Prize-winning historian reflects on birth of Constitution

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Posted: May 12, 2015 9:50 AM
Prize-winning historian reflects on birth of Constitution

NEW YORK (AP) — Joseph J. Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, has an issue with the Gettysburg Address.

"I was at the middle school where my son teaches and I was listening to 28 kids recite the speech," Ellis, a professor emeritus at Mount Holyoke College, told The Associated Press recently.

"And I was thinking about 'Four score and seven years ago,' and how that put us in 1776. But at that time the United States was a plural, and not a singular, not at all a unified nation. Lincoln was in the middle of the Civil War and there were political reasons for him to argue that such an idea predated the existence of the actual union. But the country only comes together in 1787-88 with the drafting and enactment of the Constitution."

Ellis' "The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-89," is out this week, the ninth book by one of the leading scholar of the country's early years of independence. His previous works include the Thomas Jefferson biography "American Sphinx" and "Founding Brothers," a million-selling publication that won the Pulitzer in 2001.

"The Quartet" covers a disputed and vital era, the years between the end of the Revolutionary War and birth of the U.S. Constitution. In debates that continue to this day, the 13 original states were fiercely divided between those who feared the return of monarchy and wanted to remain a loose confederation, similar to what Europe is today, and those who believed the only way to prevent dissolution was a viable central government.

Ellis tells the story through the words and actions of four men: George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.

"I had already written a book about the revolution of 1776 ('Revolutionary Summer') and I knew I wanted to write a book about how we got to the Constitution," he says. "I wasn't looking to write about it from the top down, but the way in which the (Constitutional) Convention was convened and the way in which the debates were managed and ratification was orchestrated — these guys kept being the ones who led the effort to assure some form of federal government."

Each of the four leaders made distinctive contributions. After the war, Washington had retired to his plantation in Mount Vernon, Virginia, but at the urging of Madison and others, he returned to public life. He was the only man who seemed beyond partisan criticism, and his agreement to preside over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 was essential. Washington's wartime service had shaped his thinking; he was repeatedly frustrated by the Continental Congress' inability to provide adequate funding and supplies for his troops.

"The continental army was treated very badly and even sent home without their pensions," Ellis says. "In truth, Washington believed we could have won the war much sooner if the states had filled their quotas and provided the support that was needed. People who had experience in the continental army became some of the leading federalists."

Meanwhile, Jay helped vastly expand the young country's territory — and inspire dreams of future empire — through the 1783 Treaty of Paris he negotiated with Britain. Hamilton was an early and tireless advocate for nationalism, his ability to transcend regional biases in part a product of his being an immigrant, Ellis writes. Madison was the era's greatest legislative strategist, skills fully required as he worked for support in his native, and crucial state, Virginia, and as drafter of the Bill of Rights. Hamilton, Madison and Jay also would rapidly compose some of the most famous and influential essays in American history, the Federalist Papers, arguments for the Constitution that ran in New York newspapers in 1787-88.

The Federalist Papers are now canonical works, often cited in Supreme Court cases, but Ellis writes that they were "perhaps the supreme example of improvisational journalism." He believes similar misunderstandings remain about the Constitution. In his book, he scorns the ideal of the founders as "quasi-divine creatures with supernatural powers of mind and heart."

Instead, he writes, the Constitution was a familiar political trade-off. The two sides managed to agree on issues ranging from federal power over states to presidential authority either by keeping the language vague and open-ended, avoiding the issue altogether or finding the crude middle ground of counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for determining Congressional representation.

"Madison felt very disappointed and felt like they had failed," Ellis says, noting that Madison had initially opposed the need for a Bill of Rights and favored giving the federal government veto power over state laws. "But he came to the conclusion, grudgingly, that the Constitution is a set of compromises. It doesn't have answers. It creates a framework in which the argument keeps going on."