Friday, August 5, 2016

Joseph J. Ellis, The Quartet

Joseph J. Ellis, The Quartet:  Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-178
Vintage Books/Random House, 2015
ISBN 978-0-8042-7248-8 (paperback)

This is almost certainly the best book on American history I have ever read—not the longest, by any means; not the most sweeping, just the best.  In 220 pages, Ellis takes us from a, well, it’s not yet a nation, a combination of states, with no effective central focus, in danger of fragmenting into individual states (or, at best, smaller combinations of states) to a nation, with a strong (if not yet well-defined) central focus and government, well-placed to take advantage of its opportunities.

He does so by focusing on four central figures in the creation of the Constitutional Convention—John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the colossus of early America, George Washington.  (The more I read about Washington, the more I am struck by his ability to think, not days or years, but decades ahead.  He remains, in my mind, the single greatest figure in American History.

It’s 1783, and the Confederation established at the end of the War of Independence is in danger of crumbling into nothing.  It has no authority to raise funds to operate a government, or even to pay off the debts from the Revolution; it can only request funds from the states.  Members of the Congress often do not show up, leaving it unable to transact any business.  Which would be difficult in any event, because transacting business requires the concurrence of 9 of the 13 states (one state, one vote), and obtaining the concurrence of a state’s delegation (always more than one person) can be confounded by divisions within the delegation.

Madison, Hamilton, and Jay have become nationalists, believers in the need for a strong central government, with a focus not on local or state issues, but on truly national issues—diplomacy, defense, and, more immediately, how to deal with the vast territory between the Alleghany Mountains and the Mississippi River that has come with independence.  In the background is Washington, who has also become quietly convinced of the need for a national perspective, even as he is reluctant to leave Mt. Vernon.

The broad outlines of the story I knew; the details, I did not.  For instance…when a convention at Annapolis to revise the Articles of Confederation failed (only 5 state delegations even showed up), Hamilton prevails on the delegates to agree (unanimously) to claim that the Convention has called for a convention, to meet in Philadelphia beginning in May 1787 to devise a new structure for the government—not to amend the Articles of Confederation, but to replace them.  For instance…Gouvenor Morris (who apparently drafted most of the text of what became the US Constitution) changed the wording of the preamble from its original text [“The States (enumerated by name) in order to.] to the text we now know:  “We, the People of the United States of America, in order to establish a more perfect Union, Establish Justice, in domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Prosperity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States.”

I had not known that the Ordinances of 1784 and 1787 not only laid out the basic contours of the West, but established a clear and direct path to statehood:  Once a territory had a population of 30,000, it could establish its own territorial government, and once its population equaled that of the least populous state, it could petition Congress to be admitted as a state (with the presumption that admission would be, essentially, automatic).

I knew that the Convention did its best to avoid the issue of slavery; I had not known that Thomas Jefferson had included in the Ordinance of 1784 a clause that would have required the end of slavery in the US by 1800—it failed in the Confederation Congress by 1 vote (which means 8 of the 13 states were willing, but 5—Virginia, North and South Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia—were not.

I knew that the votes to accept the Constitution were close in many states (these votes were of state conventions; the closest vote was in New York, which voted 30-27 in favor), but not how strenuously they were contested and how close they were in some of the states.  I knew states proposed changes (amendments) to the document, but I did not know the process by which Madison cut them down from over 100 to 12 that were submitted to the first Congress…and that several states had proposed amendments that would make revenues from the states voluntary, as they had been under the Articles of Confederation.

And I knew how we feel today about the Federalist Papers; I had not realized how little, perhaps, they affected the state votes to accept (or not) the Constitution.

Finally, I was struck by this, written by Thomas Jefferson in the 1820s, when he was asked for his reflections on the Constitution and its adoption (p. 219):

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them to be like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched.  They ascribe to the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose that what they did to be beyond amendment.  I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it.  It deserved well of its country…But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in h and with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered…Institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.  We might as well require a man to wear still the coat w=that fitted him as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors.

So much for “original intent.”

No comments:

Post a Comment