Book Review: The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis

51TXZtZRl1L._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_The Quartet, by Joseph J. Ellis (Amazon, Apple), is a history of the events that led to the United States abandoning it original government (The Articles of Confederation) for our present government (enshrined in our Constitution and its amendments).

Before getting into the review, I have to say that as much as I am into non-fiction, and history in general, I’ve never been a fan of histories from about the Renaissance to, say, the beginning of the 20th century. I’m not sure why. I think it is because we happen to have a lot of data from these periods – letters, art, architecture, and accounts of the period. And as such, most histories of these eras just dive right in, asking you to just understand how people in that time behaved without giving you any context. So, they will throw in letters which use a lot of obtuse language we can’t understand in the modern era, and describe behaviors of people in that era assuming you understand details about the culture (high born vs. low born people, for example), and just how they those people thought about distance and travel.

As such, every time I’ve picked up a biography about one of the founders of our country, I inevitably get bored and put it down. I just can’t get into the heads of these characters or how they thought. A letter will be inserted, and I can’t understand what the heck he or she is really saying, so I’m left to try to interpret the “feeling”, like I’m interpreting Shakespeare.

Having said that, I’m incredibly fascinated by this one period of American history. We have a Declaration of Independence in 1776, yet a Constitution in 1787. Yes, I know a war was fought between that time, but it ended in 1783, and for all intents and purposes, it was really over in 1781. So, what happened in between? How did the government run? Why did it change? This period is also interesting because there is so much mythology around our founding fathers. People tend to speak of them as if they are gods, or guided by God, and it causes us to debate whether our Constitution is something written in stone and must be interpreted strictly based upon the world those men lived in (the modern conservative argument) or if it is living and must be interpreted more loosely, based upon intent (the modern liberal argument).

So, I figured I would try to get through one of these books. Hopefully, the author would do a good job of trying to put the modern person into that time properly, so we can understand why these men made the decisions they made.

Luckily, this book does a really good job. Yes, there are letters that are quoted that are very hard to interpret, but Ellis does a good job explaining what the letter says up front, and then explaining what it means after. And he emphasizes over and over again the trouble with distance. As small as America was back then, it was gigantic compared to European states. When America won its independence, it was essentially the largest single unified empire in the world, and European powers recognized that. To travel the full length of the colonies at that point in time would have taken months.

What this book showed was just how bare-knuckled the political fight for the Constitution was. Forming the US Constitution was not a matter of elegant, smart men discussing the philosophical differences between a strong federal government vs. a government centered on the states, which is how we sometimes talk about it in arguments to the Supreme Court.

Rather, it was a matter of vote counting, forming back-room alliances, and using language to frame the debate, all of which would be quite familiar to people who watched the debate unfold over, say, Obamacare. It was messy, there were set backs, and there were various points where compromises were made in order to not have, as the phrase goes, “the perfect being the enemy of good.”

The Quartet focuses on four main characters – James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. Each of these characters saw how the Articles of Confederation were a failure, but from different perspectives. The government had no money, as it had no power to tax the states (all money given was voluntary). This probably kept the war going on longer than it needed to, as Washington and Hamilton (his aide in the war at the time) could never get money or arms for their soldiers. The government couldn’t conduct a unified foreign policy, because all votes had to be unanimous (each state had a single vote), something that John Jay and Madison bumped into all the time. It was violating the treaty that ended the war – namely, states weren’t paying debts owed to Britain, and some were seizing property of former British loyalists, which was strictly banned.

Additionally, one of the victories the new United States earned was western land (up to the Mississippi), but there was no agreement as to how to administer it. Virginia had old claims on some of this land as a colony, and it was already the biggest state in the new Union. Would the states that had western borders keep expanding westward? Would this land instead become new states? If Virginia could keep growing, what would that mean to a state like Rhode Island, whose borders were fixed by water and surrounding states? Also, without a unified foreign policy, what would happen when settlers reached that border – war with Spain or France? How can you avoid that if you can’t negotiate a treaty given that the Articles of Confederation required 100% agreement?

The thing most fascinating about this book was, how little many people at the time actually cared. And this gets into the distance argument. Without mass transportation, most people didn’t leave their town, let alone their state. Thinking “nationally” was just not something people could even begin to grasp. It was hard enough, in many cases, to think of a government at the state level. We weren’t “the American people”. We were “Virginians”, “New Yorkers”, and at best “New Englanders”.

Also, the idea of a national government smelled suspiciously to a lot of people like English Parliament, a remote body completely divorced from the culture of the local town, making rules for the local town. Didn’t we just fight a war over this?

I don’t want to give much more away. We know how the story ends (a Constitution and Bill of Rights). The story of how the Constitutional Convention came about is quite fascinating, and the battles that ensued over ratification of the states is something anybody who has done vote counting in the modern era would fully understand.

But the key takeaway was that none of these men thought they had created a divinely inspired document. Most were unhappy (especially Madison) because he felt the issue of sovereignty (states vs. federal government) was left unanswered. But the one thing they did know is that the document was not set in stone. They consistently used the term “framework” to describe it, knowing that it would be modified over time, and in fact, the vagueness in things like sovereignty was a good thing, as it meant we could shift power from one to the other as time and circumstances dictated. (This means, more or less, that the conservative argument centered around ‘originalism’ is, to put it nicely, idiotic, Justice Scalia). Also, the 2nd amendment? No, it is not about anybody being able to own a gun for any reason, and it isn’t about citizens having a gun to stop government tyranny. It was written as a compromise, because as a nation we needed to ensure we can defend it when attacked, but many of the delegates (and people ratifying in the states) didn’t want a standing army. How do you accomplish defense then? Obviuosly, the only way to do that was to ensure that people could have a gun. That’s why the word “militia” was in there, people.

I will quote one letter from the book, written by Thomas Jefferson many years after ratification, that best describes how we should treat the Constitution. Jefferson understood fully how people could look to the document as something divine, and how that was a really bad idea:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to 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…. 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 discovered…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 as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors.

As John J. Ellis said of this letter: “It is richly ironic that one of the few original intentions they (the framers) all shared was opposition to any judicial doctrine of “original intent.”