When the Continental Army and its French allies won the culminating victory against the British at Yorktown in 1781, what had they accomplished? They won independence, certainly, but what kind? The question remained whether the United States would be a single nation or a confederation of 13 sovereign nations.
Initially, the confederate model won out. Having thrown off the distant government in London, the former colonies were averse to creating a new central power in New York or Philadelphia. Furthermore, in a time before railroads, steamships and telegraphs, people’s interests and allegiances tended to be local. The Articles of Confederation, written to define the relationship among the new states, created merely a “league of friendship.” It treated the states as independent countries.
By the end of the decade, however, everything had changed. The Constitution we have today was quickly drafted and ratified, creating a strong central government above and alongside the states. How this change happened is the topic of this well-researched and beautifully written book by eminent historian Joseph J. Ellis, previous winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
“The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789” tells the story of the efforts by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison to create a national identity and a functioning national government amid the chaotic and often narrow-minded sectionalism following the revolution.
To a degree, change was forced on Americans by the inadequacy of the confederate model to deal with their collective problems. The U.S. had acquired a huge national debt to pay for the war, but under the Articles of Confederation the states could not be taxed, so repayment was impossible. New territory was another issue. In the treaty that ended the war, Great Britain ceded all the land east of the Mississippi River to the United States as a single entity — not individual parcels to 13 states. A national plan was needed for establishing borders, settling the territory, creating states and making policy regarding the native population.
Most ominously, the states were surrounded by colonies and outposts of great world powers: England, France and Spain. In this context, small independent countries would be defenseless in protecting their interests or even their borders. Union was the only option. While events forced the outcome, Ellis shows the extraordinary capacity of these four leaders to understand the events, discuss them dispassionately, explain them to the American people, reach compromise, rise above pettiness and sacrifice personal wealth, power and popularity for the long-term public good.
Given the rarity of these qualities today, Ellis’s book is a compelling reminder of the political virtues that created the American republic.
Matthew C. Simpson is chairman of the Philosophy Department at Luther College.