Monday, June 29, 2015

Joseph Ellis’ ‘The Quartet’ challenges assumptions about our founding fathers

Historian Joseph J. Ellis begins his latest book, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1788, by taking Abraham Lincoln to task. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln intoned, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this Continent a new Nation,” to which Ellis says, “Nuh-uh. Did not” (or words to that

His point is that the American Revolution was fought by a loose confederation of thirteen separate and sovereign states, held together (barely) by the Articles of the Confederation. The states considered quotas for recruits to fight the war to be mere requests which they were free to (and did) ignore. Washington begged for funds to feed and supply his troops and these, too, were largely ignored. The impetus for independence was a desire to free the colonists from Britain’s tax policies and they were not keen to have another entity tax them in Britain’s place.

Indeed, the idea of any kind of “national” government was greeted with hostility by most of the states, the thought being that such a government would be too far distant from the real lives of its constituents and therefore not likely to listen to them or to understand their concerns.

In Ellis’ view, four men – all veterans of the Continental Army or the Continental Congress, working together, “diagnosed the systematic dysfunctions under the Articles [of Confederation], manipulated the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Convention, collaborated to set the agenda in Philadelphia, attempted somewhat successfully to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying conventions, then drafted the Bill of Rights as an insurance policy.”

Those four men – “The Quartet” of his title – were George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. In his immensely interesting narrative, Ellis gives us a portrait of each of these men.

Washington, of course, had firsthand and bitter experience of the lack of centralized government. His approach to the problem was as a military strategist – always looking ahead to what the opponents might do and how best to head them off. He was an extraordinarily patient man, willing to outwait those opponents until the optimal moment.

John Jay was a diplomat able to negotiate favorable treaties with foreign governments and to soothe his opponents, “Please sir, explain your position to me again, since I do so much wish to understand it.” Alexander Hamilton was the brilliant but brash pugilist, a financial genius, sure that his positions were correct and lacking either the diplomacy of Jay or the patience of Washington.

Madison was the lawyer who believed in preparation, preparation, preparation. He approached every argument with his positions thoroughly researched and laid out. As John Marshall put it, after listening to a debate between Madison and Patrick Henry, “Mr. Henry had without doubt the greatest power to persuade, [but] Mr. Madison had the greatest power to convince.”

Ellis quotes from letters the four men sent to each other and to others to give a fuller picture of their behind-the-scenes maneuvering to successfully convene a Constitutional Convention. Here, Madison’s political instincts came to the fore. He had a talent for counting likely votes and of seeing where pressure might be put to increase their number.

After a great deal of debate, the Constitution was sent to the states for an up-or-down vote with the little-noted proviso that it would take effect once ratified by nine of the thirteen states. Ellis writes:

The political context in the fall of 1787 required a second democratic moment, when the core issue at stake was presented to the full citizenry for their approval or rejection. In 1776 the issue had been independence. In 1787-88 it was nationhood. And partly because the process was drawn out for eight months, and partly because the American electorate was more divided on nationhood than it was on independence, the arguments that ensued in the ratifying conventions and in town meetings and family parlors from Maine to Georgia were spirited, indeed ferocious affairs. Without much doubt, one can sensibly say that this was the greatest political debate in American history, because nothing less than a viable American nation-state was at issue.

While six of the states ratified “with amendments,” these proposed amendments were treated as suggestions only. New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify (preceded by Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland and South Carolina).

Opponents of the Constitution immediately called for a second Constitutional Convention to add amendments. Madison feared that their real goal was to undo all that had been accomplished and, to head off this threat, he drafted a Bill of Rights (taking into account many of the amendments “suggested” by the ratifying states). As Ellis writes, “While we tend to regard (and capitalize) the Bill of Rights as a secular version of the Ten Commandments handed down by God to Moses, Madison saw it as a weapon to be wielded against opponents of the Constitution….”

Ellis makes three points of especial interest, often overlooked in today’s political climate.  First, our founding fathers were wary of trusting the government to “the people.” Ellis writes that the Constitution has endured, “not because it embodies timely truths that the founders fathomed as tongues of fire danced over their heads, but because it manages to combine the two time-bound truths of its own time: namely, that any legitimate government must rest on a popular foundation, and that popular majorities cannot be trusted to act responsibly, a paradox that has aged remarkably well.”

Secondly, the Constitution is deliberately ambiguous on the line of demarcation between federal and state powers:

The key insight might be called the beauty of ambiguity. Madison had misguidedly, he now realized, pushed for an unambiguous resolution of the sovereignty question during the convention. Now it was becoming clear to him that the great achievement of the convention, and of the Constitution as well, was to embrace the inconvenient truth that there was no consensus on the sovereignty question, either in the convention or in the country itself. So what they had created, albeit out of necessity rather than choice, was a political framework that deliberately blurred the sovereignty question.

Finally, our founding fathers saw the Constitution as a “living” document.

For it was designed not to offer clear answers to the sovereignty question (or, for that matter, to the scope of executive or judicial authority) but instead to provide a political arena in which arguments about those contested issues could continue in a deliberative fashion. The Constitution was intended less to resolve arguments than to make arguments itself the solution. For judicial devotees of 'originalism' or 'original intent,' this should be a disarming insight, since it made the Constitution the foundation for an ever-shifting political dialogue that, like history itself, was an argument without end. Madison’s 'original intention' was to make all 'original intentions' infinitely negotiable in the future.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched….But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered …institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.

Ellis concludes:

Jefferson spoke for all the most prominent members of the revolutionary generation in urging posterity not to regard their political prescriptions as sacred script. It is richly ironic that one of the few original intentions they all shared was opposition to any judicial doctrine of 'original intent.' To be sure, they all wished to be remembered, but they did not wish to be embalmed.

Joseph J. Ellis won the Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brother: The Revolutionary Generation, and the National Book Award for American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Additionally, he is the author of Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, First Family: Abigail and John Adams, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, His Excellence: George Washington, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture, School for Soldiers: West Point and the Profession of Arms (with Robert Moore), and The New England Mind in Translation.

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