Founding and fighting and arguing: The Quartet

To everything there is a season, and for every season a Joseph J. Ellis book about the awesomeness of the Founders. Beguiled by a concept of history that posits it as the byproduct of great men doing monumental things, Ellis plundered his notes and other books to produce The Quartet. The genius foursome consists of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. They’re important:

…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.

Gosh. Ellis isn’t wrong though — how could he be? And he makes a shrewd decision. The Quartet opens in the early 1780s after the war has ended and the Articles of Confederation bind this loose association of millionaires, billionaires, and babies. Already Washington despairs of what has happened to the spirit of ’76. “We have no politics excepting those creeping principles of self and local interest, which are the reverse of what ought to actuate us in the present moment, and which can neither form the dignity nor strengths of a great nation,” wrote his artillery commander Henry Knox. So begins the familiar and rather wearying two step in which a younger man, in this case Madison, persuades a reluctant Washington to succumb to the side of his vanity that sought to participate in shaping the arc of events; no one for a second believed the old man’s protestations of exhaustion. Securing Washington for a constitutional convention meant the political situation was serious enough to call legislators to Philadelphia when the Confederation Congress sometimes went months without getting quorum.

If in the early twenty-first century John Adams enjoyed a biographical renaissance that would have wonders for his mighty ego (Ellis himself wrote a fine contribution, Passionate Sage, in the mid ’90s), James Madison is now the favorite Framer, admired by Lynne Cheney (resist the chuckles: her book’s not bad) for shaping the federalism that in our own time triggers admiration and discontent when, say, gay marriage comes up. Madison, Ellis insists, wasn’t a philosopher so much as a political operator of consummate modesty but adamantine concentration. The chapter, called “Madison’s Moment,” boasts some of Ellis’ most trenchant writing:

There was in Madison’s critical assessment of the state governments a discernible antidemocratic ethos rooted in the conviction that political popularity generated a toxic chemistry of appeasement and demagoguery that privileged popular whim and short-term interests at the expense of the long-term public interest.

By 1787 Madison was the most prepared member of the Constitutional Convention, compensating for a mild debate presence with the best arguments. Ellis is quick to note, often, that Madison didn’t deserve the moniker “Father of the Constitution” — peg-legged ladies man Gouverneur Morris actually wrote it and made a crucial edit. Thanks to him, the preamble says “We the People of the United States,” thus enshrining the tenet that this government operated through its citizens, not through its states. How Madison (d)evolved from the most fervent nationalist to the author of the Virginia Resolution still mystifies historians, and Ellis wisely lets the mystery be.

I would have loved a book on Morris, one of those second-tier figures often mentioned but not revered. A chapter on Robert Morris (no relation), the Pennsylvanian shipping magnate whose checks paid for the Revolution, whetted my appetite. Similarly, John Jay gets a chapter in which his equanimity and sobriety are praised but he disappears from the narrative. Preferable at any rate to the scant attention paid to quartet member Alexander Hamilton, about whom Ellis offers little that Ron Chernow’s magisterial 2004 biography hasn’t already presented. The prose style that has made American history accessible to millions often collapses into surfer dude banality: Ellis’ conclusion refers to Washington as the “Foundingest father of them all.” Or just bad taste, such as the note that “the real weapons of mass destruction in the eighteenth century were viruses.” But Founding Brothers and his sturdy biography of Jefferson called American Sphinx introduced me to this period, and if The Quartet sends readers scurrying towards the primary sources, so much the better. Madison and Hamilton were the best of the writers, less self-conscious at any rate than Jefferson, attempting to reach a mass audience that needed suasion. A trade paperback edition of The Federalist Papers will set you back five dollars.

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