2nd American Revolution

By Ken Reynolds

a review of The Quartet by Joseph Ellis

In book cover the quartet ellis webThe 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.

Why Go To Houston In July?

by Marty & Ken Reynolds

Who would want to leave the cool mountains of North Georgia to spend a hot July week in Houston? Had it not been that our daughter, a kidney transplant recipient, was competing in the Donate Life Transplant Games of America we would have stayed here. But parental love prevailed, and we braved the mid-summer heat in Texas.

In 1982, our eight-year-old daughter, Katie, swam in a meet in Richmond, Virginia. As she got set to dive into the pool, faces turned toward her. We heard voices murmuring, “That’s the little girl who had the kidney transplant this winter!”

Newly transplanted, eight year old Katie at swim practice.

Newly transplanted, eight year old Katie at swim practice in 1982.

We were intent on watching her swim, but the fingers pointing toward her made it Continue reading

Candice Millard writes thrilling and chilling history

by Ken Reynolds

Author Candice Millard earned a place on my book shelves with two fascinating books about American presidents. The first, River of Doubt, is an incredible journey down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon River with Theodore Roosevelt. The second, Destiny of the Republic, is a more intricate tale of the brief presidency and early death of James A. Garfield.

Millard’s books read like novels. They are good examples of historical writing that cause readers to say, I wish history had been written like this when I was in school. Continue reading

Playing solitaire till dawn with a deck of fifty-one

by Ken Reynolds

Playing video games makes it easy to accomplish nothing, but playing them is still doing something. I try to resist video games, because time ceases to matter and inevitably I regret wasting it on an unrewarding activity. A few nights ago while I was engrossed in a session of computer solitaire Lew Dewitt and The Statler Brothers popped into my mind.

In the mid to late 1960s Statler was one of the most well-known names around Staunton and Waynesboro, Virginia. Not because a lot of people were named Statler. There may have been none, but it was difficult to find anyone in our part of the Shenandoah Valley who did not claim to be a personal friend of at least one member of the Grammy Award winning Statler Brothers quartet. The claims may have been true. The singers were extraordinarily popular and exceptionally civic minded and reputedly were friendly and outgoing fellows. However, only two of them were brothers and none were named Statler. They chose the name from a tissue box in a hotel room. Continue reading

Thirteen American Arguments

Howard Fineman’s The Thirteen American Arguments

Review by Ken ReynoldsTurned Pages
Do Americans have an innate national need to argue? Howard Fineman, author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country, says we do. Fineman contends the founder’s design of our government left it to be refined and improved through an endless series of arguments. He believes voicing our differences sustains our national identity and makes us an ever-renewing nation.

Whether the national design was deliberate, or an inevitable result of the need to meld thirteen separate and disparate governments into one nation, he leaves for academics to debate. Fineman bases his premise on more than thirty years of observing, reporting and commenting on national politics. He says there are issues that, under our form of government, will not be resolved. Continue reading

Something Like a Walk

by Ken Reynolds

 When we moved to these mountains fifteen years ago we were newly retired and we both liked to hike. North Georgia had more trails than I could have walked even if the trail system had not grown longer every year and those same years had not wrought havoc on my ability to go up and down hill. I was a lot younger then. Martha has not aged.

Our dog often accompanied us on short walks and long hikes. But he also has gotten older and the years have taken a toll his ability to cover the distances we once did. Twice each day he demands an opportunity to sniff over what he sniffed over the last time he was outside, so we spend a lot of time in a small area. Whatever I once might have labeled our outings I can no longer call them hikes, or even long walks. I don’t hike anymore and I miss it.

There has been a lot of rain this year. Rainy days, achy knees and stiff fingers remind me how old I really am. Four rainy days in a row made getting out of bed this morning particularly difficult. But beyond our bedroom window sunlight beckoned, so I struggled to get myself upright, went through what Martha calls my pre-amble, then hobbled into the bathroom. Continue reading

No Fiction Pulitzer

The Pulitzer Prize Board did not select a fiction prize winner. Ann Patchett, author and bookstore owner eloquently expresses her disapproval of the board’s non-award. I recommend her April 17 N Y Times Op-Ed “And the Winner Isn’t . . .”

Patchett says, “Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.”

The author and Karen Hayes are co-owners of Parnassus Books in Nashville. Together they are demonstrating that physical bookstores are not of the past.

To read Patchett’s full column follow this link http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/18/opinion/and-the-winner-of-the-pulitzer-isnt.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20120418