The Quartet

In “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789,” Joseph J. Ellis chronicles the planning, drafting, and ratification of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights in 1789.  The title refers to George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison.  These four men, with support from Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Jefferson, led the transformation of thirteen colonies into a united republic.

It had never occurred to me that formation of the United States of America was not necessarily the outcome sought via the Revolutionary War.  The Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1777.  They were ratified by all thirteen states by 1781.  The thirteen states remained sovereign and independent.  The role of the federal government was limited to diplomacy and resolving territorial disputes.

The basic idea was to form a federation of thirteen independent countries, each with their own constitution, laws, processes, and so on.  Thus, during the Revolutionary War (1776-1783), the federal government had no power to raise troops and collect taxes.  Each state made its own decisions with regard to contributing troops and money.  The result was thousands of poorly equipped and unpaid soldiers.

Having escaped the reins of the British King and Parliament, the states were in no mood to reinstitute centralized governance and control.  However, the Treaty of Paris in 1784 required payment of pre-war debts and return of confiscated properties.  The credit ratings of each of the states were such that money could not be borrowed to address these needs.  The minimal central government could not borrow either because it had no sources of revenue.

The Treaty also resulted in the Mississippi River being the western border of the colonial territories.  There would eventually be 26 states east of the Mississippi.   However, there were at that time many competing claims on the less settled portions of these territories.  Virginia, for example, was quite aggressive in its territorial claims.  There was need for a mechanism to address claims and form new states.

Washington, Hamilton, Jay and Madison felt that the federation was at great risk of imploding.  Many European powers hoped this would happen, as they did not want the competition likely from a large united republic.  Ellis masterfully tells the story of how these four men planned and orchestrated a process that resulted in thirteen states voting for something that most of their citizens did not want.  Ratification of the Constitution and Bill of Rights in 1789 was the result.

The tension between states’ rights and federal governance is woven into the fabric of our national culture.  The Tea Party is just the latest manifestation of this tension.  The Constitution provides the means for addressing this tension but does inherently resolve it.  As Ellis explains, the quartet facilitated creating, in effect, a work in progress.

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