The Quartet, by Joseph J. Ellis

QuarterCoverPulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis is a scholar of the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. He has written very well-regarded biographies of Washington, Adams and Jefferson. His <i>Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation</i> is a definitive look at the lives of the central characters in the creation of the United States, and won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize.

So in a sense, Elis is treading familiar ground with <i.The Quartet</i>. But it is still a rewarding read, focusing on 1783 – 1787, the period between the end of the American Revolution and the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

The survival of the United States was a near thing. The government after the Continental Congress, the Confederacy, under the Articles of Confederation, wasn’t a national government at all. Ellis’s tale of how George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay and James Madison together set in motion the Constitutional Convention, and the motivations for the subsequent Bill of Rights are a fascinating deconstruction of the hagiography that surrounds the Founding Fathers.

Ellis’s thesis is that the government created under the U.S. Constitution happened in spite of, not because of, American public opinion. That Madison’s political savvy lawyerly machinations and Governeur Morris’s writing skills, not any popular sentiment, resulted in nationhood. It’s far from the Teabagger claims of God’s hand creating the United States. It’s a story of grubby, messy compromise.

Ellis also argues that both the division of power between the federal government and the states under the Constitution, and the rights reserved to citizens and to the federal government under the Bill of Rights were deliberately left vague to allow the Constitution to be ratified by a populace understandably wary of powerful, centralized authority. That evidence demolishes U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s pretensions to interpreting the Constitution by the Founders’ original intent. Their intent was to be vague and ambiguous.

Ellis is also harshly critical of those who would impose modern political correctness in evaluating the Constitution and its creators. But Ellis requires a reader to consider the time, the possibilities and the constraints. Western Civilization had just begun the move to post-aristocratic government; democracy and republican government were brand new. Thirteen very different states were deeply jealous of their sovereignty. They were, essentially, tricked into the Constitutional Convention, but once there fought tooth and nail.

But most importantly, Ellis works to clear the haze of sanctity and the compression of events that surrounds what he calls the Second American Revolution, the one that created a real nation.

Ellis may or may not be a strong original researcher; he buttresses his arguments with extensive notes (as well as including the Articles of Confederacy as an appendix). But he is a skillful, engaging writer, who lays out the messy birth of our government clearly and cogently.

Strongly recommended.