Joseph J. Ellis sub-titles his book Orchestrating the Second American Revolution 1783 – 1789.
In 1776, thirteen American colonies won their independence and prepared to go their separate ways, “destined to become a western version of Europe, a constellation of rival political camps and countries.” The Articles of Confederation were a Peace Pact among them, not a national government. Any far-away government was distrusted like the “quasi-paranoid hostility towards… London… [and] described as inherently arbitrary, imperious, and corrupt.” (Distances were hard to overcome back then.)
Ellis sketches biographies and covers pre-Constitution attempts at governance, the Revolutionary War, the dawning Enlightenment, the Great Debate that led to the US Constitution, and the “not-so-vacant” western lands that rendered “the local and state perspective… pathetically provincial.” Ellis provides a lot of detail on the flaws in the Confederation and political machinations that created the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Drawing on “massive,” “recently published” primary sources as well as other scholars; Ellis presents a compact 174 pages (Epub edition) with appropriate notes – fattened by appendices containing the texts of the Articles of Confederation, Constitution of the United States, and The Bill of Rights.
The vast majority of Americans had no interest in an American nation. It was “a small group of prominent leaders, in disregard to popular opinion, [who] carried the American story in a new direction.”
These men were:
- George Washington – I expected him to be a critical player. It’s easy to understand his push for a national government. He saw “abuse and neglect directed at the Continental Army by most of American citizenry,” and watched the new States refuse requests for troops and supplies. Attitudes that hampered his wartime efforts would be “calamitous” after independence.
- Alexander Hamilton – The first Secretary of the Treasury, on the ten dollar bill for good reason. After surviving a nightmarish childhood, his “assurance bordering on arrogance” and verbal flair led to him being a fine combat commander, Washington’s aid-de-camp, and the youngest delegate to the Congress. His charisma helped create the federal America we know.
- James Madison – Okay, I had to stop and think. Key to writing the Constitution, he was a “highly sophisticated political partisan.” He laid out arguments for a strong federal government like a legal case, documenting failed European confederacies and the many failures of the wartime Confederation. He anticipated the argument that only small states could understand the interests of their citizens, and countered that small-minded, self-interested States almost lost the Revolution, and often made impossible promises to their voters. Opponents “could now expect to be buried under an avalanche of informed Madisonian arguments.”
- John Jay – I had to look up his Wikipedia page – he’s the other guy who collaborated on the Federalist Papers, a man of “otherworldly serenity” who “almost singlehandedly [wrote] the New York constitution” with a strong executive branch. I may not remember him, but Ellis credits Jay with “the greatest triumph in the annals of American diplomacy” for the treaty ending the Revolutionary War. It granted the new nation lands to the west (at least, in the eyes of Europe), making America larger and richer in resources than any European nation – and he accomplished this by ignoring instructions from Congress. He lost many battles with Congress and States, and the States resisted living up America’s obligations under the treaty, but peace held.
- Others beside the Quartet figure in the book, especially Robert Morris, for a while the most powerful man in the wartime government. Ellis writes enough about him for me to feel he’s a fifth man in the “quartet,” an admirable person I was delighted to learn about. Morris was the “wealthiest man in America,” an “acknowledged genius,” and a striking patriot. He took on the “desperate mission” to fund the Continental Army and establish American credit, “a thankless task that no sane man would ever assume.” He placed his personal credit behind America’s borrowing and wrote personal checks to feed and outfit the Army. Eventually, fights over States paying for the war broke his power.
Ellis tackles slavery – a fundamental disagreement between North and South. The Quartet knew slavery was incompatible with their ideals. They were joined by Thomas Jefferson who, after the Revolution was won, proposed that in the western territories, “all hereditary titles and privileges would be repudiated and that slavery would end no later than 1800” – the proposal failed by one vote. The pressing needs of the Revolution and crafting a new nation took priority and the Quartet saw no practical alternative to accepting slavery.
Today we are debating how to view Founding Fathers who owned slaves. Ellis notes that the Quartet “lived in a pre-modern world that is forever lost to us… pre-Darwin, pre-Freud, pre-Einstein, pre-Keynes, and pre-Martin Luther King, Jr.” Trying to say how they might feel about modern issues is a “futile attempt to plant cut flowers.” Applying modern morality to history is also misguided. Perhaps this is the relativism so many people find objectionable, but it does allow me to continue to admire these men despite the evil of slavery. Even later abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe did not envision a multi-racial society – they thought freed slaves should be deported to Africa. America’s come a long way.
I was more surprised to read that the Quartet lived in a pre-democracy world, with “an eighteenth century sense that unbridled democracy was incompatible with the political health of a republic.” Democracy meant mob rule, refusal to pay taxes, and favoring debtors over creditors. It took fifty years before democratic values as we know them dominated American thinking.
The battle for ratification of the new Constitution was won by “superior organization,” a battle characterized by dirty tricks, ad hominem attacks, battles to control the language use in debate. Our most revered Founding Fathers were politicians!
Madison saw “the multiple ambiguities embedded in the Constitution made it an inherently ‘living document’… not to offer clear answers… [but] a political area… intended less to resolve arguments than to make argument itself the solution… argument without end” “to make all ‘original intentions’ infinitely negotiable in the future.”
Ellis ends on an interesting note: “It is richly ironic that one of the few original intentions they all shared was opposition to any judicial doctrine of ‘original intent.’ To be sure, they all wished to be remembered, but they did not wish to be embalmed.”