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A ‘quartet’ of patriots who brought the United States together

Although it seems inevitable now that after the Revolutionary War, the former colonies would band together to form a nation, at the time, it was far from a foregone conclusion. In his new book, “The Quartet”, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis examines the four men most responsible for this union. As Independence Day approaches, Ellis sits down for a conversation with Jeffrey Brown.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now: the latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

    As we know, the Revolutionary War severed the colonial ties to England in 1776. But what are the next steps that led to our democracy?

  • Historian Joseph Ellis takes up that story in his new book, “The Quartet:

    Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789.”

    He recently sat down with Jeffrey Brown.

  • JOSEPH ELLIS, Author, “The Quartet:

    Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789”: Well, the 1780s are a kind of a dead zone for most Americans, a kind of black hole.

    We win independence and come together. Then, a few years later, we come together and create this nation, or this national government. And in truth…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It all seemed inevitable, right?

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    It all seems inevitable.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But it wasn’t.

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    But, in fact, history’s actually moving in the other direction in the 1780s.

    It’s moving towards the Europeanization of North America.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, your starting is you’re saying, everything about the revolution, the war, was pulling away from the notion of a single United States.

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    Right.

    We had a common identity as members of the British Empire. Then we came together provisionally and temporarily to win the war, although about a third of the people were loyalists and/or indifferent. But once the war was over, history’s headed towards a dissolution of the United States as a coherent whole.

    And the term United States is a plural now. The United States are, not the United States is.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So to get to is, you have the quartet of the title, right?

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, lesser known. It’s a top-down.

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This is an elite group.

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    It is. It is an elite group.

    Most of us would prefer it to be an up from the bottom. There are no mobs forming, however, to have a constitutional convention or a nation-state. And there are reasons to be suspicious of any kind of central government, because, after all, that’s what the Parliament was.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Right. We just got rid of that, right?

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    We did, but it’s different because, in the new government, you actually do have representatives. You elect them, OK?

    In Parliament, you didn’t get to elect them. But does it really count if, in say the Congress, you have 30,000 people represented by one person? Some people don’t feel that’s really representation. They’re going to oppose this.

    In some sense, I see the anti-federalists who oppose this as the real spiritual and political ancestors of the Tea Party, people that distrust the government. For them, government is them, rather than government is us.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, take John Jay. What did he do to lead us in that direction?

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    Jay was the American delegate. And he saw to it that in the peace negotiations, we acquire the land between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi.

    It turns out we’re going to get the British Empire North America. The British had won it from the French. The Indians or Native Americans are still there. There’s 100,000 of them living between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi.

    But the United States is going to acquire an empire as a consequence of the war, and it’s going to make it even more necessary that we move to some kind of coherent government that’s capable of managing this huge land mass.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    If they were so heroic and triumphant, why did it take a — there was still a Civil War in our history, right?

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    Yes, right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And so there was still so much more to do.

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    The deeper resolutions that were the result of slavery and of the very — and the Native American experience were tragedies that the Constitutional Convention didn’t resolve, it papered over and postponed.

    There was a silence on the slavery question in the Constitutional Convention. It was the ghost at the banquet. You couldn’t talk about it. If you talked about it, it ran the risk of blowing the entire experiment up. If they had done it, the Constitutional Convention would have never succeeded and we would have fallen back into a confederation.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One wonders sitting here today — you’re looking back at these arguments over federalism.

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    Right. Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    On our program every night, we’re looking at Supreme Court cases that involve many of the same issues.

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    When you look, as a historian, does it feel like all of these things have been resolved or are they still…

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    No.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    No.

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    No.

    It’s a Big Bang theory of American history that I have. And this is the explosion and it keeps going out. But it doesn’t provide answers. The Constitution only provides a framework in which the argument can keep going on. But the deeper issue of state vs. federal sovereignty is still with us.

    Now, you would think it was resolved by the Civil War, but it hasn’t been. And I think the genius of the Constitution created by these guys — and it was in part accident, because it was a set of compromises — was to create a document that was a living document, that didn’t attempt to provide answers. The answers were arguments. And people could continue to disagree.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You have been writing about this period for a long time.

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    Right. I know. I need to get a new topic, don’t I?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, but I’m wondering, is it just an endless fascination to…

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    Yes. It is an endless fascination on my part, rooted in the conviction that this is the mother lode. This is, as we said, the place where the values and institutions that we continue to live with are all created.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right. The book is “The Quartet.”

    Joseph Ellis, thanks so much.

  • JOSEPH ELLIS:

    Pleasure.

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