By Chet Yarbrough
The Quartet (Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789)
By: Joseph J. Ellis
Narrated by Robertson Dean
Joseph J. Ellis (Author, American historian.)
Joseph Ellis explains why creation of a Constitution constitutes America’s second revolution.
“The Quartet” is a well-reasoned history that touches on the 1765-1783 revolution and the subsequent adoption of an American Constitution. Ellis notes America’s fight for independence meant 13 individual colonies (not a nation-state) fought for freedom from government control by Great Britain. It was a revolution of many governments against one. Ellis notes most Americans in those early years identified with their own colonies, their own governments, and their singular independence.
The revolutionary war exposes the weakness of the Articles of Confederation.
Though formed to prosecute an American uprising against the British, a confederation of disparate colonies often failed to provide either pay, food, or clothing to its soldiers who were fighting for their colony’s independence.
Adopting a Constitution in 1787-1788 creates a national identity and a singular nation-state. Ellis implies the adoption of a Constitution is a forcible overthrow of 13 governments. The American Constitution creates a nation-state that complements, and in many ways supersedes, the authority of 13 colonial governments. It addresses many of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.
There is an element of hyperbole in naming the Constitutional convention a revolution but it certainly is a revolution in political ideas. Arms to overthrow colonial governments were not taken up by the framers of the Constitution. However, Ellis reasons the force of four men’s intellects foment what he calls a second revolution.
The Constitution not only consolidates 13 disparate colonial governments but offers a democratic nation-state that could grow and compete with every country of the world. Reification of the maligned ideals of democratic government by the American Constitution may well be classified as a revolution.
Ellis argues a “…Quartet” orchestrates a second American revolution. The preeminent member is George Washington. Two are less well known, John Jay and James Madison. The fourth, Alexander Hamilton is well known today, in part because of the New York rap musical, “Hamilton”. Hamilton is an important spoke in the wagon wheel of early American history.
The diminutive James Madison is identified by Ellis as the primary motive power behind the creation of the Constitution. Ellis suggests, without Madison’s astute handling of arguments for union, the Constitution would have not been approved by the colonies.
Ellis notes that Madison would not have been successful without the support of Washington, Hamilton, and Jay. It is clear from Ellis’s history that Madison could not have won his arguments for union without the stature and influence of George Washington. Madison’s friendship with Thomas Jefferson and other revolutionaries enhanced his efforts. However, Ellis explains Madison’s intellect and studious preparation for debate carried the weight for public acceptance of the Constitution. Madison effectively argues for and designs a Constitution that preserves a level of State sovereignty with a powerful Federal government that becomes acceptable to the colonies.
A “…Quartet” forms a governing union of colonies to provide defense, health, education, and welfare for a singular nation.
One of many interesting facts Ellis reveals is how Madison, though short in stature, towered over great orators like Patrick Henry. Henry insisted on preservation of independence for the colonies.
Madison is shown as an intellect who is always fully prepared for debate. His ability to draw on historical fact sways enough of the public to see through the voluble and seductive speeches of great orators like Henry.
Ellis notes there is a fundamental difference between Jefferson’s and Madison’s view of the need for a federal government. Both believed in the importance of a federal government but Jefferson looked to a federal government as a light handed, nearly invisible form of influence on local States. Madison viewed federal government as a more dominant and influential force on State governance.
(Parenthetically, Ellis notes that Madison reverses course in his later years to become more in tune with Jefferson’s view. Both men were Virginians. Ellis speculates Madison’s change in belief is in his recognition of growing disadvantages southern states would have in a Federal government.)
In drafting the Constitution, Ellis notes Madison understood the importance of compromise in dealing with State prerogative. The importance of having State representation and a mechanism for adjudicating disagreement were folded into a concept of Senate and House representation. Every State, regardless of population, would have two senators. However, the House would have representatives based on population. The Senate and House would have different responsibilities but each would have to compromise with the other in order to pass legislation. Though Madison may not have clearly appreciated the power of a Supreme Court, the idea of balance of power with three branches of Federal government garnered more support for union of the colonies.
The role of John Jay, except to historians, is not well known. Jay became the first Chief Justice of the United States.
Before that position, John Jay plays a vital role in forming American independence. He becomes the Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation and is a strong proponent of centralized government. He was chief negotiator of the Treaty of Paris, in which Britain recognizes American independence. As co-author of the Federalist Papers (along with Hamilton and Madison) he supported a strong Federal government.
A fundamental point that Ellis emphasizes in “The Quartet” is that the Constitution is proposed by its founders to be a living document. Ellis strongly objects to political leaders that are classified as “Originalists”. In Ellis’s story of the second revolution, the framers did not want to be identified as divinely inspired. They recognized they were Americans of their time, not of all time. They did not believe they were so forward thinking that the Constitution would not be changed by interpretations that fit circumstances of changing times.
Ellis view of America’s formation as a nation-state appears to defy the odds. It seems there was a 2nd American revolution.