THE QUARTET by Joseph J. Ellis | Review

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 is a comprehensive, cohesive, carefully crafted analysis of the transition from distinctly powerful states in America under the Articles of Confederation to a nation of united states under the newly ratified Constitution. By focusing on the brilliant men who made this shift possible– George Washington, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison— Ellis emphasizes just how influential and integral the Founding Fathers were at creating the nation we still know today.

Joseph J. Ellis is a brilliant historian. I absolutely loved his book Founding Brothers when I read it in high school for my AP United States history class, so I purchased The Quartet as soon as I learned it was being released in 2015. Unfortunately, life got in the way (as it does) and I’ve just gotten around to reading it now. But trust me: it was well worth the wait!

A major strength of The Quartet is the interesting perspective Ellis takes on the events between 1783 and 1789. History textbooks spend pages and pages about the dramatic, exciting battles of the American Revolution, and then BAM! Washington was suddenly and unanimously elected to be the first President of the United States. But what happened in between? Why is this transition from states that wanted nothing to do with each other to a nation striving to be unified rarely discussed? Ellis explains what happened in the interim to create the governing body and form the nation we are still familiar with today. He refers to this as the Second American Revolution, one that may have lacked violence but was brimming with tense, vitriolic ideological debate.

As always, Ellis’ writing is well-organized, clear, fluid, and poignant. Although the book is structured in sections that focus on events chronologically, the overarching text highlights the four men that made it all happen. Of course, they weren’t the only people contributing to the effort, but they pulled all the strings they could to achieve the vision they intended. While the lives of Washington and Hamilton are often taught in great detail, students are much likely to learn about the work of John Jay and James Madison. Most importantly, Ellis adeptly humanizes these iconic and almost legendary figures in American history that we think we know so well (think again!).

These events may have happened centuries ago, but their legacies continue to affect us even now. While reading The Quartet I was suddenly struck by how removed from the initial writing of the Constitution we make ourselves when we discuss it today. The Constitution was intended to be a living document that would change over the course of history as suited the needs of the nation. Although the United States has changed considerably since 1789, there are many aspects of our culture that unfortunately remain the same. Why haven’t we turned to the Constitution to make more positive changes happen? Should we? These are the kinds of questions that make studying history so important, and I appreciate Ellis for continually reminding us of them. 

Overall, Ellis has once again hit the proverbial nail on the head with The Quartet. While Founding Brothers still holds a special place in my bookish heart, this book is a very close second. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone, regardless of whether or not you’ve studied history in the past.

What are your thoughts on The Quartet? Do you have a favorite time period in history to read about? Any recommendations for great history books? Let me know in the comments section below!




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