The holy grail for any writer of history must surely be to create a work that advances scholarship and captivates readers through deft storytelling. This Joseph Ellis has achieved, again, in his latest book, The Quartet.
The Pulitzer Prize winning author of Founding Brothers, demonstrates how four key players – George Washington, James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton – recognised the fatal shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation as a foundational document on which to construct a united and effective national entity after the American triumph in the Revolutionary War.
Here was the problem: the text of the Articles held the colonies, now states, to a “firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defence, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other,” yet also enshrined their right to retain their “sovereignty, freedom, and independence.”
Washington had seen first-hand the fiasco created by the Article’s soft-centred confederation, with troops that went uncompensated and without the necessary supplies to keep them appropriately clothed or fed. Taxes from the states for war bills were unpaid which led to a staggering national debt.
Much was at stake Washington warned Congress, the national body created by the Articles: unless powers were enlarged, “the Blood which has been spilt, the expense that has been incurred, the distress that have been felt, will avail in nothing; and that the band, already too weak, which hold us together, will soon be broken; when anarchy and confusion must prevail.”
Ellis shows how hero General Washington, outwardly reticent about post-war political engagement was inwardly concerned about his legacy; scholarly lawyer Madison, chief architect of the Constitution, who would go on to serve as 4th President of the United States; affable John Jay, who had served as President of the Continental Congress and would become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; and Washington’s former wartime aide-de-camp, the brilliantly shrewd tactician Hamilton, all believed that while the war had been won (by sheer persistence), the peace could easily be lost, with enemies waiting in the wings to at best gloat or at worst, step in to fill the breach.
It begs the question if the Articles had persisted, whether anarchy would have in fact resulted — or another occasion — would have arisen in future decades to move from a confederation to a republic. It is a counterfactual Ellis does not address.
He engagingly weaves his narrative to demonstrate how, led by their inalienable conviction in their cause, with the help of supporting figures – some towering like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and some lesser knowns like “the financier,” Robert Morris, and his assistant, though no relation, Gouverneur Morris – waged a second revolution between 1783-1789 and beat the odds (which ran the gamut from apathy to passionate resistance) to bring the states together to craft a new, workable, ratified Constitution and Bill of Rights upon which was built the world’s largest republic.
Ellis argues they must not be judged by contemporary standards for advocating the wisdom of elites, for this they balanced with a belief in the importance of the populace. He notes:
The Constitution they created and bequeathed to us was necessarily a product of that bimodal moment and mentality, and most of the men featured in this story [because involvement of women was then unthinkable] would be astonished to learn that it abides, with amendments, over two centuries later.
It has endured not because it embodies timeless truths that the founders fathomed as tongues of fire danced over their heads, but because it manages to combine the two time-bound truths of its own time: namely, that any legitimate government must rest on a popular foundation, and that popular majorities cannot be trusted to act responsibly, a paradox that has aged remarkably well.
While reinforcing key themes throughout his story – of his founding four’s ability to think expansively at a time when “most Americans were confined within local and state borders,” and the first phase of the American Revolution as a rejection of political power with the second about controlling it – Ellis provides salient insight along the way.
Washington, Madison, Jay, and Hamilton had unimpeachable revolutionary credentials, serving in either the Continental Army or Continental Congress, yet as he points out, they brought their individual skills rather than aristocratic bloodlines to bear on their mission. Their rise and influence (particularly Hamilton, who did not know his father or perhaps his actual birth date) would have been unlikely in a European context.
In order to gain the prize of a new Constitution and hence an actual United States, they forsook the slavery question, leaving humans shackled in service to the economic development of the South and the larger whole, which would haunt their descendants and lead to a civil war less than 100 years later.
Ambiguity was built into the Constitution. It was not meant, he argues, to be a document that provided answers for all things, but a mechanism for bringing competing positions into conflict from which compromise and resolution might emerge. But better “a confederated nation than a mere confederation.” He gives the last word on its construction to Franklin, “I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and I am not sure that it is not the best.”
If there is a critique, it is that Ellis makes clear how Washington linked the three other Second Revolutionists, but not the level of engagement among them, though each evidently played his part. The Notes cite correspondence to and from Washington, but rarely with each other.
Yet Ellis succeeds in making us care about this historical moment which forged an American political framework that still stands, by making the individuals involved tangible rather than deified figures from a remote past.
About the Benjamin Franklin House
In the heart of London, is Benjamin Franklin House, the world’s only remaining Franklin home. For nearly sixteen years between 1757 and 1775, Dr Benjamin Franklin – scientist, diplomat, philosopher, inventor, Founding Father of the United States and more – lived behind its doors. Built circa 1730, it is today a dynamic museum and educational facility encompassing:
A Historical Experience: Presenting the excitement and uncertainty of Franklin’s nearly 16 years in London using his historic rooms as staging for a drama which seamless integrates live performance, and cutting-edge lighting and projection technology.
A Student Science Centre: Encouraging Franklin’s boundless spirit of enquiry through hands-on experimentation with scientific discoveries from Franklin’s London years, juxtaposing past and present knowledge.
A Scholarship Centre: Featuring research facilities, including a full-set of the published Papers of Benjamin Franklin, as a focal point in Europe for study of Franklin and the myriad subjects with which he was associated.
Learn more at benjaminfranklinhouse.org.