Book Review: The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis (Two Stars)


Book Review: The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution: 1782-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis

Two Stars

“Americans needed to think continentally.” A. Hamilton

Revisionist history at is best … and worst. Making use of newly available correspondence and biographies of his principles, Ellis reconstructs the efforts leading up to the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia and the battle to ratify the new charter. However, his uneven handling of its modern meaning exposes his biases.

“It is indispensable you should lend yourself to its [the government’s] first operation.” A. Hamilton to G. Washington, 1788

Writing history is tricky. The historian must present the truth in a way that the reader can understand, even though the world view and values of their time may differ. Even if sources are cited, the reader seldom has access to them. He must trust the integrity of the writer. And if internal evidence betrays bias or false reporting, then the reader doesn’t know what to trust and therefore trusts none. (Winning journalism prizes indicates popularity, not integrity.)

“His virtue, his patriotism, his firmness would never yield to any dishonorable plans, [Washington] would sooner suffer himself to be cut to pieces.” A. Hamilton, Feb 1783

Ellis’ rewriting history is exemplified by his references to the faith of George Washington. Whatever may be claimed others, Washington was a devout, conservative Christian. He went so far as to avoid the term “God” as potentially improper. “Providence” was the term of address such men used for the deity. Yet Ellis would have us believe, “all believed that, while they themselves were not gods, the gods were on their side.” Oh, no. Not one of this quartet, not even a cryto-Unitarian like Jefferson, believed there was more than one god.

“The Citizens of America … are, from this period, to be considered as Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be particularly designed by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.” G. Washington.

Ellis’ agenda, that the constitution says whatever we wish it to say, is undercut by his analysis of what became the Second Amendment. “It is clear that Madison’s intention in drafting his proposed amendment was …” In so doing He resorts to the same strict constructionism for which he chides others.

“For reasons that have baffled historians ever since, by 1791 Madison has switched sides.” Name two baffled historians. As Ellis himself relates, Madison was intellectually and politically close to Jefferson. In the Federalist schism between Hamilton and Jefferson, Madison stayed loyal.

“Madison realized … the federal government must become ‘us’ rather than ‘them.’”

Paradoxically, if Madison’s plan had prevailed in Philadelphia, the constitution would not have been adopted. Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, bitter foes in politics, opposed the aggregation of power which the proposed constitution represented for the same reason: that an imperial government far from the people would eventually rule rather than govern.

“You make the citizens of this country to become the subjects of one consolidated empire in America.” Patrick Henry

Several helpful revisions: Spotlights John Jay’s talent and contributions. Alerts us that many founders, especially Madison and Hamilton, sensed “that unbridled democracy was incompatible with the political health of the republic.” He broadens his beam to shine on contributors such as Robert Morris, Benjamin Franklin, and Gouverneur Morris. Few realize, Thomas Jefferson in Paris at the time, contributed little to the effort. That the “patriotic nonsense” surrounding the convention debunked by twentieth century Progressives, only to replace it with “quasi-Marxist nonsense.”

Patrick “Henry had without doubt the greatest power to persuade, [but] Madison had the greatest power to convince.” John Marshall

The inclusion of the complete texts of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution is appropriate and helpful. Interesting. Enjoyable. But not trustworthy. Seek that elsewhere.

“The American Revolution now meant not just independence but nationhood.”