Arguing over the Constitution
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