Nationhood was never a goal of the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence refers to “Free and Independent States.” After the Revolutionary War ended, a majority of the population was opposed or indifferent to a transition from individual states to a federal government. In his brilliant and exciting new book, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, historian Joseph J. Ellis tells the story of how a small group of leaders, disregarding popular opinion, took the American story in a new direction.
There were four men of vision—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay—who led the way to the next stage of development. Ellis’ thesis may be controversial to some because he argues that radical change came not from “the people,” but from the political elite. It happened because the four leaders, all with impeccable revolutionary credentials, were keenly aware of the systemic dysfunction of the Articles of Confederation. They used their skills to call for a Constitutional Convention and, as best they could, to control the agenda. They even attempted to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying conventions and then drafted the Bill of Rights (a popular move), which would, they thought, assure that states go along with the constitution. Ellis says that if he is right, “this was arguably the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history.”
Ellis offers insightful portraits of his main players and penetrating analyses of major issues while beautifully evoking the atmosphere of the era. The Quartet is the best kind of history—authoritative and superbly written.