Ar­gu­ing over the Con­sti­tu­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - David O. Stewart’s most re­cent book is “Madi­son’s Gift: Five Part­ner­ships That Built Amer­ica.” RE­VIEW BY DAVID O. STEWART book­world@wash­post.com

The his­tor­i­cal-in­dus­trial com­plex — a rel­a­tively be­nign group in our cur­rent na­tional cir­cum­stances — labors dili­gently to slake the public’s thirst to learn about Amer­ica’s found­ing. To this laud­able end, par­tic­i­pants have de­vel­oped sev­eral sub­gen­res of his­tor­i­cal works, be­gin­ning with the wrist-breaker bi­og­ra­phy, de­signed to win re­spect and awards, not nec­es­sar­ily to be read. That cat­e­gory in­evitably spawned a com­pan­ion genre, the slen­der bi­og­ra­phy, in­tended to be read, at speed. More in­ven­tive sub­gen­res in­clude the slice-of-the story book, which views the past through the prism of a sin­gle event or the as­pect of a larger ca­reer, and the ensem­ble book, which seeks in­sights by study­ing sev­eral peo­ple at once.

Joseph J. El­lis, a long­time lu­mi­nary of the com­plex, has pro­duced pi­o­neer­ing en­tries in most of these sub­gen­res. For this sea­son, he brings us an ensem­ble book, “The Quar­tet,” which ex­am­ines Ge­orge Washington, James Madi­son, Alexan­der Hamil­ton and John Jay in the 1780s.

“The Quar­tet” spends less time on in­di­vid­u­als than on the process of coax­ing a vi­brant na­tional gov­ern­ment out of the loose con­fed­er­a­tion of states that stag­gered through the eight-year war for in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain. Hav­ing re­belled against the im­pe­rial gov­ern­ment in Lon­don, Amer­i­cans did not leap to re­place it with a strong gov­ern­ment on this side of the At­lantic. In­stead, the 13 states elected for a time to quar­rel over con­flict­ing trade poli­cies and land claims, to avoid re­pay­ing their debts or fund­ing an army or navy and to is­sue over­lap­ping cur­ren­cies of swiftly evap­o­rat­ing value.

El­lis’s the­sis is that while Amer­ica’s Revo­lu­tion was a pop­u­lar move­ment, the Con­sti­tu­tion and gov­ern­ment of the late 1780s were prod­ucts of elites. En­ter, with a flour­ish, his quar­tet (in truth, a trio, with Jay sit­ting in for a few num­bers).

In El­lis’s telling, the quar­tet was able to com­mand only the first half of the Con­sti­tu­tion-writ­ing process, con­vinc­ing their coun­try­men that some­thing must be done. They then lost con­trol of the ef­fort in the mid­dle of the Philadelphia Con­ven­tion of 1787. The re­sult, by El­lis’s reck­on­ing, was a deeply con­flicted found­ing doc­u­ment that em­braces “the in­con­ve­nient truth that there was no con­sen­sus” on whether the United States shouldhave a strong cen­tral gov­ern­ment or should con­tinue as a league of friendly states.

Be­cause he finds the Con­sti­tu­tion rid­dled with am­bi­gu­i­ties, El­lis is im­pa­tient with those who seek to ap­ply the framers’ orig­i­nal in­tent to cur­rent chal­lenges. To him, the Con­sti­tu­tion did not re­solve whether the states or the peo­ple were sov­er­eign, or even de­fine the pow­ers of each branch of gov­ern­ment. Rather, it made “ar­gu­ment it­self the so­lu­tion,” cre­at­ing “an ar­gu­ment with­out end.”

El­lis’s broad per­spec­tive on the cre­ation of the na­tion can be provoca­tive and chal­leng­ing. His flir­ta­tion with con­sti­tu­tional ni­hilism is soft­ened by his cus­tom­ary mea­sured per­sua­sive­ness. “They all wished to be re­mem­bered,” he as­sures us about the framers, “but they did not wish to be em­balmed.”

Fi­nally, as with most ac­counts of the na­tion’s found­ing, “The Quar­tet” leaves the reader most im­pressed that the Amer­i­can experiment in self-gov­ern­ment has sur­vived as well as it has.

Joseph El­lis writes that the framers cre­ated “an ar­gu­ment with­out end.”

THE QUAR­TET Orches­trat­ing the Sec­ond Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion, 1783-1789 By Joseph J. El­lis Knopf. 290 pp. $27.95

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