The Quartet


When and how did the United States ­become a nation? This question is the core of “The Quartet.” In his customary graceful prose, Joseph J. Ellis, the author of such works of popular history as the prizewinning “Founding Brothers,” argues that the United States did not become a nation with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Rather, he says, American nationhood resulted from the creation, ­adoption and effectuation of the United States ­Constitution.

Ellis declares, “Four men made the ­transition from confederation to nation ­happen. . . . George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison” (along with three supporting players: Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Jefferson). He writes that “this political quartet diagnosed the systemic dysfunctions under the Articles, manipulated the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Convention, collaborated to set the agenda in Philadelphia, attempted somewhat successfully to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying conventions, then drafted the Bill of Rights as an insurance policy to ensure state compliance with the constitutional settlement. If I am right, this was arguably the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history.”

This passage distills the strengths and weaknesses of “The Quartet.” Ellis rightly expands his focus beyond the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to consider the process of reform leading to the Convention and the process of decision making flowing from the proposed Constitution. The weakness of “The Quartet” is that it does not look past the figures standing center stage in Ellis’s story.

As a result, Ellis omits or plays down the politics that led to the Convention and the Constitution — the institutions and processes that gave rise to and sustained the movement to reform the government of the United States, as well as the debates on framing, ratifying and implementing the Constitution. Ellis’s “quartet” are constitutional superheroes, the Fantastic Four of American nationalism. Though his portraits of them show his sure touch — highlighting Washington’s dignity, Hamilton’s energy, Madison’s learning and Jay’s diplomacy — he miscalculates the balance between them and the context in which they worked, overstating their ability to orchestrate the “second American ­Revolution.”

Political processes can be uncooperative, unpredictable and wrongheaded. That was the case with politics in the United States in 1783-89. For example, Hamilton wanted a consolidated government that would hold the nation together, but he did not get what he wanted. He failed despite seven years of demanding constitutional reform, and hours at the 1787 Convention expounding his design for a strong central government. Aware of his failure, Hamilton even shared with Madison his own draft for a constitution to show what he thought an adequate document would look like. Similarly with Madison. In 1789, he became the leading advocate in the First Federal Congress of adding rights-protecting amendments to the Constitution, but encountered bitter opposition that almost overwhelmed him. Pro-Constitution representatives spurned his proposed amendments as unnecessary, while unreconciled opponents of the Constitution rejected them as inadequate. All the members of Ellis’s quartet grumbled regularly, frustrated at the opposition facing them and the likelihood of failure; this was the frustration of skilled politicians warily assessing the maze of ­institutional, political and personal obstacles standing between them and their goal.

“The Quartet” also raises larger ­questions challenging assumptions undergirding Ellis’s book. First, when he writes about an American nation, what does he mean? Is an American nation the same as a national government uniting all 13 states as one entity? That is not what the Constitution creates; ­federalism’s presence in the Constitution complicated issues of sovereignty, union and ­nationhood, then and after. Further, Ellis neglects the complicated relationship between a nation’s identity and its form of government, a commonplace of Enlightenment thought well known to the ­founding fathers. Though nationalism may be linked to a particular type of government, a people’s sense of identity is not the same as a nation’s political arrangements.

Ellis sees American nationhood as the creation of a few politicians working from above. But what of sentiments of ­national identity among the American people? ­Ellis rejects the idea that American ­nationalism existed before 1787, even reproving Abraham Lincoln for making that claim; his endnotes airily dismiss scholarship arguing otherwise. Nonetheless, currents of nationalism before 1787 helped make possible both the American victory in the Revolution and the Constitution’s adoption. The Continental Army fought for the independence of the American Union, not of 13 sovereign states. Thomas Paine and other pamphleteers agitated for an independent America. And those backing the Constitution (including three of the four members of Ellis’s quartet) invoked the danger of losing the Union if the Constitution failed — suggesting that they were fighting not to create but rather to preserve the Union, and that they saw the Constitution as the means to do so. The debates over ratification would also not have been possible without an incipient American nationalism working beneath the surface.

Another large question concerns Ellis’s understanding of politics itself. The path to the Constitution was studded with pivotal choices, critical decision points and balking institutions. In February 1787, for instance, the Congress that was operating under the Articles of Confederation adopted a resolution calling a convention — but giving it a limited mandate, empowering it only to devise amendments to the Articles, not to write a new constitution. The clash between this mandate and a broader informal mandate adopted in 1786 hung over the Constitution throughout its framing and ratification. So, too, in September 1787 the Confederation Congress wrestled with what to do about the proposed Constitution. Madison and Hamilton wanted Congress to endorse it; congressional opponents of the Constitution wanted it condemned. After eight days of bitter debate, Congress sent the Constitution to the states, silently blessing its legitimacy. These and other choices resulted from political decisions by the Confederation Congress, the state legislatures and the state ratifying conventions, all outside the control of Ellis’s four heroes.

Ellis dedicates “The Quartet” to his friend and colleague Pauline Maier, one of the finest historians of the American Revolution and the Constitution’s origins. He writes movingly of her in ways that bring her to life for all fortunate enough to have known her. And yet Maier’s work cuts against “The Quartet.” She focused on politics and political processes; her deft illumination of them produced a story more persuasive than that of “The Quartet.” In addition, Maier taught that those responsible for creating the United States, declaring independence and ratifying the Constitution included Americans at all levels; her books have no constitutional superheroes. She insisted that the ­politically active and quarrelsome Americans debating the Constitution in 1787-88 were animated by competing visions of a shared national identity and that the Constitution’s origins were part of a process of preserving American national identity preceding its adoption, and continuing for decades afterward — up to and beyond the Civil War.

Ellis’s depiction of how the American nation was created, and the roles played in that effort by the story’s “usual suspects,” leaves too much out. Perhaps the most important lesson that the history of this period teaches is that — along with heroic individuals — the political process genuinely matters.