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The Quartet Audiobook

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789

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Publisher's Summary

From Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian Joseph J. Ellis, the unexpected story of why the 13 colonies, having just fought off the imposition of a distant centralized governing power, would decide to subordinate themselves anew.

We all know the famous opening phrase of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this Continent a new Nation." The truth is different. In 1776, 13 American colonies declared themselves independent states that only temporarily joined forces in order to defeat the British. Once victorious, they planned to go their separate ways. The triumph of the American Revolution was neither an ideological nor a political guarantee that the colonies would relinquish their independence and accept the creation of a federal government with power over their autonomy as states.

The Quartet is the story of this second American founding and of the men most responsible - George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. These men, with the help of Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris, shaped the contours of American history by diagnosing the systemic dysfunctions created by the Articles of Confederation, manipulating the political process to force the calling of the Constitutional Convention, conspiring to set the agenda in Philadelphia, orchestrating the debate in the state ratifying conventions, and, finally, drafting the Bill of Rights to assure state compliance with the constitutional settlement.

Ellis has given us a gripping and dramatic portrait of one of the most crucial and misconstrued periods in American history: the years between the end of the Revolution and the formation of the federal government. The Quartet unmasks a myth and in its place presents an even more compelling truth - one that lies at the heart of understanding the creation of the United States of America.

©2015 Joseph J. Ellis (P)2015 Random House Audio

What the Critics Say

"A brilliant account of six years during which four Founding Fathers, 'in disregard of public opinion, carried the American story in a new direction.' In a virtuosic introduction, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Ellis maintains that Abraham Lincoln was wrong. In 1776 - four score and seven years before 1863 - our forefathers did not bring forth a new nation...Ellis reminds us that the 1776 resolution declaring independence described 13 'free and independent states.' Adopting the Constitution in 1789 created the United States, but no mobs rampaged in its favor...Ellis delivers a convincing argument that it was a massive political transformation led by men with impeccable revolutionary credentials.... This is Ellis' ninth consecutive history of the Revolutionary War era and yet another winner." (Kirkus)

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  • Mike From Mesa
    Mesa, AZ
    20/10/15
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    "A Wonderful Gem"

    My high school history classes covered the American Revolution and American History from 1789 to the events which were current at the time. While the Articles of Confederation was discussed, and the reasons for the failure of the central government mentioned, little time was actually given to the process through which the US moved from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution or through the ratifying process. The most time that was spent on this period, and it was precious little, was a discussion of the importance of the Federalist Papers and Alexander Hamilton, probably because this school was in New York State. This book remedies that lack in a short and complete fashion.

    Mr Ellis is a noted historian and he has turned his considerable talents to a complete description of why the Articles failed, the state that failure left the central government in and the process through which the four main proponents of a more powerful and centralized government, Washington, Hamilton, Jay and Madison, moved the process to its ultimate success. He also describes the difficulties involved in gaining ratification and the main opponents of the ratification effort as well as the motives of many of those strongly opposed to the new government system. Most central to this opposition were George Clinton and Patrick Henry and they figure prominently in the discussion of how the opponents first tried to stop the adoption of the Constitution and then tried to reverse the acceptance. While we know how things turned out, the description of the events themselves and the trials of those involved was both very interesting and informative.

    I have read many books on this period of American History but most were concerned with why the American Revolution occurred, the events of the war, the struggle for a peace treaty with Great Britain and the events after the adoption of the Constitution with the remainder being biographies of many of those involved (Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams and others). While all of those books covered either the period leading to the adoption of the Articles of Confederation or the events following the adoption of the Constitution, none of them were dedicated to the time period between the two and none were as clear as to the motives and actions of the participants as this book.

    Mr Ellis has also provided us with an analysis of what he believes was intended by the text of the Constitution by those involved and compares that with what is currently referred to as Original Intent. This is a short section and seems more like a political discussion than is warranted in a normal book on historical events, but it is short and does not mar the rest of the book. He also provides 3 appendices with the complete text of the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

    The book, at 8 hours, is not long, but it is 8 hours I found well spent. The narration by Robertson Dean is first class and I found this book to be well worth 5 stars.

    8 of 8 people found this review helpful
  • John A. Ryan
    Rome, NY, USA
    25/10/16
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    "Extremely Pertinent in today's United States"

    My second listen was more intense than the first.
    My initial review was that anyone who quotes. the Constitution, Federalist Papers or writings by Jefferson or believes what they hear or see from the media, political organizations or politicians regarding these sources should listen to or read this book before they begin to throw them around. There are historians who do not agree with Ellis and again if you are going to live or die by these sources, again you should read those opposing views and make your own choice. Besides run on sentences these are strong facts.
    In the last 20 or 30 years I have seen quotes regarding the Constitution, especially by Jefferson, who was in France before and long after the Constitution was written. Due to his position in the planter class, landed gentry , he had a vested interest in maintaining the Article's of Confederation. Therefore had no idea of the structure or negotiations and compromising that went into it.
    I believe the book is well-written and well narrated and a must read.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • Eve
    United States
    14/06/16
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    "Great history, Quick read"

    Want to mention at the top that this actual book is shorter than the full time mentioned, as it includes the two appendices, which are actually a reading of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Very nice that they were included in the audio, though.

