The arc of early American history is well-established and well-known: The Colonial revolutionaries won independence from Great Britain, established a decentralized government, saw its flaws and addressed them — a clear line from the Second Continental Congress to the Constitutional Convention.
Joseph J. Ellis, a retired Mount Holyoke College historian and one of the most distinguished and prolific modern students of the early period, sees things slightly differently. First, he argues in “The Quartet,’’ a fresh look at a period (1783-1789) that perhaps more than any other shaped our distinctiveness and our destiny, there was the Revolution. Then, in his telling, there was a Second Revolution, orchestrated by a quartet of far-thinking figures who transformed the course of American history from a rejection of political power to the creation, and control, of political power. From, you might say, a movement to a symphony.
Lest we get lost in a mess of musical metaphors — there’s ample opportunity here to speak of arpeggios and codas, to say nothing of Lincoln’s mystic chords — let’s instead introduce the members of this quartet. They are George Washington and the three authors of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, the composers of what Ellis calls “the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history.’’
This is a fresh but persuasive argument. These men, all either veterans of the Continental Congress or Washington’s Continental Army, emerge in this story because, as Ellis puts it, they “diagnosed the systematic 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 Right as an insurance policy.’’
The book’s appeal is greatly enhanced by its structure, with analysis preceding narration. In an unusually powerful preface, Ellis sets forth his theory — that this quartet set out to expand the meaning of the Revolution they helped prosecute and to apply its outlook and values to a national government the Revolution hadn’t contemplated and, in the course of doing so, altered the trajectory of American history. As a result they moved the new country, as Ellis puts it in an 11-word phrase that summarizes what may well be his masterwork, “from a confederation of sovereign states to a nation-sized republic.’’
This is more than just a reinterpretation of a vital transition in our history; it is a reflection of new material from an episode that occurred two and a quarter centuries ago. Newly published correspondence provides new evidence — and makes possible a new perspective.
Having set forth the analysis, Ellis plunges into the narrative. His is an inviting voice and his story compelling, built around irresistible figures who, as the annual publishing lists amply display, retain their appeal in our own time.
The faults of the Articles are well known to anyone preparing for the AP American history test. They established, in the words of the Articles themselves, little more than “a firm league of friendship’’ that was, as Ellis puts it, “less a constitution than a diplomatic treaty among sovereign powers.’’
In the course of this volume Ellis presents us with the fundamental and enduring themes of our national debate: the inescapable tensions of race, the distinction between a republic and a democracy, the nature of political representation, the role of rights in a pluralistic society.
From the start John Adams — not one of the quartet but a guest soloist — recognized that the new nation was ‘’sowing the Seeds of Ignorance, Corruption, and Injustice . . . in the fairest Field of Liberty ever appeared on Earth.’’
Washington saw the advantages of a strong government firsthand as he tried to win the war with inadequate resources. Hamilton believed the country’s zeal to avoid anything resembling British rule tended to preclude all but the most limited self-rule. “Americans,’’ he believed, “needed to think continentally.’’
That’s because Americans, thanks in part to the negotiating acuity of Jay, now possessed a continental nation, or at least the potential of one, with a founding domain larger than Britain, France, and Spain combined. On that (relatively) open continent, Madison wanted to create a strong central government and permit roles for the states only “as far as they can be subordinately useful.’’ That was, Ellis explains, “the core political compromise that would shape the willfully ambiguous framework of the Constitution.’’ The heart of this view: “The federal government must become ‘us’ rather than ‘them.’ ’’
The result, as Madison came to see, was shrewder than even the Constitution’s sculptors expected, “a federal structure,’’ as Ellis characterizes it, “that moved the American republic toward nationhood while retaining an abiding place for local and state allegiances.’’ Add in the Bill of Rights, and Ellis’s Second American Revolution was in fact a dramatic “American Evolution.’’
THE QUARTET: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution 1783-1789
By Joseph J. Ellis
Knopf, 320 pp., $27.95
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .