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We all know the famous opening phrase of Lincoln s Gettysburg Address: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this Continent a new Nation. The truth is different. In 1776, thirteen American colonies declared themselves independent states that only temporarily joined forces in order to defeat the British. Once victorious, they planned to go their separate ways. The triumph of the American Revolution was neither an ideological nor a political guarantee that the colonies would relinquish their independence and accept the creation of a federal government with power over their autonomy as states.
The Quartet is the story of this second American founding and of the men most responsible George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. These men, with the help of Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris, shaped the contours of American history by diagnosing the systemic dysfunctions created by the Articles of Confederation, manipulating the political process to force the calling of the Constitutional Convention, conspiring to set the agenda in Philadelphia, orchestrating the debate in the state ratifying conventions, and, finally, drafting the Bill of Rights to assure state compliance with the constitutional settlement.
Ellis has given us a gripping and dramatic portrait of one of the most crucial and misconstrued periods in American history: the years between the end of the Revolution and the formation of the federal government. The Quartet unmasks a myth, and in its place presents an even more compelling truth one that lies at the heart of understanding the creation of the United States of America."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2015-02-23
- Reviewer: Staff
Few can tell a historical tale as well as Ellis, as many readers will be aware from his eight previous studies of the Revolutionary War era (Revolutionary Summer, etc.). True to form, here he reviews this short but important time in America’s history through the eyes of its major figures—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison—rather than offering an analysis of the weighty interval between the nation’s failed first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and the ratification of the second (and successful) constitution and its first 10 amendments, which we now know as the Bill of Rights. Ellis’s approach employs deft characterizations and insights into these politicians and philosophers, who bested their opponents by “imposing their more expansive definition of the American Revolution” on the American people. With his usual skill, Ellis brings alive what otherwise might seem dry constitutional debates, with apt quotations and bright style. There may be equally solid surveys of “the second American Revolution,” a term Ellis borrows from other historians, but this one will be considered the standard work on its subject for years to come. It lacks the fresh interpretations and almost lyrical prose of Ellis’s previous books, but it’s a readable, authoritative work. Agent: Ike Williams; Kneerim, Williams & Bloom. (May)
Nationhood was never a goal of the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence refers to “Free and Independent States.” After the Revolutionary War ended, a majority of the population was opposed or indifferent to a transition from individual states to a federal government. In his brilliant and exciting new book, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, historian Joseph J. Ellis tells the story of how a small group of leaders, disregarding popular opinion, took the American story in a new direction.
There were four men of vision—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay—who led the way to the next stage of development. Ellis’ thesis may be controversial to some because he argues that radical change came not from “the people,” but from the political elite. It happened because the four leaders, all with impeccable revolutionary credentials, were keenly aware of the systemic dysfunction of the Articles of Confederation. They used their skills to call for a Constitutional Convention and, as best they could, to control the agenda. They even attempted to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying conventions and then drafted the Bill of Rights (a popular move), which would, they thought, assure that states go along with the constitution. Ellis says that if he is right, “this was arguably the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history.”
Ellis offers insightful portraits of his main players and penetrating analyses of major issues while beautifully evoking the atmosphere of the era. The Quartet is the best kind of history—authoritative and superbly written.