Joseph J. Ellis says he got the idea for his latest book while listening to some middle school students struggling to recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation…
Suddenly Ellis realized that Honest Abe’s math was wrong. The new nation really wasn’t created in 1776 but rather in 1787 when the Constitution was written — or maybe two years later, when it had been ratified and George Washington took office as the first president of the United States of America.
When we study history in school there always seems to be an inevitability about such events. Of course the colonies would win their independence from England. And of course, a few years later everybody would realize that the Articles of Confederation and a powerless Continental Congress weren’t working and had to be replaced by a Constitution and a strong federal government.
A recently retired Ford Foundation professor of history at Mount Holyoke University and the author of several books on the American revolutionary era, Ellis makes clear that none of these actions was inevitable in those early days. He explains how the former colonists made changes to the fledgling American government in the relatively brief but incisive The Quartet.
Most people never traveled far from home in their lifetimes, Ellis writes. The largest unit of government they could understand was the state in which they lived. The idea of a republic was alien to them. Even “democracy” was considered a dirty word — it meant mob rule.
Ellis says a quartet of statesmen had to help bring Americans to their senses — George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, with assistance from financier Robert Morris and also Gouverneur Morris (no relation), who, Ellis writes, “had a greater influence on the final wording of the document [Constitution] than anyone else.” All of them had quickly discovered the shortcomings of the limited government called for in the Articles of Confederation — for instance, Washington when his Revolutionary War troops were never adequately paid, Jay when the treaties he negotiated as U.S. foreign minister were ignored by the states.
Ellis does an excellent job in explaining how these leaders, Madison in particular, arranged for a Constitutional Convention to be called in Philadelphia with a majority of delegates already leaning in their favor. And he also shows how they persuaded the somewhat reticent Washington — “the indispensable man,’’ as biographer James Thomas Flexner called him — that he needed to come out of retirement and chair the convention.
Ellis doesn’t really explain how some of the provisions of the new Constitution were decided upon, which is one of the book’s shortcomings. For example, Madison and Hamilton had wanted both houses of Congress to represent the people in order to reduce the power of the states, but there isn’t much discussion of the debate over this key issue. Nor is there an explanation of how the Electoral College was created (Ellis merely describes it as “that strange thing that continues to befuddle foreign observers”). Sessions of the Constitutional Convention were conducted in secret, but Madison took copious notes, which are readily available.
Ellis is an excellent writer, particularly offering colorful descriptions of some of the main characters. Of Washington, he writes: “Not the kind of man to suffer fools gladly, he oversaw his plantation at Mount Vernon imperiously and assiduously, always on the lookout for laziness among his overseers; he was not someone you would want to work for.’’ Of Madison: “At five foot three and 120 pounds, [he was] a diminutive young man, forever lingering on the edge of some fatal ailment.’’
One might have hoped Ellis to have offered a better description of Gouverneur Morris than merely to write that he had a peg leg. According to the website of the Gouverneur Museum in New York (a town he helped settle), Morris claimed he lost his leg in 1780 when a carriage ran over it. However, the website claims Morris was a notorious womanizer, and rumors suggested the accident happened when Morris jumped out of a window while being chased by an angry husband.
But despite some minor failings and the book’s brevity, The Quartet achieves its purpose, providing a clear explanation of how the real United States of America came into being.
Sam Jacobs is a writer in Miami.