Book Report: “The Quartet”

“The Quartet” by Joseph Ellis

  • DougInNC book report – – – “More than a Review”

“four men made history happen in a series of political decisions and actions that … have no equal in American history.”

“When in the course of human events” it becomes you to rediscover roots formed in the 1700s that, of necessity, must hold firmly to be the foundation of these United States, this book is to be examined.

Historian and writer Joseph Ellis finds a comfortable place employing more drama than a typical professor and factual stickiness when a playwright or screenwriter might come unglued. He leverages his own prior work as well as “standing on the shoulders of giants” that have traipsed this historical period. His story builds strength, then gushes with maximum content and consequence as chapter five covers the drama of the 1787 Constitutional Convention and particularly the orchestration around that event by James Madison.

Mr. Ellis writes with the saturation of a sponge that has drawn the essential oils from the hide of American history to give the pages of “The Quartet” supple readability. He repeats themes just enough to reinforce key ideas. He moves laterally across the landscape of thirteen colonies and forward through the time when “four men made history happen in a series of political decisions and actions that, in terms of their consequences, have no equal in American history.”

Readers are bound to books by writers. Such book binding is reinforced in this work because the characters are exemplary writers themselves, with epic works that include The Federalist, the Declaration, the Constitution, plus the Bill of Rights. And while Washington has exponentially more written about him than could ever have been written by him, his Farewell Address (link to review on Goodreads) is a dissertation with the eloquence for which his leadership is known.

The reviewer was drawn to this book by the legacy of Alexander Hamilton. Learning more about Washington could never be time wasted. James Madison and John Jay fill the quartet title on this journey. The supporting cast includes Jefferson as antagonist to central themes. The magnetic pull of Hamilton was formed in my youth by “The Federalist Papers” and became a full-on gravitational force after experiencing “Hamilton: An American Musical” (see reviews Hamilton-1, Hamilton-2, Hamilton-3).

One finds lessons in history, politics, sociology, and psychology between these covers, as well as this thoughtful life lesson delivered by Ben Franklin through Mr. Ellis:

“For having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig’d, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change opinions on important Subjects, which I once thought Right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgement, and to pay more respect to the Judgement of others. …”

What lessons can be discerned from the 18th century that are relevant to the 21st?

  • First, a reminder that our 240-year-old “American experiment” is a republic, not a pure democracy, as relayed by the author discussing James Madison’s perspective: “His argument about the inherent advantages of a large republic represented his way … to harness the raw energies of that semi-sacred thing called “the people” while simultaneously controlling and refining its inevitable excesses.”
  • Second, our 21st century two-party, often unrooted political environment is missing the diversity and adaptability essential for the Madison model as captured by Ellis: “… a large republic produced [quoting Madison] ‘a greater variety of interests, of pursuits, of passions, which check each other.’ … because the interaction of interest groups in a large republic would prove self-regulating …”.
  • Third, the lesson from Madison’s battle to form and ratify the Constitution having not evolved exactly as he hoped it would, but still becoming his/our ultimate accomplishment, was captured 200 years later by the words of rock and roll: “You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes / you just might find you get what you need.” So it was for Madison; so it goes for the United States.

Any book is more than just words, but particular uses of words in “The Quartet” are worth highlighting for the way they capture, convey, and complete the topic being addressed:

• “questions over sovereignty, slavery, and size would define the history of the emerging American republic well into the next century.”
• “Jay was being asked to convert the American cacophony on foreign policy into a chorus.” … “To say something snapped in Jay would not be accurate; he was temperamentally incapable of losing his composure.”
• “… they spent the summer arguing their respective convictions in the belief that their arguments, not the inherent structure of the debate, would decide the outcome. In fact, the parameters of the possible were predetermined.” (emphasis from the reviewer)

As a reader, a short time may be required to settle into the narrative of a story you think you know. It is worth the time to make discoveries that are sometimes simple and other times in-depth. It seemed simple to name the thirteen colonies long ago learned, but there were fourteen names in my head until this book sorted them out. The complexity of character that is James Madison seems only slightly discovered in “The Quartet” and evolves until the very late pages; wait for it!

I recommend reading and enjoying this study of a momentous time in American history with Joseph Ellis singing the praises of “The Quartet.”

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