Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis

The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis is an examination of both the men and the process that brought about the creation of the United States Constitution. This is an insightful book that looks closely at how the political beliefs and philosophy of four individuals shaped history in a profound way. The quartet that Ellis refers to is George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. This book digs into some very specific aspects of history. Those interested in this period and these issues will likely find it fascinating. With that, those with only a passing interest in this subject might find it a little too esoteric. 

The book does a good job of explaining the relevant background history. This history is important in understanding the main issues. America’s first Constitution was known as The Articles of Confederation and was ratified by the various states between 1777 and 1781. Until 1789, this document was the blueprint for the American government. Under the Articles, the federal government was extremely weak. There was no executive. Congress had little power. Most power was in the hands of state legislatures. This was essentially an alliance of state governments tied together by a weak congress.

Some saw this situation under the Articles as untenable. Conducting foreign policy was nearly impossible. The finances of the United States were in a shambles. National infrastructure projects were impossible to initiate. During the War for Independence, the Continental Army was starved and undersupplied due largely to the inefficiency of the Articles. An entire host of other problems existed. 

Though some recognized these problems, Ellis argues the political consensus was that a confederation with a weak federal government was the best form of government. The author makes the case that the popular belief that arose out of the American Revolution was that powerful central governments, with strong executives, were the road to tyranny.


Ellis writes,

the majority of state legislators opposed any effort at political reform, not because they believed it would fail but because they feared that it would succeed. Any energetic projection of power at the federal level defied their understanding of revolutionary principles, making the very weakness of the Confederation Congress its most attractive feature. Meanwhile, beyond the halls of Congress and the corridors of the state legislators, ordinary Americans were getting on with their lives, relieved that the war was over, blissfully indifferent to any political debate that raged beyond the borders of their towns or counties”

He describes how these men swam against the tide of elite and popular opinion. These men, with a little help from a few others, advocated for a change in government. Eventually, Hamilton was the individual who actually called for a Constitutional Convention through a clever political maneuver. Once the convention was convened, the four advocated for a constitution that would be created for a strong central government. Finally, they all worked to convince the individual states to ratify the new constitution. The author makes a convincing case that although those in this group, which he dubs “The Nationalists”, were a minority, their superior organization and determination ultimately won the day.

This book is full of insights and observations about these men and the United States Constitution. Ellis’s contention raises a question for me: had it not been for these four men, is it possible that the United States would not have formed into a cohesive nation? Unfortunately, the author does not explore this topic. I think that the book would have been stronger if he had. Many of us, including those who have read a bit about the subject, tend to fall into thinking that the formation of the United States as a coherent whole was the inevitable consequence of winning the War for Independence. However, the author describes a society that was not initially enthusiastic about entering into a federal union. He tells the story of a nascent nation that was persuaded, prodded and at times even maneuvered into accepting a strong federal government by some smart and strong personalities. Perhaps the forces of history would inevitably have pushed the States into a strong union; perhaps not. It is not clear what would have happened if it had not been for these four men.

These questions relate to Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man Theory,” which postulates that a few influential individuals make decisions that drive much of history. My understanding is that most modern historians reject this belief. Many believe that historical trends are inevitable, no matter the decisions of individuals. Others believe that the truth lies in the middle. I agree with the later. I believe that there are inevitable historical trends, but individuals also make a difference. Sometimes the difference they make is small, and sometimes individuals make an enormous difference. If so, it is still very difficult to know what the world would look like without the influence of “The Quartet.”

If the United States in its present form had never come to be, then world history would surely have been dramatically different. Once again, one can only guess at what things would have been like.

I have also read Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. I thought that both were excellent and balanced biographies. 

Reading this book probably will work best for someone going in with a basic understanding of the related history. For those without a knowledge of the relevant issues, I would recommend first reading a good book that broadly covers the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Lincoln Collier’s and Christopher Collier’s Decision in Philadelphia is an excellent example of such a book.

Ellis’s work is ultimately a fascinating look at how just four men had an enormous impact on history. Though very specific, it is informative and insightful. For folks who have an interest in this topic, I highly recommend it.



32 comments:

Stephen said...

I for one considered and then rejected the "trends" of history, the idea that it moves on its own and people are carried along with it. Take one of those currents of history, like industrialism and urbanism, and you will find that every one of them is generated by people making independent decisions: the actions of individuals ricochet off one another and create the impetus for social change. Some people's actions resonate more than others, sometimes out of talent, sometimes out their social position. The founding fathers' actions resonated greatly because of timing, I think: they were born in an era where people were thinking seriously and deliberately on how society worked and what the best kind of government should be; they were all well-educated in these ideas, they debated with one another constantly, and those we remember were either fantastically talented, doggedly ambitious, or -- in the case of Hamilton -- both. I don't even like Hamilton, but there's no denying his role in promoting a central government.

