Joseph Ellis has authored several entertaining books on the Founding Era of American History. In this book, he hones in his focus to the period of 1783-1789 and makes two basic arguments. The first is that this period constituted a second “American Revolution”: 1776 marked the declaration of independence from Britain, but the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 created a nation. Or, as Ellis puts it at one point, the first event was a revolution, while the second was an evolution.
His second argument is that four men were central to this transition from a confederation of very independent-minded states to a nation of Americans: namely, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. He further recognizes an essential supporting cast consisting of Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, and Thomas Jefferson.
The rest of this short but densely packed book expands his arguments, going back and forth among the activities of his main actors in this time period. He does a good job of it, and of course the story is a good one in any event; these were extraordinary times, allowing for the principals to effect extraordinary results.
If I were to make any criticisms, they would be small and do not detract from the essence of the saga. One is that Ellis tells us mostly what his quartet (and the other three – in truth, more of a septet) did to bring about the American “Evolution,” but not much about the contributions of others. It took the efforts of many more people as well, any of whose contributions could be thought of as necessary, if not sufficient. In addition, Ellis downplays the importance of the critical external issues that catalyzed reaction and response, such as the British debt crisis and austerity measures that retarded the growth of the colonies – especially, the restriction of international trade.
A second criticism is that Ellis begins by claiming that Lincoln was “historically incorrect” by asserting, in the Gettysburg Address, that a new nation was brought forth in 1776. Lincoln, a scholar of the Constitution as well as a consummate politician, knew exactly what he was doing by referencing the defining American document as that of 1776 instead of 1787; certainly one of his goals was to help shape the narrative understanding of the country’s formation; that is, the history that defined our collective identity as a people.
As the late Yale legal scholar Robert M. Cover wrote:
“No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture. Once understood in the context of the narratives that give it meaning, law becomes not merely a system of rules to be observed, but a world in which we live. . . . In this normative world, law and narrative are inseparably related. Every prescription is insistent in its demand to be located in discourse – to be supplied with history and destiny, beginning and end, explanation and purpose.”
Thus, Cover perspicaciously concluded:
“Law may be viewed as a system of tension or a bridge linking a concept of a reality to an imagined alternative – that is, as a connective between two states of affairs, both of which can be represented in their normative significance only through the devices of narrative.”
More precisely, the Declaration set forth our normative goal, and the Constitution provided a legal and political framework by which it might fulfill its promises to get us to that ideal.
Third, Ellis pretty much dismisses the idea that the hoi polloi harbored any nationalist feelings, but doesn’t offer much support for this contention, and other scholars have argued otherwise. Certainly Thomas Paine’s pamphlets, widely read throughout the colonies, repeatedly refer to “the American Cause,” stating, for example, in 1776, that “America will never be happy till she gets clear of foreign dominion.”
Thomas Paine, contends Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Walter McDougall, “united most Americans in common hatred and fear of outside oppressors as well as inside dissenters.” While it is not entirely clear, McDougall concedes, whether Paine helped create “American mass politics” or if it already existed for his pamphlets to have been so successful, the fact was, by 1776 one could appeal to an “American” consciousness to call men to arms. And before the first year which is the start of Ellis’s book, French-born writer M. G. Jean de Crèvecœur was extolling the virtues of “this great American asylum [haven]” and asking, in his widely-read book of 1782: “What then is the American, this new man?”
Nevertheless, Ellis tells a good story, especially if you are already aware of the wider context. These were indeed, as Paine famously wrote, “the times that try men’s souls.” Ellis allows that “the founders occupied a transitional moment in the history of Western civilization. . . ” In addition, and critically, because of the non-aristocratic structure of American society:
“…this meant that politics in America was open to a whole class of talented men – women were still unimaginable as public figures – who would have languished in obscurity throughout Europe because they lacked the proper bloodlines and inherited wealth.”
And thanks to at least seven of these men, we came away from that time with a pretty good scaffolding for a future society.
Evaluation: This pithy summary of the foundations of the Constitution is excellent.
Hardback published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
Note: I both read the book in hard copy, because I like to consult footnotes, and listened to it on CD. I was surprised to discover that the emphases given by the narrator in the audio version helped me understand the meaning of the written words more fully.
A Few Notes on the Audio Production:
The narrator, Robertson Dean, does a great job, especially in changing his voice to set off quotations, so that listeners can distinguish them from the rest of the text.
Published unabridged on 7 CDs (8 1/2 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2015