Joseph J. Ellis

The Quartet

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The Quartet Summary

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Published in 2015, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 is a non-fiction history book by Joseph J. Ellis. The book tells the story of the thirteen original colonies of America and why, after having just won their independence, they decide to subjugate themselves to a new central government. Ellis is a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College and a nationally recognized scholar of American colonial history. The author of seven non-fiction titles, he is known for his lively and engaging narratives. His book Founding Brothers won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2001.

In the book’s introduction, Ellis asserts that Abraham Lincoln’s famous opening line of his Gettysburg Address is wrong. “Four score and seven years ago” dates the founding of the United States at the signing of The Declaration of Independence in 1776, but Ellis states that the U.S. really becomes a nation in 1789 when the states all agree to adopt the Constitution of the United States. Ellis contends that “four men made the ­transition from confederation to nation ­happen. They are George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison.” This political quartet and their accomplishments during 1783-89, a period Ellis calls “the second American revolution,” is explored in The Quartet.

After the Revolutionary War, the American colonies are governed by the Articles of the Confederation, which makes the colonies sovereign while giving the Federal government little power. During this time, Hamilton works tirelessly for reform. He and the others wish to establish a central government that will better balance authority at both the State and Federal level—one that “moved the American republic toward nationhood while retaining an abiding place for local and state allegiances.” However, the public is almost entirely against the idea of a new constitution and centralized government, which they see as being too reminiscent of the British rule they had just left behind.

Thanks to their experiences in the Revolutionary War, both Washington and Jay believe that a strong centralized government is very much needed. Jay’s duties as an American ambassador had been nearly impossible because he was representing the interests of thirteen separate colonies rather than one united country. Meanwhile, Washington’s troops had no regular means of obtaining supplies and were reduced to negotiating with the individual states for their food, ammunition, and pay. In fact, Washington emerges as one of the strongest constitutional advocates. In a letter to James Madison, Washington maintains that “we are either a United people or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation… If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending to it.”

There are several other reasons a centralized government is needed that are not immediately apparent to the colonist population. One reason is that states have taken on a large amount of debt to win their independence, but as the Articles of the Confederation do not allow for taxation, there is no way to repay the debts. Another reason is the very real issue of protection against powerful nations like England, France, and Spain, who have all expressed interest in the New World. In their current condition as thirteen separate, disorganized states, they stand little chance of defending themselves.

The Constitutional Convention is held in 1787. Despite being only five-foot-three and “forever lingering on the edge of some fatal ailment,” Madison arranges for the convention to be held in Philadelphia where the pro-Constitution crowd is strongest. He also talks Washington out of retirement in order to chair the event. As the convention progresses, Hamilton is among five men tapped to create a final draft of a new Constitution from 23 approved articles. The draft is considered a failure, however, and while 39 delegates do sign, several others refuse. Not all about the Constitutional Convention is a failure, however. Madison (along with Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris) takes the opportunity to advocate strongly against the widely held belief that democratic governments, which at the time were considered little more than mob rule, can only work in small countries.

In 1788, the Congress of the Constitution calls for each of the colonies to vote for a “Federal Convention” to ratify the new Constitution. During this time, Madison begins advocating for the addition of amendments to the Constitution that will protect citizens’ rights, but he is opposed on nearly every side. The pro-Constitution faction, the Federalists, believes that the document is adequate as-is, while the anti-Constitution faction, the Anti-Federalists, believe that amendments do too little to fix the document’s flaws.

To help address this, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay begin writing The Federalist Papers under the pseudonym Publius. The articles are published in New York, the center of Anti-Federalist sentiment, and are widely read, though their success in swaying the ratification debate is questionable. In most states, the vote for ratification of the Constitution is close, but in September of 1788, the Congress of Constitution passes a resolution to put the new Constitution into operation in eleven states. Ten amendments are added to the Constitution to help address the concerns of the Anti-Federalists; these are now known as the Bill of Rights. Washington is inaugurated as the first President of the United States the following year, and the remaining two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, ratify the Constitution soon after.

Robert Rosenberger, a Georgia Tech philosophy professor, writes in an article for The Rumpus that “with The Quartet, Ellis provides a swift and thoughtful account of the extreme uphill battle to create the American Constitution” and that “the book deftly captures the power plays, the stakes, the biting frustrations, and the rushing excitement that accompanied the push for nationhood.”