Since I have been all things Alexander Hamilton lately, a friend suggested that I read The Quartet. Joseph Ellis has written well reviewed biographies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John and Abigail Adams and several other books about the revolutionary period.
The Quartet particularly focuses on the movement from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution. After winning freedom from Britain, there was little desire for another national government. The Articles of Confederation were an intentionally weak (and ultimately failed) attempt to partner together as states without really becoming a single country. As Ellis suggests several times, the initial understanding of the Confederation was more similar to the European Union than a single country.
Ellis focuses on George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison as the four men that understood the need for a strong central government in order for the grand American experiment to succeed.
What most struck me about the book was the differences in reading biography and history. Necessarily when reading biographies, the subject of the biography is the central character. Anything that the subject was not involved in, is of less importance. It may be described to give broader context, but the areas where the subject was involved is given more time and attention. That is just how biographies work.
More general history cares less about the particular people than the events. So while I have read biographies of Washington and Hamilton and Adams and some others mentioned in this book, a history of the movement to a constitutions orients away from each character’s importance toward the narrative story.
Ellis does a good job showing how revolutionary this second revolution (to the constitution) really was. And about how weak the support for a central government was among many of the leading men of the age. Ultimately, Ellis suggests that even the most ardent supporters of the constitution would be surprised that it has lasted as long as it has.