The Best Book I Read This Month: The Quartet by Joseph Ellis

I've decided to try something new this year, part of my effort to be more involved in the writing community. Each month I'm going to write about the best book I read that month. The books won't be the latest releases or the hot new things. I'm way behind the curve on all that stuff. Most of the time, I'm so far behind I don't even know where the curve is.  These are just the books that grabbed my attention and held my interest.

January's book is nonfiction, a work of history called The Quartet by Joseph Ellis. In this book, Ellis tells the story of the functioning and failure of the Articles of Confederation (the nation's first governing document) and how four Founding Fathers brought about a second American Revolution by working--and conspiring--to replace the Articles with the U.S. Constitution. (Bonus points if you can name the four Founders. Their portraits are on the book's cover.)

I've developed a fascination with Revolutionary America in recent years--not the battles or military strategy but the politics and personalities. Ellis is one of my favorite historians on the subject. (His Founding Brothers is another recommended read.) What struck me in The Quartet was not just the personalities of the four Founders but the challenges they faced and the paralysis of the new nation's government. I could not help but see parallels in our current political situation and climate:

  • a distrust of national government

  • regional and sectional tensions

  • the disconnect between the nation's political leadership and the majority of the population

  • manipulation of class tensions to achieve political ends

  • political leaders who believe compromise is equivalent to failure or capitulation

These four Founders were strong enough and single-minded enough to stand up to, withstand, and even take advantage of these challenges to create the government that the country needed not just to survive but to become a true nation (as opposed to the loose collection of states that it had been). That is why we have the political system we have today. What we don't seem to have are men like these four Founders, who had the prescience to see what was best for the nation long-term as a whole and act on it almost single-mindedly, in opposition of the myopic view of their contemporaries, who were focused on their own states and self-interests.

Which isn't to say these men were perfect. They were deeply flawed human beings in many ways: Hamilton's arrogance and Madison's inflexibility, especially. Just that they put their nation as their first priority and that they had a broader vision than their contemporaries, or ours.


Note: Clicking on the book cover will take you to the book's Amazon page.