I suspect a future book by Ellis will deal with this baffling conversion of Madison.

The Quartet is an interesting glimpse into the beginning of the American government. Ellis shows a population that could not see beyond its local interests. (Some things never change.) And he provides background into the men that created our national government. I learned much about this time period, the Constitution, and the men involved. I was at least equally surprised by what I learned about myself—and my own stance on the issues that plagued the founders in the late 18th century and continue to wreck havoc for us in the 21st century.


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