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.

Book review: Revolutionary Summer

Irked that I couldn’t find the book that I wanted to read by Joseph Ellis, I went looking for other books by him. I landed on Revolutionary Summer.

Why was I even looking for a book by Joseph Ellis? I had been wandering around a bookstore and chanced on a book of his about the American Revolution. I was intrigued. I had just finished listening to the American Revolution episodes of the Revolutions podcast.

Revolutionary Summer covers the extended summer of 1776 (May through October). The constitutional conflict between the American colonies and the English that started with the Stamp Act in 1765 morphed into a military conflict ten years later. In the summer of 1776, the Continental Congress changed from hoping for reconciliation to working towards independence.

John Adams led the way, carefully planning for a clean, orderly step-by-step process towards independence: create state constitutions, form a confederation of states, enter into an alliance with France, and then declare independence. Of course, this orderly process didn’t happen. Once the Pandora box of independence was opened, the revolution was underway.

Adams did have more success in controlling what rights were addressed. The revolution was waged for the freedom of white propertied men. The non-white propertied male segments of the population called for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and the rights of non-propertied men.

Adams was afraid that fighting for these rights would alienate those fighting for the rights of white propertied men and end up jeopardizing the fight for independence before it even got started. In some cases, the cry for rights could not be stilled. Non-propertied white men in Pennsylvania and New York challenged the legitimacy of their elected government as not being the will of the people. Perhaps Adams was right to focus on the rights of one segment of the population, but the avoidance of these prickly issues merely kicked the can down the road, in some cases creating wounds so deep that they are still not healed today but continue to threaten the country and harm those whose rights were denied from the beginning.

Adams suggested that the colonies create state governments modeled off of the English government: executive branch, bicameral legislature, and judiciary. The colonies took to creating their state governments with a vengeance.

As that was happening, the Continental Congress set to drafting a declaration. Strangely, this was seen as less important that the creation of state governments and state constitutions. At least Jefferson felt that way, stuck at the Continental Congress but wanting very badly to be back in Virginia drafting the Virginia constitution.

The Declaration of Independence, for the most part, is a collection of grievances that the colonies addressed to King George. When editing the document, Jefferson and the Continental Congress spent much time on the grievances listed, but little, Ellis points out, on the first 35 words. This list of our rights, the preamble, received scant attention. But the preamble to the Declaration of Independence would go on to have an amazing effect on future liberal individual rights such as the end of slavery, the passage of women’s suffrage, and the recognition of civil rights.

The Continental Congress set up committees to flesh out what the government should look like and what the government’s foreign policy should be. Getting thirteen colonies to work together for independence was hard enough—the Continental Congress had no authority to force the colonies to denote money and men to the Continental Army—but agreeing on what the political entity of the colonies should look like was even harder.

The first committee, which focused on the form of the future government, really couldn’t reach a consensus. The result of their work was the Articles of Confederation, a list of items that provides no clear outline. Some items suggest that power resides in the states, others in a national government. The reason for the lack of consensus was due to the different nature of the colonies: the north/south split concerning slavery, the small/large population effect on the form of representation, and the desire for a confederacy versus a national union.

The second committee, which focused on foreign policy, was much more successful. The guidelines that came out of the committee lasted over a hundred years, and weren’t completely abandoned until after World War II. John Adams drafted a foreign policy that called for commercial treaties but no diplomatic or military treaties. Think of the Washington Doctrine.

By the time that the Howe brothers arrived on American shores as peace commissioners, it was too late. The Continental Congress and the American populace (on the whole) had moved beyond hope for reconciliation. King George’s earlier threat to destroy the colonies and his hiring of mercenaries converted the colonies from wanting reconciliation to wanting independence.

The portrait that Ellis paints of Washington and the Continental Army is equally fascinating. The Continental Army had already been fighting for at least a year, a rather strange fact considering that until 1776 the Continental Congress and the American people were hoping for reconciliation. The army was fighting for independence before a war for independence had been formally declared.

The myth of the militia and the Minutemen is just that, a myth that the Continental Congress believed then and that Americans believe now. Washington’s army was mostly, it seems, comprised of militias. The states would send troops as they saw fit, no matter what the condition or needs of the army—or Washington’s pleas.

The militias were made up of yeoman farmers and rabble. The farmers were only available during the times that they didn’t have crops to tend. The rabble, as Ellis describes, “were not the kind of men you wanted living in your neighborhood.” And these militias were not there for the duration of the war but for short periods of time. Just when they were trained as soldiers, their time of enlistment was up. They went home and a new batch (hopefully) of men arrived who needed to be trained.

The summer of 1776 seems like a time when Washington was figuring out how to fight this war. Originally, he was trying to win it rather than just not lose it. (Later he changed to just trying not to lose it, which worked perfectly.) His focus was on keeping New York City, a site that was originally deemed indefensible. Yet, the Continental Army decided to defend it at all costs. It was a harsh lesson to learn and one that could easily have meant the demise of the Army.

The picture of Washington that Ellis paints in the summer of 1776 is not of a sure-footed, confident commander, but of a man who is unsure and saddled with the 18th century sense of honor. Retreats were anathema to Washington. He would rather die than retreat. In the Revolutions podcast, I had recently learned that Washington was the master of retreats. And in Revolutionary Summer, I read with awe about his perfectly executed retreat of 10,000 men from Long Island to Manhattan.

“The planning had to be precise, the officers and men needed to behave with uncommon courage, the winds and river currents had to be properly aligned, the Royal Navy had to be negligent, and, finally, a dense fog had to make a providential appearance at the end.”

The British too were in awe. (Or maybe astonished would be a better description.)

Ellis’ narrative of these five fateful months in 1776 revealed a lot to me. It solidified information I recently learned from the Revolutions podcast. It suggested how the first 35 words of the Declaration of Independence helped ensure that rights initially brushed over were not brushed over indefinitely. It showed that the depth of the current anti-government stance had its roots in the confederation that formed to fight for independence. It ripped away the myth of the militia as the backbone of American independence—that a lack of professionalism does not spell success but rather brings chaos and disaster. (I would argue that this same revelation could also be applied to government—the outsider who has never head office does not bode well for leading a country.) It taught me that the populace and the government never supported their veterans but subjected them to mob violence and broken promises.

Ellis rips away myths and gently leads readers to see truths—some good, some bad—about the reality that was rather than the story that is taught. He shows us a populace that devolves into mob violence against other Americans, people speaking up for rights that they are still denied, and heroes who are heroes but not necessarily in the ways we originally thought.

Now to find the original book by Ellis that I was looking for—and learn how the form of government was decided after the fiasco that was the Articles of Confederation.