Monday, July 06, 2015

Book Report: The Quartet, by Joseph J. Ellis


The Fourth of July holiday is over for another year, along with all of the usual editorials, speeches, OpEd articles, and other hooplah over the Declaration of Independence and our not-so-amicable divorce from Great Britain. If you're looking for timely thoughts on American history, look no further than this marvelous new book by historian Joseph J. Ellis - The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution.


The book tells the story of four American Founders - George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison - and the crafting of the Constitution ... a story you may think you know, but probably don't.

What we think of today as the American Revolution was not intended to create a new, unified country. It was designed to free 13 independent-minded colonies from rule by a distant and non-representative government in London. When the revolution was over and independence from Britain achieved, the individual colonies ("states") weren't interested in banding together and forming a new government to replace the one they'd just gotten rid of. Most of the residents of the 13 colonies, as Dr Ellis points out, never traveled more than a few miles from their homes, and thought of "representative government" - if they thought of it at all, which most people didn't - as being at no higher than the local or state level so as to understand and be responsive to their needs.

The original "Articles of Confederation" created a loose association of states under a virtually powerless central government, and people like Washington and Madison realized that without a central government with the authority to tax and to coordinate and unify the activities of the states (particularly in the areas of trade, foreign affairs, and defense), the states would end up a group of weak and squabbling entities, ripe for being swept up by some foreign power ... perhaps even Britain again.

Ellis tells the very interesting story of how those who favored a powerful central government overseeing a "united states" (the "Federalists") contended with those who believed that the federal government should be weak and non-threatening. He does a masterful job of explaining the complex political and economic arguments that led to the drafting and ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that we revere today, even if few of us truly understand what the Founders actually created. Ellis writes,

"In the long run - and this was probably Madison's most creative insight - the multiple ambiguities embedded in the Constitution made it an inherently 'living' document. For it was designed not to offer clear answers to the sovereignty question (or, for that matter, to the scope of executive or judicial authority) but instead to provide a political arena in which arguments about those contested issues could continue in a deliberative fashion. The Constitution was intended less to resolve arguments than to make argument itself the solution. For judicial devotees of 'originalism' or 'original intent,' this should be a disarming insight, since it made the Constitution the foundation for an ever-shifting political dialogue that, like history itself, was an argument without end. Madison's 'original intention' was to make all 'original intentions' infinitely negotiable in the future."

And further,

"It (the Constitution) has endured not because it embodies timeless truths that the founders fathomed as tongues of fire danced over their heads, but because it manages to combine the two time-bound truths of its own time: namely, that any legitimate government must rest on a popular foundation, and that popular majorities cannot be trusted to act responsibly, a paradox that has aged remarkably well."

I strongly encourage you to read this fascinating look at our early history, particularly if you're one of those people who is absolutely certain you understand the meaning and intent of the Constitution, and exactly what the Founders meant. The book is not especially long (220 pages of text, plus three appendices with the full texts of the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights), and is written in an easily-understandable, non-academic tone.

There are a lot worse ways to spend some of your free time than learning more about your history, particularly at this trying time in the ever-developing story of America.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

9 comments:

eViL pOp TaRt said...

I'll read this book when I get some free time. It looks like a serious book, worth reading.

Duckbutt said...

I read an earlier book by him, "Founding Brothers," and it was excellent. This one should be too. Thanks for the suggestion!

allenwoodhaven said...

Very interesting. It seems that members of The Supreme Court ought to read it....

Linda Kay said...

Bilbo, I've never been very interested in history, but find it fascinating in my later years! I'll try to get this one loaded for my vacation reading.

Atomic Dog said...

They never emphasized the revolutionary aspect of the Constitution in high school; but that was in a different time.

Mike said...

I saw something about this recently on PBS. This needs more coverage.

John Hill said...

Okay. I'm in. It's on my list.
Thank you for the intriguing review.

John Hill said...

Okay. I'm in. It's on my list.
Thank you for the intriguing review.

John Hill said...

Okay. I'm in. It's on my list.
Thank you for the intriguing review.