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The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 Paperback – May 3, 2016
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“Historian Joseph Ellis masterfully illuminates the ‘untrodden’ path, as Washington put it, that led to that crucial stage of sewing up the elements of the new country. . . . Deeply insightful.” —New York Review of Books
“The dissenters—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison—faced no less a task than redefining the meaning of the War for Independence in what amounted to a Second American Revolution. How they did so is the burden of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis' The Quartet, an engaging reconsideration of the arduous path to the Constitution.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Customary, graceful prose. His portraits [show] his sure touch—highlighting Washington’s dignity, Hamilton’s energy, Madison’s learning and Jay’s diplomacy.” —New York Times Book Review
“The author is a sure-handed and entertaining guide through the thickets of argument, personality and ideology out of which the American nation emerged.” —The Economist
“Ellis shows the extraordinary capacity of these four leaders to understand the events, discuss them dispassionately, explain them to the American people, reach compromise, rise above pettiness and sacrifice personal wealth, power and popularity for the long-term public good. Given the rarity of these qualities today, Ellis’ book is a compelling reminder of the political virtues that created the American republic.” —Star Tribune
“Ellis lives and breathes the Founders, and he deploys his customary zip and trenchant scholarship in showing how four central figures—Washington, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison—conceived and promoted a new political framework built on the Constitution." —Newsday
“This is more than just a reinterpretation of a vital transition in our history; it is a reflection of new material from an episode that occurred two and a quarter centuries ago. . . . Having set forth the analysis, Ellis plunges into the narrative. His is an inviting voice and his story compelling, built around irresistible figures who, as the annual publishing lists amply display, retain their appeal in our own time.” —The Boston Globe
“The Quartet achieves its purpose, providing a clear explanation of how the real United States of America came into being.” —Miami Herald
“Ellis, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for Founding Brothers, reminds us that what Catherine Drinker Bowen has called the ‘Miracle at Philadelphia’ wasn’t destiny or ordained by God. It was created by perceptive men who understood human nature, history and politics and could foresee what this country could become should its people choose to have a strong central government.” —St. Louis Post Dispatch
“An author who breathes life into the dead and immediacy into the past, Ellis illuminates America’s rebirth, the men who made it possible and the framework they created. With rich research and intelligent interpretation, The Quartet burnishes his reputation as a writer, a thinker and a humanist.” —Richmond Times Dispatch
“Absorbing in its details, and convincing in its arguments, The Quartet is sure to appeal to history nerds and American politicos. As another election season approaches, a look back at the creation of the government, and the reasons why these founding fathers did what they did, is sure to be engrossing reading for anyone.” —Shelf Awareness
“A brilliant account of six years during which four Founding Fathers, ‘in disregard of public opinion, carried the American story in a new direction.’ In a virtuosic introduction, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Ellis maintains that Abraham Lincoln was wrong. In 1776—four score and seven years before 1863—our forefathers did not bring forth a new nation. . . . Ellis reminds us that the 1776 resolution declaring independence described 13 ‘free and independent states.’ Adopting the Constitution in 1789 created the United States, but no mobs rampaged in its favor. . . . Ellis delivers a convincing argument that it was a massive political transformation led by men with impeccable revolutionary credentials. . . . This is Ellis’ ninth consecutive history of the Revolutionary War era and yet another winner.” —Kirkus (starred review)
About the Author
JOSEPH J. ELLIS is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Founding Brothers. His portrait of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, won the National Book Award. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, Ellen, his youngest son, three dogs, and a cat.
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Ellis' short but broad, thoughtful, and provocative book argues that the United States did not become a nation upon winning independence but became instead a group of loosely-connected separate states. Ellis maintains that most people at the time lacked even a concept of national identity beyond the provincial boundaries of their communities. They thought they had fought a hard war to free themselves from the distant centralizing government of Great Britain. With the ineffective Articles of Confederation, the thirteen states appeared headed for separation and quarrels, similar to the nations of Europe.
Other parts of Ellis' book are more controversial. Ellis maintains that while the first American Revolution might be viewed from the ground up, the second worked "from the top down". He finds that four individuals, the "Quartet" of his title, were primarily responsible: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. The first three names are unsurprising. Ellis clearly regards Washington is the essential member of the group and as the leader of both the first and second American revolutions. He gives Washington more credit than he sometimes receives for his intellectual foresight in an early writing about the deficiency of the Articles of Confederation and the need for a central government. Ellis sees Madison more as a highly savvy politician and lawyer than as an original thinker. The partial surprise on Ellis' the list is John Jay who tends to be less well--known than he deserves. Jay negotiated the treaty of Paris and worked early and diplomatically, including with opponents, for the cause of nationhood. Other leaders who play supporting roles in Ellis' account include financier Robert Morris, Thomas Jefferson, and Gouverneur Morris, the drafter of the Constitution.