    I feel this book was intensely interesting, and perfectly edited to a quick yet comprehensive subject matter. Highly recommend.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • Robert L. Coppedge
    Hudson, Oh USA
    05/08/15
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    "Great perspective on a little understood period"
    If you could sum up The Quartet in three words, what would they be?

    A Great listen


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    Amuricah. There was no individual character


    Any additional comments?

    In 1776 we signed the Declaration of Independence. Then we won the Revolutionary War. Then we became a Democracy. Then the Civil War happened.<br/>To a large degree I confess to being mostly ignorant of what happened immediately following the Revolutionary War. Like most folks, I bought into the Founding Fathers worked together and figured out how to create this new Democratic Republic pretty seamlessly.<br/>Boy, was I wrong. This is actually one of the better history books I’ve ready in a while. I illustrates the disconnect between the ineffective national government (which was truly more of a Confederacy of States than a Federal Government) and the all-powerful State governments.<br/>For those of you who think the Founding Fathers could do no wrong and had singular goals and objectives in mind, read this book. You’ll also realize that much of the mindset was based on compromise (especially dealing with Federal versus State powers). And that much happened not because it was what all parties wanted, but what was politically doable.<br/>The book focuses primarily on what the author sees as the four men most responsible for the creation of the constitution. George Washington, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison take up a good share of the narrative. But there’s a decent amount of attention spent on the political issues of the day as well.<br/>A great read,<br/>

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • William
    10/04/16
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    "Good intro to how our nation was really born "

    Our independence came from revolution, but our nation was founded on unity and tolerance.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Jean
    Santa Cruz, CA, United States
    11/06/15
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    "A Compelling Reminder"

    George Washington, aghast at the failure of Congress to properly feed and fund his ill-equipped army during the fight with the British, lamented, “We have become a many headed monster, a heterogeneous mass that never will nor can steer to the same point.” Loosely affiliated under the Articles of Confederation, the 13 states each pursued their own agendas.

    Pulitzer winning historian Joseph J. Ellis tells the story how this heterogeneous mass was made to steer to the same point. Ellis reveals how four men George Washington, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison conceived and promoted a new political framework built on the Constitution. Ellis shows how during the years 1783 to 1789 these four men called for the constitutional convention, set the agenda, orchestrated the debates and drafted the Bill of Rights.

    Some historians have viewed the Constitution as a betrayal of the American Revolution. Ellis, however, reminds us that democracy was viewed skeptically in the 18th century; he prefers to see the effects of the quartet as “a quite brilliant rescue” of revolutionary principles.

    The book is well written and researched. Ellis has a way of taking a lot of information and turning it into easy readable prose. This is a book to keep in your reference library. Robertson Dean narrated the book.

    4 of 6 people found this review helpful
  • Kevin
    Vancouver, BC, Canada
    14/07/17
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    "Evades the Central Question"

    When I purchased this audiobook I was interested in three questions about the creation of the US constitution: the historical and biographic details; the debates that led to the creation of by representative and not-so-representative houses of Congress; and how men (and they were only men) who created such beautiful documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights could also countenance and indeed support slavery. All three issues are, of course, deeply related.

    I was therefore pleased when, in the first chapter, the author took immediate and explicit notice of the importance of these three questions. Regrettably, the promise of the early chapter was not met in the rest of the book. The book does, of course, provide a detailed chronology of the events, and thumbnail sketches of the lives of the main protagonists. That was interesting and useful as I did not really know this chapter of history before. But the book really is little more than a primer of the basic facts.

    The fact that the structure of the Constitution was deliberately constructed to allow slavery to continue unchecked – indeed flourish – is the central fact of the Constitution. Few popular histories would put it that way. This book certainly does not. In this book, and in the story white Americans generally tell, the founding age of the republic is an epic tale of tyranny displaced by liberty and democracy. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are rightly viewed as epochal steps in the way enlightened societies think about their fellow humans and how we are governed. But if not put into full and active practice, they are both just pieces of parchment. The Constitution itself guaranteed that they would not be put into full and active practice. The reality of American life as actually lived under the Constitution included slavery, the most radical and thorough violation of liberty and democracy possible short of outright genocide. This reality persisted in its most vile form until the mid-1860s as a Constitutionally protected way of life, and in a less vile but fully egregious form as Constitutionally protected apartheid until at least the mid-1960s.

