Book review: The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis

Joseph J. Ellis is one of those reliable chroniclers of American history – in the company of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough – who cover the most familiar historical ground, yet somehow reshape it into something new. The Quartet only reinforces this reputation. Here, Ellis examines the studied combination of efforts from four “nationalists” – George Washington, John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton – whose particular skills and backgrounds made them perhaps the only men of their time who could have molded the 13 distinct, zealously independent American colonies into a single cohesive nation.

The core of this book pivots on the core conflict of all American history – the struggle for supremacy between individual states on the one hand and the federal government on the other.  Ellis very capably shows how, in an age when the general population was skeptical to the point of derisiveness toward a strong federal government, these four men each contributed unique skills to steer the country away from the isolated sectionalism that festered after the Revolutionary War and threatened under the weak Articles of Confederation to dissolve the union into a series of independent nation-states.

Among many thoughts The Quartet stirred for me was a reflection that is only lightly, though importantly, touched on in the text – what a great relief that Jefferson was separated to France during the deliberations for the Constitution.  His Virginia-focused passion for state sovereignty combined with an eloquence and power of persuasion that was largely lacking among the – as Ellis calls them – “antis,” except perhaps in the person of Patrick Henry would surely have caused mischief and perhaps entirely disrupted the delicate balance that Madison, perhaps most responsible of all, and the others were able to establish, a balance that is likely responsible for the continuity that the constitution has provided the United States and without which, the nation would never have achieved the influence, prosperity and power it boasts today.

The relative merits of federalism are and perhaps will always be open to fervent debate. It would not be accurate to say that The Quartet takes an ultimate stand on one side or the other, but it certainly demonstrates clearly that we couldn’t be having the debate today, and the geopolitics of the world would be unrecognizably different, were it not for the success Washington, Jay, Hamilton and Madison had in establishing a central government of meaningful authority.

As it  chronicles the debates and intrigues that led to the adoption of our Constitution, The Quartet provides a wealth of insight and historical detail, channeled in such a way as to strengthen one’s understanding both of the events of our nation’s founding and the ideas that continue to drive our national conversation. It easily stands with other works by Ellis I can commend – Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation and His Excellency:  George Washington. — for building new perspectives on debates in our own time through innovative reflection on the historical figures who dealt with most of them first.