In another claim that will provoke controversy, Ellis' reading of the second American revolution is avowedly elitist. He argues that most people had no interest in nationhood because a broad national vision would be inconsistent in some ways with their limited goals such as avoiding taxation and living beyond their means. Ellis recognizes the controversial nature of his perspective. He writes in the book's Preface:
"All democratic cultures find such explanations offensive because they violate the hallowed conviction that, at least in the long run, popular majorities can best decide the direction that history should take. However true that conviction might be over the full span of American history, and the claim is contestable, it does not work for the 1780s, which just might be the most conspicuous and consequential example of the way in which small groups of prominent leaders, in disregard of popular opinion, carried the American story in a new direction."
Ellis takes the reader through the Confederation years, the preliminaries to the Constitutional Convention, the Convention itself,, and the proceedings in the states for the ratification of the Constitution, including the writing and significance of "The Federalist Papers". The book concludes with the enactment of the Bill of Rights. Ellis does not attribute superhuman wisdom to the founders but he also avoids the current tendency to belittle their accomplishments through an anachronistic importation of today's values into the late 18th Century. Among other things, his book discusses briefly but well the dilemma the founders faced over slavery. The book stresses the value of ideas and thinking, compromise, practicality, commitment, and humility in the second American revolution and the founding of the national government and its shifting contours of Federalism.
This book has a great deal to teach and provides ample material for reflection. It also made me want to learn more about George Washington, whose role throughout the Revolutionary Era amply comes through in this book, by reading the Library of America volume of his writings. George Washington : Writings (Library of America). Washington and his accomplishments cannot be over-emphasized.
The dilemma of American history has always been why, after fighting a war of independence from both the English crown and the dominating landed families in Great Britain, some of whom literally owned individual colonies, did Americans decide to bring themselves once again under a central government, though one constituted and run by themselves? What I like most about Ellis's book, in addition to its excellent prose and clear narrative, is his focusing primarily on four Americans that students of the writing of the constitution know as crucial. but who more casual students might not. He correctly leaves out figures like John Adams (though he played an important role at the constitutional convention), Thomas Jefferson (though he did play a role indirectly as the major influence on James Madison, who is arguably the most important person in the creating of the constitution and getting it ratified) is for the most part absent from the story, as is Benjamin Franklin, whose health had begun to fade by the mid-1780s. Instead, he tells the story from the standpoint of George Washington, who contributed little of substance to the creation of the new nation apart from lending his formidable support to the idea of a new nation (indeed, except for creating the precedent of presidents not serving for life, which he could easily have done had he wished, Washington's ideas were for the most part not followed by Congress or later presidents: he pushed for a far more powerful central government that we ended up with, symbolized by many such institutions as a national university to be situated in the national capital and supported the inclusion of Native Americans in the new nation, as long as they gave up hunting and embraced agriculture), James Madison, Alexander Hamilton (the individual whom neither the Right or Left today wants to count as one of their own, largely because he was in most ways a conservative while at the same time agreeing with Washington on the need for a strong central government - the best book that I've read on Hamilton, and in fact maybe the best book that I've read on the Founding Generation apart from Gordon Wood's many masterpieces, Bernard Bailyn's THE IDEOLOGICAL ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, and Douglass Adair's remarkable collection of essays FAME AND THE FOUNDING FATHERS, is Gerald Stourzh's ALEXANDER HAMILTON AND THE IDEA OF REPUBLICAN GOVERNMENT [on a personal note, I had looked for a copy of this book for years until finally locating one, and was ecstatic upon receiving it to see the signature of the previous owner of the book, "Merrill D. Peterson," the author of some of the finest books ever written concerning the history of the United States, including a superb short book on the complex relationship between Adams and Jefferson and his masterful volume on the dominant Congressional personalities in Congress during the antebellum period, THE GREAT TRIUMVIRATE: WEBSTER, CLAY, AND CALHOUN - sadly Peterson made only a couple of marks in the book]), and John Jay. The latter is the greatest of the Founders of whom people know almost next to nothing. Apart from serving as an ambassador, writing several of the FEDERALIST papers, and serving in the Supreme Court people know next to nothing about him, and I firmly count myself among them. One of the greatest services of this book is helping to give Jay the credit he deserves for his role in creating the United States.
I strongly recommend this book. I don't love Ellis like I do Gordon Wood, whom I consider a national treasure, or find myself looking at everything differently, like I do after reading Richard Mansfield or Douglass Adair, but because of his skill as a writer I find myself enjoying Ellis more than any other writer about this period of American history. My only complaint with Ellis is that he tends in his overall output to keep crisscrossing the same time period. I would love to see him write something outside his specialized field. Even if he were only to write a book on the conflict between Jefferson and Marshall, it would be nice to see his take on something other than the original set of Founders. But as long as he continues to write such informative yet entertaining books, I won't truly complain.
Thankfully, Ellis avoids the common pitfall in this genre and avoids peddling trivial facts in exchange for making big points. He makes no attempt to replicate the long list of biographies available for each of these principals. This results in a relatively crisp accounting of a momentous moment in American history.
One quibble: while Ellis touches on the Electoral College, he does not describe it in sufficient detail to fully comprehend why that method was chosen and the residual impact it has had on modern day presidential politics and elections,
But that is only a quibble. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding the true birth of this nation.