    The author’s treatment of the question of slavery which, as noted, he recognized as a central question in the first chapter, is decidedly unsatisfactory. The fact that the Constitution was structured to allow slavery to continue in those states that wished to do so is obvious. One need spend little time on asking whether the Constitution was intended to foster slavery, or what mechanisms were put in place to do so. A quick review of attempts to introduce modest civil rights legislation between the end of the civil war and 1968 attests to the solidity of those arrangements. The real question is why and how men who spoke so eloquently about liberty and democracy could practice the opposite. The author’s answer to this question is essentially to duck it.

    He notes, correctly, that in any assessment of a people in times gone by we must be very careful not to impose our modern understandings and values. But this does not mean that evil in earlier times get a moral pass because the nature of evil is ever changing. Some things have always been evil. Murder has always been evil. Torture has always been evil. Slavery has always been evil. When the institution of slavery allows what would otherwise be called murder and torture – as slavery in America did – that is evil, in whatever age it occurs. The author argues that attitudes towards race relations have changed over time, as they have. But there is a world of difference between racial bigotry and legally sanctioned slavery. People can fail to embrace diversity, yet still recognize the evil of slavery for what it is.

    More historically, Washington, Jay and Madison (slaveholders), and Hamilton (not a slaveholder) knew clearly and unambiguously that slavery was wrong. Washington wrote many letters attesting to his full understanding of the moral and economic evils of slavery, but as many complaining about how he was hard done by the cost of maintaining his slaves who had reached old age. Washington’s liberation of his slaves only upon his death was a monumental act of hypocrisy. If his slaves had a basic human right to be liberated, why did they have to wait until he no longer had use of their productive powers? On one hand, Washington knew slavery was wrong, but on the other hand he could not deny himself the material dignity he enjoyed by exploiting their labor. Jay’s hypocrisy competed with, but did not quite meet, Washington’s. While a slavery holder himself, he did take active measures towards eventual abolition. He did not, however, make any real effort to deal with slavery in the Constitution. Madison was also a slaveholder, and did not free any of his slaves during his lifetime. Further, the fact that slavery was evil was not an abstruse theory known only to a rarefied intellectual elite. Upper Canada (modern day Ontario) enacted the Act Against Slavery in 1793. Discussion leading that act was in progress at the same time as the American Constitution. These important biographical and contemporary historical details would have assisted an exposition of the historical question of who slavery came to be protected in the Constitution, but they wholly absent. More fundamentally, the fact that the quartet, and many of their contemporaries actually knew that slavery was wrong, disproves the author’s thesis that the times did not permit the quartet to understand slavery in the way we now do.

    The author’s other argument is this: America was not yet ready to jettison slavery, so the quartet did the best with what they had. At the level of realpolitik this is undoubtedly true. Perhaps the complete failure of the quartet to take any steps to introduce liberty and democracy into the Constitution, for black as well white, can be excused by the fact that if they had tried they would certainly have failed. While that argument may soften somewhat the criticism of the quartet, it does not answer the criticisms of the Constitution they helped bring into being. On several occasions the author warns against regarding the Constitution as if it were a sacred tablet. On many other occasions, however, he refers to the great success of the Constitution as the foundation of a great free and democratic continental republic.

    In truth, the history of the adoption of the US Constitution is a story of paradise lost. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were great steps forward toward the attainment of the ideals of the Enlightenment, but the retention of slavery in the Constitution was an equally large step backwards. It remained to other nations of North America and Europe to bring the full promise of liberty and democracy into actual practice. Any story that omits these uncomfortable truths is only party true. The Quartet is such a story.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • David S. Mathew
    02/07/17
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    "After the Revolution"

    This is an absolutely fascinating look at a period of American history that is far too often glazed over. Also, Robertson Dean's narration is wonderful. If you want to learn more about the history of the Constitution, this is a must. Highly recommended!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Debra Brady
    05/01/17
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    "Original Intent"

    This book is especially helpful for people like me attempting rely on High School US American History to navigate complicated political discussions including the Philosophy of supreme court using "original intent" as the basis for decisions regarding the constitution It was fascinating and illuminating to learn of the diversity of original intent in these first-generation leaders of our country. Thomas Jefferson thought the Constitution should be updated every 20 years in order to accommodate the changing needs and context of the population. Madison didn't even think that there needed to be a bill of rights as it wasn't enforceable. He didn't imagine that the Supreme Court would have the role of enforcing those rights. It is very interesting to hear how they managed the politics regarding these very important decisions. I think every American should read this book. It's very accessible!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Darryl
    02/09/16
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    "Extraordinary perspective on a misunderstood time"

    well researched and supremely well articulated summary of the influence of these four figures on the times and outcomes following the Revolutionary War

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful

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