Book Review: ‘The Quartet’

Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison as visionaries
September 4, 2015 9:18 am Last Updated: September 13, 2015 11:18 am

For so many of us, our knowledge of the American Revolution stops on the Fourth of July. After all, what better way to conclude America’s history than with the freedom-infused Declaration of Independence? In “The Quartet,” author Joseph J. Ellis challenges his readers to expand their classroom knowledge of America’s founding and to take a critical look at the eternally debated United States Constitution. He strives to pick up where our schoolteachers have left off.

Imagine the weeks following the Revolutionary War. After the celebration of victory died down, it would be assumed that the 13 states would have forged a solid bond of unity and nationhood. This was not the case. Rather, the states were prepared to separate and govern themselves on a strictly local level. Virginia would be Virginia, and New York would be New York. The United States, if spoken of at all, would remain a plural noun.

This individualistic political ideology acts as the antagonist to the book’s four main heroes: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. These men make up the titular quartet, and it is difficult to resist seeing them as the champions of democracy.

For as often as Ellis asserts that the founding of the United States was not a supernatural occurrence, it is clear that there is a special reverence between author and subjects. Washington is his undisputed favorite. A chapter titled “The Courting” is almost entirely devoted to Washington’s importance as a political leader. “The Quartet” repeatedly claims that Washington was the mortar that held the United States together.

Washington had gained his fame by serving as the commander of the Continental Army. In each of the 13 colonies, the name “Washington” evoked thoughts of heroism, freedom, and honor. Because he was so recognized and so loved, his hand in the Constitution’s creation meant that this was a document to be taken seriously. The public would be much more open to the idea of national unity if it was endorsed by its cherished leader.

Ellis certainly takes his 21st century perspective into account when looking at this historic period.

This is not to say that the other three men were not just as important. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison brought their own skillsets and experiences to the table, making sure that the Constitution addressed each of the diverse needs of the American people. Hamilton had a firm understanding of finances and used his knowledge to help develop a stable monetary policy. Jay served as diplomat to Spain and Great Britain, and he stepped in when he recognized any constitutional weaknesses in foreign policy. Madison’s preparedness, dedication, and foresight led him to the creation of the Bill of Rights, a deed that earned him the title “Father of the Constitution.”

Ellis certainly takes his 21st century perspective into account when looking at this historic period. He frequently reminds his audience that they are living in the structured nation that his four heroes could only hope for. And sometimes, this “futuristic” knowledge makes us unable to see the budding nation from the revolutionaries’ perspective.

He writes, “Over two hundred years later, when paintings, films, and histories remind us of the deplorable conditions endured by ordinary men to win American independence—and most of the images and words are utterly accurate—it is difficult to recover the combination of abuse and neglect directed at the Continental Army by most of the American citizenry at the time.” This refers to the states’ reluctance to offer aid to the same soldiers fighting for their independence, a revelation that might prove surprising to the modern reader. Requests for money, supplies, or more manpower were ignored, as states were too focused on their individual militias.

“The Quartet” comes to us at a time when the Founding Fathers and their deeds are so highly revered that we forget their flaws. Although Ellis occasionally gets caught up in “the miracle” of the United States’ founding, he reminds readers that these men were no gods and that their words were not infallible.

Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison had a vision of ongoing change. They valued fresh perspectives and desired an ever-evolving United States. Perhaps this is the most important lesson that Ellis offers his audience—that the Founding Fathers hoped future generations would not “regard their political prescriptions as sacred script.” “The Quartet” proves that even America’s most precious documents are not the nation’s final words.

‘The Quartet’
By Joseph J. Ellis 
Knopf 
320 pgs; $27.95

Chelsea Scarnegie, from the Chicago area, has a degree in writing.