JOSEPH ELLIS, who has authored a number of studies of the founding era in American history, is well positioned to write an entertaining account of the four men whom he sees guiding the nation to political stability in the years before the Constitution was drafted and ratified. The four men are George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.
Considering that Ellis has already written biographies of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, you could say that he has got the Founding Era covered. The Quartet is in fact Ellis’s 10th study of this critical period in the history of the United States.
The adjective “entertaining” is appropriate because Ellis’s excellent style is spiced by a somewhat ironic tone. He captures with verve the despondency of his leading characters when they realize that the gains of the Revolution are heading for the drain during the years of drift in the Continental Congress, from 1781 to 1787, after the Revolutionary War had been successfully won and the campaign to strengthen the union among the states had not yet succeeded.
A remark from the financier, Robert Morris, captures the dilemma created by the Continental Congress’s inability to collect revenue from the states and the consequences of that failure. “I am so habituated to receive apologies instead of Money that I am never surprised,” Robert Morris told a governor. Without the urgency of the war, states had no trouble ignoring Morris’s entreaties even though the Confederation’s failure to meet its obligations under the 1783 Treaty of Paris allowed the British to maintain their forts around the Great Lakes.
Ellis shrewdly notes that “the founders occupied a transitional moment in the history of Western civilization that was post aristocratic and predemocratic.” It was also a period when democracy suffered from rather a bad reputation among the country’s political elite.
The distinction between a republic — a polity based on laws — and democracy, the rule of the will of the people, reminded me of a large billboard that hovered over the principal freeway in Orange County, California, in the 1970s that announced that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. For contemporary British observers, it was more like a nonentity.
Of the quartet, John Jay gets welcome attention because his singular and sustained contributions to the country’s founding have not previously received the treatment they deserve. Since many of Jay’s accomplishments were in the diplomatic realm, they can easily be skipped in the traditional narrative of nation building.
Jay’s “nonnegotiable” insistence, at the peace conference in Paris heralding Independence, that American territory reached the Mississippi River, including American navigation of the river, Ellis writes, secured a great victory. Jay had spent two years as the country’s envoy in Spain, an assignment that convinced him of Spain’s decline and strenthened his hand in the negotiations.
Jay was also an early advocate of replacing the Articles of Confederation, expressing his wish “to see the United States assume and merit the character of one great nation, whose territory is divided into different states merely for more convenient government …”
With a confidence no doubt acquired from his privileged background, Jay violated his instructions from Congress twice, a course of action rewarded with such success that he was unlikely to not to do it again if his judgment so decreed.
James Madison is a much more familiar character than Jay, but Ellis adds to our understanding of this putative “father of the Constitution” with a careful review of the path Madison followed in his evolving political thought. Father or not, Madison despaired of the document’s future when he lost the vote to give the American Congress a veto power over state laws.
This reminds us of two tricks the passage of time plays when we attempt to reconstruct the past. We lose the sense of urgency invested in particular contentious situations and we tend to accept what happened as, if not exactly inevitable, at least overdetermined.
Ellis is keenly aware of these pitfalls. He gives us James Madison — always attentive to realities — quickly realizing what the states would or would not have accepted as he followed the ratifying debates in each state. In particular, he concludes that had he succeeded in gaining that congressional veto that meant so much to him, ratification would have been doomed.
Alexander Hamilton appears in The Quartet as the erudite, confident, precocious maven of financial details that he was. A superb writer as well, Hamilton organized the trio of himself, Madison, and Jay that produced the Federalist Papers. Written to persuade the sitting delegates of the New York ratifying convention to adopt the constitutional draft, the Federalist Papers paradoxically have acquired an iconic status as the ur explanation of the Constitution. As Ellis hastens to point out, this reputation developed after the Constitution became the law of the land. Initially it was a partisan position fiercely opposed by the so-called Anti-Federalists. Another example of victory ennobling the victor’s account of the conflict.
Ellis’s assertion that this “supreme example of improvisational journalism” was “mostly Hamilton’s masterpiece” will surely be contested by those enamored of Madison’s brilliant 10th, 39th, and 51st Federalist Papers. And another small quibble: Alexander Hamilton was not an immigrant (as he has been characterized in the current Broadway musical about him). He was born in Nevis, one of the islands in the British Empire which included both his birthplace and New York. Like Paul’s highly valued membership in the Roman Empire, those born in the British Empire had great privileges, one of which was to move about freely from one colony to another.
All four of the men in this quartet (and most of the other founders) were convinced that the Native American tribes living undisturbed between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River would be pushed aside, and the only real discussion about them was devoted to how to handle their expected hostility. Ellis powerfully evokes the devastating confluence of the Indians’ vulnerability to diseases like smallpox and measles and the Europeans’ belief in the march of civilization, resulting in what Ellis calls “a policy of genocide in slow motion, in which the march of white migration was accompanied by an artillery barrage of microbes that cleared the way.”
Jefferson’s contributions get a sympathetic reading though he does not figure in Ellis’s “quartet.” This is particularly the case when Ellis looks at Jefferson’s Ordinance of 1784, which first sketched how the territories the United States won were to be incorporated into the country. The new nation was not to have colonies, but rather follow a clear procedure for welcoming new states into the union, with the same rights and privileges of the original thirteen.
Americans are unusual in their seemingly insatibale curiosity about the founding era. In part that is because their nation began with a set-piece revolution, while other nations emerged from generations “living long in the land.” The Revolution, and the powerful expression of natural rights embedded in the Declaration of Independence, provided a national glue for a disparate, heterogeneous people who had not lived long in the land, and who were continually being joined by new arrivals. They needed a cohesive force, and the story of the events that turned them into US citizens, and the principles outlined in the founding documents, did the job well.
This patriotic use of history has significantly influenced how the United States Constitution has been interpreted over the years and how those interpretations have been deployed in politics and jurisprudential decisions.
Ellis is at his best in examining the two leading schools of interpreters: those endorsing a “living” Constitution, changing with the lived experience of Americans, and the originalists, who insist that the initial meaning of the Constitution’s provisions must be the enduring ones.
In discussions scattered throughout The Quartet, Ellis makes it clear that he finds the originalist position untenable. He cleverly uses the Federalist Papers as evidence, since they served the partisan purposes of those supporting the adoption of the Constitution. The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union of 1777 and the 1787 Constitution of the United States appear in appendices.
Ellis dismisses the idea of the Constitution as a document unaffected by the passage of time, and bolsters his view by letting Jefferson have the last word in The Quartet: his famous injunction not to “look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched.”
An excellent introduction to the era, The Quartet should find readership among all those interested in the drama involved in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution.
Joyce Appleby is a professor emerita of UCLA where she taught history for 20 years.