I've been trying to read Brothers Karamazov for the past two weeks, but every time I pick it up, I keep thinking about world history and how much I'd rather be reading history texts. You've had this problem right? Anyways, I've learned that unless I have the motivation, I won't do it. So, for the time being, I put it away and picked up Joseph Ellis' The Quartet, a book on the "Second American Revolution" I picked up after watching Hamilton sparked my re-interest in the founding of the country.
I heartily recommend this book to you. I completed in two days and I predict I'll be taking notes and reflecting on it for weeks. What does Ellis mean by a second revolution? Ellis says the American Revolution wasn't about fighting to make America a nation, it was about fighting for the sovereignty of the thirteen states and once the war had ended, the weak Articles of Confederation were insufficient to manage a nation. The first revolution was about freedom from Britain, but a second revolution was needed to make the thirteen states into a nation. As the author puts it:
"My argument is that four men made the transition from confederation to nation happen. They are George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison…my contention is that this political quartet diagnosed the systemic dysfunctions under the Articles, manipulated the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Convention, collaborated to set the agenda in Philadelphia, attempted somewhat successfully to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying conventions, then drafted the Bill of Rights as an insurance policy to ensure state compliance with the constitutional settlement. If I am right, this was arguably the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history."
The book is well-written, direct, and extremely knowledgeable on the subject. Reading it in the context of the volumes of the three volumes of World History I read earlier in the summer has been eye-opening. I'm struck by two things in particular:
1. How the overwhelming pattern in world history is after the revolution the United States would succumb to interstate rivalries, wars, and power struggles creating a power vacuum that would allow European powers to to form entangling alliances and treaties that and carve out new confederations and regional alliances. Such diverse and widespread cultures as we saw in the colonies typically don't remain united, they descend into centuries of fights. It seems, we have this "second revolution" to thank for that!
2. The book does not shy away from the failures and comprises of these founding fathers. In fact, the more human realism(without being tendentious and axe-grinding) we give to our founders, I believe the more awe and gratitude historical perspective gives us of them. Figures like Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were no perfect and in many ways were men that indulged in the vices and worldview they grew up in. However, once we are able to acknowledge this, we are able to more fully grasp how these men. each in different ways, were able to rise above and distance themselves from the vices and worldview they grew up in. Just as the stars shine brighter the darker the night grows, the more historical perspective we get on human behavior, leadership, and the use of power - the more their star shines. They are not perfect men and I'm not one who looks to divinize them, their work, or the nation they helped found - but I've become so much more grateful for their them, not less, the more I learn.
Anyways, if Hamilton peaked your interest in the founding of the nation, then this book is a substantive, yet accessible, way to jump in.
You can buy it HERE from Amazon.