The Second American Revolution

Review: Joseph Ellis, ‘The Quartet’

Alexander Hamilton / Wikimedia Commons
May 16, 2015

"All revolutions are failures," George Orwell once wrote, "but they are not all the same failure." Those alls should give us pause. Most revolutions—those in France and Russia spring to mind—certainly didn’t end well. But the American Revolution ended well. It created a stable and prosperous nation state, under a constitution that is still the law of the land two centuries after its adoption. New men, in a New World, violently shook off the bonds of monarchy, yet restored order in good time—something the peoples of old Europe never managed to achieve.

But this triumphalism obscures the fact that the American Revolution very nearly failed as well. For the government made by the Constitution wasn’t our first—that honor belongs to the Articles of Confederation. Barely remembered today by the general public, the Articles lived and died in their obscure, dysfunctional youth.

For a small group of statesmen in the mid-1780s, the Articles were an all-consuming obsession. These men, and their struggle to replace the Articles with the Constitution, are the subjects of Joseph Ellis’s book The Quartet.

A professor emeritus at Mount Holyoke and author of numerous books on early America, Ellis believes the creation and adoption of the Constitution was no less than a "second revolution" that "represented a dramatic change in direction and in scale … from a confederation of sovereign states to a nation-size republic, indeed the largest republic ever established."

This isn’t a new argument—Ellis’s fellow historians Gordon Wood and Forrest McDonald have said much the same. What makes The Quartet different from earlier works is its format. Instead of a straight narrative, Ellis follows the activities of four founders—Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison—to illuminate the broader political struggles of the 1780s. The result is engaging and witty. But the structure occasionally causes Ellis to sacrifice context for color, which might make The Quartet confusing for those who aren’t already familiar with the Founding Era.

Ellis’s subjects asked themselves one question: What sort of government is capable of both preserving liberty and representing the popular will? A state government, close to the people and sensitive to local interests and needs? Or a national government, which can solve large-scale problems through pooled resources and concerted action?

Immediately after independence, many Americans, having just fought a war against a vast, centralized state apparatus, invested their trust in more accountable state governments. As such, the Articles of Confederation didn’t create a national government. Instead, they set up a league of friendship between essentially sovereign states.

In keeping with this approach, each state had equal representation in the Confederation Congress. Most legislative proposals had to be approved unanimously. Left unclear was the Congress’ ability to conduct foreign affairs. Made abundantly clear was the Congress’s lack of authority to tax—instead, it had to request appropriations from state governments.

This system worked well at preserving the prerogatives of its constituent members, but it wasn’t effective at addressing issues that transcended state boundaries. And in the 1780s, America faced many issues that transcended state boundaries.

The war debt was probably the most pressing of these. But because the states didn’t have to comply with the Confederation Congress’s requests for revenue, they didn’t. Ellis writes, "In 1781 … the Congress requested $3 million from the states and received $39,138 in return." More ominously, the Congress couldn’t effectively mediate disputes between the states, which ranged from the territorial to the financial, and occasionally erupted into violence. And the Congress often had to postpone (or cancel) its sessions because delegates failed to attend, robbing those that did of quorum.

The inability of the Articles to address these various problems greatly upset an influential minority in the political class—Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison being four prominent examples. As Ellis relates, each of these founders was unhappy with the Articles in their own way.

Washington, who led the Continental Army, saw firsthand the effects of an empty national treasury—starving soldiers, shoeless in the winter snows and dressed in rags. Hamilton, a soldier himself, raged at the Articles’ restrictions on uniform national policies, which inhibited Americans from "think[ing] continentally" and organizing a powerful nation-state that could be the equal of the European empires. Jay, the Confederation’s secretary of foreign affairs, found himself undermined in negotiations with those European empires by freelancing state officials. Madison fretted about all these issues, but was particularly concerned about the durability of the Confederation in the event of crisis—what would happen if Britain invaded America again?

While his friends wrote one another about these problems, Hamilton took action. In September 1786, after participating in a Congressional meeting over trade policy—it failed because only five state delegations bothered to show up—Hamilton, entirely on his own initiative, and with no hope of success whatsoever, "claimed there was unanimous support within the . . . delegation for ‘a future Convention’ with a roving mandate to address all the most salient [shortcomings of the Articles], scheduled to meet in Philadelphia on the second Sunday in May 1787."

As Ellis writes, this "out-front brand of leadership" from Hamilton, combined with Washington’s announcement that he would go to Philadelphia in May, resulted in the Constitutional Convention. The modern American state exists because of one man’s inspiration, and the willingness of another to lend his prestige to the cause. Ellis’ portrait of Hamilton is particularly captivating. Born impoverished and out of wedlock on a Caribbean island, Hamilton caught a fever from his mother as an adolescent. He was placed in a bed with her, and she died next to him "soaked in her own blood, vomit, and urine." That desperate child went on to force this "second revolution" and later invent the central-banking system of the most powerful commercial republic the world has ever known.

Ellis is also particularly effective in explaining Madison’s strong nationalism—Madison wanted the central government to be able to veto any state law, and all legislative seats determined by proportional representation. At the Constitutional Convention, the quartet was disappointed when those views weren’t included in the final draft. In the book’s most astute observation, Ellis points out that "[a] small elite of like-minded souls could and did force a political debate that would otherwise not have happened." But this elite couldn’t force its preferred outcome on others.

However much they might have been displeased with the Constitution, the quartet—most notably Hamilton and Madison—threw themselves behind it, and made every effort to secure its ratification. Ellis’s description of this process is exciting, even lyrical: "Hamilton . . . began [the Federalist Papers] writing on scrap paper atop a wooden box while traveling on a sloop between New York and Albany."

The quartet’s contemporaries found the process exciting, too. Many of these, like Patrick Henry and George Clinton, loudly opposed the Constitution, preferring the Confederation’s state-based approach. They also didn’t like the choice before the would-be ratifiers: take the Constitution, or keep the Articles. Ellis accurately observes that it is "quite likely" a "majority" of Americans agreed, and "would have preferred a revision of the Articles" to the Constitution. As such, the fact that the ratifying conventions voted for the Constitution, and transferred power from state governments to a central one, really did constitute a "second revolution," as Ellis says.

The major weakness of The Quartet is that it presents this second revolution mostly from one side. Because of Ellis’s focus on four nationalist founders, people who weren’t nationalists aren’t given the treatment that they deserve. The Quartet’s early sections are littered with phrases like "the spirit of ‘76" and "revolutionary principles" that are ostensibly references to anti-federal thinking. But Ellis doesn’t explain what these ideas are until very late in the book. This won’t be a problem for readers who have a grasp of the anti-centralizing perspective, but The Quartet could have been a better book had Ellis given Henry and others a full chapter early on.

That being said, itis difficult not to be inspired by The Quartet’s remarkable profiles—or impressed by the nation that these four men made.

Published under: Book reviews