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Book review: 'The Quartet' offers a wonderful view of the republic's formation
"The Quartet" is by Joseph J. Ellis. - photo by Cody K. Carlson
"THE QUARTET: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789," by Joseph J. Ellis, $27.95, 320 pages (nf)

Historian Joseph J. Ellis latest work, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, examines the years following Americas victory in its revolution against Great Britain and the turbulent struggle to create a lasting, viable republic.

The book primarily focuses on four men: George Washington, the revered military commander of Americas revolution turned reluctant politician; John Jay, the experienced diplomat who strove to genuinely understand his political enemies points of view; Alexander Hamilton, the headstrong New Yorker whose vision of Americas future was rooted in creating national debt; and James Madison, the Virginia aristocrat who proved more practical political tactician than dreamy philosopher.

These four men, Ellis contends, held a powerful, national vision for America that contrasted sharply with that of many Americans who believed the focus of their allegiance should be their state and not some distant, national entity. Ellis examines the years following the revolution, including the events leading up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the ratification debate and the creation of the American republic.

Rather than giving a simple rehashing of the Constitutional Convention, Ellis quickly moves over the key debates on slavery and representation. He then focuses instead on the political battles between those who wanted a strong national government and those who opposed it, and just how those battles were fought and won.

Each of the four men is given his due, and the reader walks away from this book with a greater appreciation for Jay, whose contributions to the republics foundations are often overshadowed by his seemingly more dynamic contemporaries. Madisons sparring with Virginias Patrick Henry makes for some of the works most stirring and enlightening reading. Ellis also provides fine portraits of figures such as the antislavery firebrand Gouverneur Morris and superintendent of finance Robert Morris (no relation), who took out personal loans in order to keep the Continental Army supplied during the last year of the revolution.

Ellis succeeds in his argument that these four men were indispensable to the creation of a truly American national government. He is less convincing on some of the minor arguments he makes, such as his dismissal of the theory of Original Intent, inferring that all of the founding fathers intended the Constitution to be a living document easily changeable with the times instead of just through the machinery of amendments. His somewhat clunky passages on the Second Amendment prove likewise unconvincing. Still, this book gets far more right than it gets wrong.

The work is a brilliant look at the formation of the republic and wonderfully brings to light the diligent work of the men who made it happen.

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 contains no swearing, sexual content or described violence.