When I picked up The Quartet by Joseph Ellis I was not surprised that the book focused on George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, three giants in the world of American history. I was surprised, however, with the fourth member of the quartet that Ellis suggested had the greatest impact on American nationhood and the shaping of our Constitution, John Jay. Ellis describes Jay as the man who, “almost singlehandedly wrote the New York constitution,” and as an eloquent leader who learned the value of a strong executive and a strong central government for maintaining cohesion and unity within a political boundary. His political experience leading New York and serving as president to the Continental Congress shaped his views on early governance in America and allied Jay with Washington, Hamilton, and Madison who believed and advocated for a new government to replace the Articles of Confederation which served as a compact to unite the newly independent states following the Revolutionary War.
Jay’s alignment with Washington, Hamilton, and Madison furthered the cause for a new American government thanks to his ability to win allies and influence people. Ellis describes Jay by writing, “Permanently poised, always the calm center of the storm, when a controversial issue arose, he always seemed to have thought it through more clearly and deeply than anyone else, so that his opinion had a matter-of-fact quality that made dissent seem impolite.” Ellis also describes the how his commitment to an effective central government arose, writing about his time as the leader of the provisional government of New York and of the New York constitution (that he wrote) which vested an expansive authority within the executive branch:
“Jay was also showing his true colors as a conservative revolutionary, a rare hybrid that simultaneously embraced American independence and endorsed political structures that filtered popular opinion through several layers of institutionalized deliberation before it became the law of the land.”
What I learned about John Jay while reading The Quartet served as a reminder to me of just how little I truly knew about our nation’s founding. It is commonplace for people to refer back to great moments of importance in human history, such as the World Wars, the American Revolution, or any other point in time that had a great impact on the future of a country, society, or on humanity as a whole and ascribe a certain meaning to that time. What happens when we do this, however, is that we make assumptions and leave out key actors and perspectives. Jay had a first row seat to the founding of America and played a huge role in shaping the direction of New York and of our current Constitution, yet his name and the lessons he learned are largely unknown to most American’s. Jay’s story has lessons of political deal-making and influence, of learning from experience and translating personal lessons into movements to benefit the whole of society. Ellis does an excellent job in his book helping us better understood this forgotten giant of the American Revolution.