Laurie @ RelevantObscurity said...

What a fascinating look at the Constitution in the early days. This really stood out for me:

"Any energetic projection of power at the federal level defied their understanding of revolutionary principles, making the very weakness of the Confederation Congress its most attractive feature."

I think about the stand many take of states rights over the federal government that goes on these days. But this is now such a big country and, in my opinion, a cohesive structure of government makes us stronger. As the example given here about soldiers being ill equipped because there is no strong central authority, there are so many issues these days suffering through the same thing.

I wonder if we ever will find a happy medium in this regard or does states rights only work in small a country?

thecuecard said...

It sounds like "the Quartet" had a great impact on the direction of the government & country. And it seems that after a weak Confederation they were ready for a stronger more unified government. I think I might check out the book you mention: Decision in Philadelphia; I need a broad overview. thx.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen - I think some very long term trends are inevitable but there can be enormous variation within shorter periods of time. For instance, had not been for these four The United States as we know it might never have formed. But I think that modern democracies would have formed anyway. On the other, I think that the actions of a few individuals can at times change trends. For instance, a few individuals could have started a post World War II nuclear war. That certainly would have changed everything.

Brian Joseph said...

I think that a balance between State Power and Federal Power has benefited The United States. I also think that some conflict between the two is built is into the system. I think to some extent, this conflict has been part of the balance and has been beneficial.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I thought that Decision in Philadelphia was a great one. It should held anyone's understanding of The Convention.

James said...

This sounds like an intriguing book about a specific time, place, and people. I have enjoyed Ellis's take on Jefferson in the past so I believe I would enjoy this work. Your reference to Carlyle's "great man" theory is also interesting as Carlyle, in his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, considers Kings, Priests, Prophets and Poets, in an attempt to assess the impact of the world-historical figure. Perhaps the Quartet considered together might come close to that stature, and perhaps not.

Suko said...

I think I'd enjoy reading The Quartet because you state that it's full of insights and observations about Washington, Hamilton,Madison,and Jay, and the United States Constitution. Excellent commentary, Brian Joseph--as usual!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - The Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the time leading up to it was certainly a time for great people to assert themselves. I really need to read Carlyle.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko - For someone interested in the Founders, this is a great book to read.

Deepika Ramesh said...

Whenever I see your passionate posts, Brian, I tell myself that I must read some books about Indian constitution and the government. Thank you for inspiring me. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Deepika - I actually need to learn more about Indian govenment and history. If you have any recommendations, please let me know.

baili said...

Marvelous commentary Brain!

Thank you for introducing this topic to me which sounds very interesting

Like each new country and obviously like my Pakistan United States also bered very hard times specially weak structure of government alnogwith financial crises and constitutional issues .

I am glad that writer put light on few strong heads who stood for betterment of the states .

Though the dream of separate homeland was seen by Mr allama Iqbal but it was carried to success by Mr Jinnah along with few who followed him with crowed this is which always bring revolution the awareness of problem ,analysing the process and stepping forward to solve it it worked for my homeland it worked for United States of America .

I am sure someday i will hold this book and be more familiar to the beginning of america and his fore fathers

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - I know a little bit about the beginnings of Pakistan, but just a little bit. I would like to learn more about your nation's beginnings.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I say it alot because it's true, another excellent review. The Great Man theory of history is one I definitely subscribe to. Individual characters for good or ill can change the course of history. WWen it comes to the founders the one that most fascinates me is Alexander Hamilton. He was a brilliant man, a romantic character and I remember thinking long before the hit musical that his story would make an excellent miniseries. Though we are one nation we still have that divide where half the country wants power to the states and the otner half appreciates a stronger federal government.

JaneGS said...

Fascinating topic--I tend to think that America would not be what it is without Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Jay...and Adams. Right people at the right time that made a huge difference in the way things work.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy. It is so hard to know just how much individuals change history. Imagine if we could ethically experiment!

Hamilton was indeed a fascinating character. I thought that the Ron Chernow biography of him was excellent.

I think that conflict between federal power and state power is built into the constitution and that there will always be disagreement.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Indeed these men made a great difference. I wonder how things would have been different without them.

Sharon Wilfong said...

This was such a good review and the book certainly sounds worth reading. I hope to read it some time.

I guess I am a little bit libertarian in that I believe the smallest government necessary is the best form. The bigger government, the more bloated the bureaucracy. Yet we do need a federal form of government to be a cohesive whole. Yet again, there is a lot of federal over reach these days.

I am about to embark on another president biography. It will be interesting to see if it addresses any of this subject.

Have a wonderful week!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. I think Americans will be forever debating the size and power of The Federal Government.

