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.
“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.