The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis

The Quartet

I found The Quartet: Orchestrating The Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 full of interesting insights and analysis. Four years after the Treaty of Paris freed America from Britain, four like-minded patriots led a second revolution to create a strong national government: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. (With help from Gouverneur Morris and James Wilson). Ellis shows the steps they went through to turn 13 sovereign states into one Federal Government with full authority to impose taxes and laws- something was that sadly lacking during the Confederation years.

The books covers work leading to the Constitutional Convention, the Convention, and then the ratification of our Constitution. Ellis covers “The Federalist Papers” and the Bill of Rights. This story is very interesting and many things had to happen for this Constitution to become law. Many issues were put to one side (like slavery), many were glossed over, many structures we take for granted were compromises. Much of the Constitution, which seems like superhuman wisdom were nothing more than political expedience. This ‘quartet‘ knew the value of ideas and deep thinking, but they also were willing to compromise, were practicality, and commitment to founding out national government.

320 pages

Amazon Book Preview of “The Quartet

Excerpts From My Kindle

In 1781, for example, the Congress requested $3 million from the states and received $39,138 in return. A standing joke within Congress was that the “binding Requisitions are as binding as Religion is upon the Consciences of wicked Men.” – location 642–644

In order to underline the presumption that the core principles of the American Revolution would prevail in the steady march across the continent, Jefferson insisted that all hereditary titles and privileges would be repudiated and that slavery would end no later than 1800. Though it is mere speculation, the entire course of American history might have been different if the stipulation on slavery had won acceptance by the Congress, but it lost by one vote. – location 1261–1264

There was in Madison’s critical assessment of the state governments a discernible antidemocratic ethos rooted in the conviction that political popularity generated a toxic chemistry of appeasement and demagoguery that privileged popular whim and short-term interests at the expense of the long-term public interest. – location 2033–2035

More important, while the Constitution was clearly the creation of many hands, Morris was the man who actually wrote it. Both Hamilton and Madison served with him on the Committee on Style and Arrangement in mid-September, but Madison later testified that it was Morris who gave the final draft of the document its “finish,” adding that “a better choice could not have been made, as the performance of the task proves.” – location 2369–2372

[Ben Franklin:] I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present, but Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig’d, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change opinions on important Subjects, which I once thought Right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgment, and to pay more respect to the Judgment of others. In these Sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its Faults, if they are such; because I think a General Government necessary for us. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this System approaching so near to Perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our Enemies, who are waiting with Confidence to hear that our Councils are Confounded, like those of the Builders of Babel, and that our States are on the Point of Separation, only to meet, hereafter, for the Purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and I am not sure that it is not the best. – location 2394–2404

No one present in Philadelphia at the time would have understood such a reverential gloss on the Constitution. Much later, several delegates recalled that “the hand of Providence” was at work. But Hamilton, Madison, and Washington all left town thinking they had failed to transform a confederation into a full-blooded nation.  Franklin’s eloquent elegy served to remind them that perfection was never in the cards, that they had, in fact, designed the framework for a government that assumed human imperfection, which turned out to be an elemental insight denied his French friends. – location 2406–2410

Soon after his inauguration, Washington had asked him to draft a letter to the members of Congress, expressing his desire to work closely with them. The members of Congress, not knowing of Madison’s involvement, asked him to draft their reply to Washington. It was Madison writing to Madison. He had become the second most prominent figure in the new government. – location 3161–3163

It 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. – location 3366–3369


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