By Ken Reynolds
a review of The Quartet by Joseph Ellis
In The Quartet, Joseph J. Ellis vividly explains how four men, convinced that government by The Articles of Confederation would fail to protect America from incursion and subjugation by the powerful seafaring nations of the world, lead the political effort that resulted in The Constitution of the United States of America. Those men were George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.
They, and others, determined it was necessary to change and strengthen the government. Ellis argues those four men are responsible for what he terms the second American Revolution: The transition of thirteen independent countries into a single nation.
At the end of the American Revolution, it was obvious to Washington and some others that European powers would not ignore America’s vast economic potential. Spain, England and France had been exploring and exploiting the continent’s resources for almost 300 years. All three wanted to control our European trade.
There was constant tension and war among the three European countries. Each of them had a military presence on our continent, and they effectively had America surrounded. Control of navigation on the Mississippi River could potentially disrupt commerce and prevent expansion to the west. There also was the possibility of one, or more of the new American states —or regions— forming a commercial, or governmental, alliance with one of the European nations.
The Quartet’s goal was to strengthen the role of the federal government. They were politically astute men and they knew The Articles of Confederation would have to be abandoned and a new form of government developed. They also knew resistance to their ideas would be both widespread and deep-rooted.
Americans had fought a war to free themselves from a remote and strong government. Asking the states to yield power to a central government sounded impossible. Travel was only one obstacle. In the 18th century, the distance to where the congress met could be formidable, even in good weather. Government by the states seemed to be the answer.
With good reason, Americans celebrate Independence Day as our national birthday. With the Declaration of Independence and the ensuing war, the rebellious colonists proved they were dedicated to and capable of freeing themselves from a remote monarchy. The celebration is a part of our national character, but the logic for using July 4, 1776 is impeachable.
While the patriot’s defiance of rule by the English monarchy led to the founding of our nation is not a myth, focusing on that aspect glosses over one of the great political lessons of history: Why, after defeating England, we almost did not become a united nation.
The thirteen United States of America unanimously declared: “. . . these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be of Free and Independent States.” The capitalization in the preceding sentence reflects the convention of that era, and the wording reflects the commonly held belief that each colony was an independent and sovereign country.
By 1776, rule by a distant monarchy had become anathema to the rebels. With the concept of state sovereignty as a guiding principle, the Continental Congress, agreed to form a confederation and fight to separate America from English rule. A central government of all the states was not the goal. Because of concerns about a distance and state sovereignty, Congress shaped a government to fight a war not one to govern a union of states after the war.
Americans may remember the Articles from high school history. That we had a government before our present constitution is a widely known but little appreciated fact. The nature of our original government structure vested almost no power in a central government. With limited provisos, each state was free to decide whether to support a federal initiative.
During the Revolutionary War, George Washington repeatedly begged Congress for more soldiers, money and material. He lamented the independent states’ failure to respond with the manpower and the money needed to fight the English. He became convinced that without the power to require the states to act, the American government could not succeed.
After the war, the winners continued to think of themselves as citizens of different sovereign countries. They did not want a government that resembled remote English monarchy, but Washington’s apprehensions about the effectiveness of The Articles continued to deepen.
The ideological struggle that took place in America between the end of the Revolutionary War and through ratification of the Constitution was high order political intrigue. The Quartet’s goal was to persuade state delegates that The Articles of Confederation would lead to disaster. They knew they did not have enough support to hold a convention to replace the articles, so the purported intent of the convention was to improve the Articles.
When delegates from all thirteen states finally arrived at the convention, they brought a wide range of expectations. None got all he wanted from the convention. Some wanted no change at all. Others wanted a powerful executive whose heirs would succeed him. They emerged with the document that has guided our government since March 4, 1789.
The Quartet is remarkably clear and smooth reading history. In only 220 pages (plus notes and appended documents), Ellis explains how four men took the initiative to transition thirteen sovereign countries into a nation united by one government. He gives his reader a flavor of the conflict of opinions and the politics by focusing our attention on the desires and machinations of his quartet.
His book is not definitive scholarship; it is popular history. Ellis concentrates on the roles his Quartet played and only cursorily touches on other important players. He could not have included everyone who influenced the change of government. That is how writing popular history works.