Which biography are you reading?

Sharon Wilfong said...

I am going to start "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House" by Jon Meacham. Have you read it?

Brian Joseph said...

Yes I have read that. I really liked it. I hope that you enjoy it.

HKatz said...

This is one I might definitely read, and I like how you highlight various issues it raises (such as the impact of individuals on history).

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila. If you read this I would love to know what you think.

Maria Behar said...

AWESOME commentary as usual, Brian!

I'm so glad you really enjoyed this book you won in my July Fourth Giveaway! Of course, you picked a book that you were sure to love, given your interest in the history of the Revolutionary Period in American History. I should read about this period myself. Then I could comment on such books on my literary fiction/nonfiction blog. :)

It's interesting that, originally, the Constitution, at that time known as "The Articles of Confederation", actually and intentionally provided for a weak central government. Of course, this is understandable, given the situation with England that led to the American Revolution. The problem was, as stated in the book, that these articles were grossly inefficient. Very little in the way of effective, efficient government could really be accomplished. Conservatives nowadays are CONSTANTLY clamoring for less so-called "interference" by the Federal government. They usually are strong states' rights supporters. Thus, they are really shooting themselves in the foot. They stubbornly refuse to see this, however, hearkening back to this time in American History. However, the situation is MUCH different nowadays. Even back in the latter part of the 19th century, though, it became painfully obvious that a weak central government was just not a good thing for this country.

We don't need a dictatorship, obviously. But we DO need our government to exert SOME control on private enterprise, for instance; otherwise, said private enterprise will ride roughshod over the rights of minorities, continue to pollute our environment with impunity, and simply expand with absolutely NO regard to such things as the rights of Native Americans to their sacred land.

The question you pose in this EXCELLENT review is an extremely important, as well as pertinent, one: "....had it not been for these four men, is it possible that the United States would not have formed into a cohesive nation?" I would say that no, the United States would not have become a unified, cohesive nation, had it not been for this visionary quartet, especially Hamilton. . This issue would surface again during the Civil War. And those who, like Lincoln, wanted a unified country, ultimately won. Thank God for that! Otherwise, we would now have TWO diametrically opposed governments in North America!

It's unfortunate that the author did not explore this topic. I firmly believe it's an EXTREMELY important one. And I agree with you that this book would have been stronger if he had done so.

Another GREAT quote: "It is not clear what would have happened if it had not been for these four men." Indeed! As you have stated, the entire course of world history would have been completely different! Who knows, we might not have even been able to defeat the Nazis in WW II! That would have been HORRIBLE.

I see that I really need to delve into these matters, Brian. So I will look up your background recommendation, "Decision In Philadelphia", and then go on to "The Quartet". In the current political climate, both of these books are HIGHLY relevant reading!!

Thanks for another very insightful, fascinating, review!! <3 :)

Maria Behar said...

p.s. I have to correct a "boo-boo" in my comment above. I meant to type: "Even back in the latter part of the 18th century...", and NOT "Even back in the latter part of the 19th century....: Oh, these typos!!! LOL.

Maria Behar said...

P.P.S. One more thing: ironically, I would consider myself a "libertarian" ONLY in the workplace. I dislike having an authority over me at work. I ESPECIALLY detest it when a supervisor micro-manages me. However, in the case of government, I do think that a strong central government is best. The caveat here, though, is that this strong central government must not have TOO much authority. So that's why we have the system of checks and balances. It's all a question of balance. Something that's not easily understood by extremists, whether of the Left or the Right. Okay, I'm off my soapbox now! Lol

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Maria.

I think that you identify many of the reasons why a strong central government is important. It is so interesting that the debate between a strong central government and states rights is still going on. Indeed it is seems to be ingrained in America and it is one of the major factors that led to the Civil War.

It is so hard to know how world history would have played out had The United States a strong United States had not arisen. The Nazis might have arisen and taken over much of the world. On the other hand the Nazis might not have arisen in the first place as Germany might have done much better in The First World War.

I agree with you about balance. Like with many things, it is the best way to go in government. I agree that relatively strong central government, moderated by checks and balances is the key to a prosperous, just and successful nation.

I am the king of typos! They frustrate me to no end!

R.T. said...

Thanks for recommending the Collier before the Ellis. That helps a lot.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi R.T. - I think that you would like Decision in Philadelphia.

R.T. said...

Brian....while I was doing Blogger “housekeeping” — permanently deleting unused blogs (there were a few) — I seem to have permanently deleted Informal Inquiries. Now no blog exists. So, when I return to blogging, I will have to create a new blog. That will have to wait until after Christmas. I’ll let you know when I return.
Best wishes,
Tim

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for letting me know Tim. When you set up ypur new site please let me know its address.