Joseph Ellis looks at the founding of the nation in stark clarity in his book The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. Ellis cuts through the ideas and stories we tell of our nation’s founding, and looks at the most pivotal actors that worked to establish a strong constitutional government in the United States.
Ellis begins by explaining that a national government was not something that our founding fathers were very interested in and that most people thought of themselves primarily as statesmen (as Virginians or Pennsylvanians) rather than as Americans. He writes, “creating a national government was the last thing on the minds of American revolutionaries, since such a distant source of political power embodied all the tyrannical tendencies that patriotic Americans believed they were rebelling against.”
Following the Revolutionary War, the United States operated more or less as independent states, loosely bound by the Articles of Confederation. Ellis suggests that four men in particular were crucial for bringing about a “second revolution” and forming a new more powerful central government across the states. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay are the four founding fathers that Ellis attributes the birth of our nation to. Without their coordinated actions, Ellis argues, a new Constitution could not have come into being and the idea of “America” would have never taken hold.
Our founding fathers were not a unified group of wise sages who knew exactly what was needed to spark a political revolution to bring freedom, prosperity, innovation, and a new nation into being. Our founding fathers were a diverse group who argued constantly and could hardly agree on how the states should relate to one another. The quartet that Ellis identified were instrumental in forming the idea that the states should operate in unison with a strong overarching government, something that felt dangerous given the revolution against central authority that had just been raged. Washington, a Virginian, was the public face of a new government, leading the way to convince the south that the ideas of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were sound. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay engaged in an effort to convince the states that a unified constitution would be valuable, prosperous, and fair with the writing the Federalist Papers. Their arguments evolved over time and existed as an exploration of their constitutional idea as much as a clearly defined goal for a new nation. Without the actions of these four, the nation may have never gotten going. They created the idea of America and brought about the system of government that we know today.
It is important to remember how close things came to not happening. The stories we tell ourselves about our founding make it seem as thought America was destined to become a great nation. We talk about our founding fathers as though they were a unified group of impossibly wise leaders, but the reality was that they were political amateurs, fearful of dissent and tyranny and unsure about a national government to bring them together. Our politics today calls back the founding fathers and argues about their intents, but it is clear from reading Ellis’ book that even our founding fathers themselves were not clear about their own intent.