I had read two previous books by Joseph J. Ellis about the founding of the United States several years ago . I had liked these books and when I saw he had written a new book with emphasis on the transformation into a nation or the Second American Revolution, I was eager to read it.
The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution , 1783-1789 actually begins in 1781 when the final state ratifies the Articles of Confederation. This loose confederation of the states had many problems due to the supremacy of states and lack of power in the weakly united confederation that pretended to be the United States.
For example, under the Articles the confederation called the United States had no way to force the states to honor the terms of the peace treaty which ended the American Revolution. They could ask the states but some chose to ignore the request. There was no way to raise money to pay our national debt. The United States was deeply in debt from the war but could only ask the states to give it money. The requests were frequently ignored.
Many other problems are discussed. Many could clearly see some change was needed but of course there was disagreement on how big the change should be. Some would be happy with minor tweaks to the Articles to solve problems as they came up. Others believed a much stronger national government was needed.
This book is about how 4 men (George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay) made the stronger national government a reality. Many other were important but these are the ones that Ellis argues were the most important. Whether you agree with his thesis that these were the stars of this movement or disagree, the book is a good history of this major event in American history.
By focusing on just these critical years, Dr. Ellis is able to keep this book reasonably brief. Excluding appendices (Articles of Confederation, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights), Acknowledgements, Notes and Index, the book is a little over 200 pages. This is enough to present a detailed (but not too detailed) history of the Second American Revolution.
This is a very interesting story and Dr. Ellis tells it well. He takes us though the deficiencies of the Articles, the political maneuvering to write a constitution and get it approved, and then the very beginnings of the Unites States as a truly united country.
The states were united enough to win independence but probably would have ceased to exist as a single nation if this Second American Revolution had not occurred.
The Quartet closes with a quote from Thomas Jefferson. This surprised me as he was in Paris at the time and did not participate in the constitutional convention. He was also one of the more vocal critics of strong government among the founding fathers. But it is a good and appropriate quote. That is also a good place to end this review.
Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
The quote is from a letter written in 1816. Dr Ellis has chosen to shorten it a bit with ellipses. I have quoted the full section. The full text is at http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-to-samuel-kercheval/