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In American Creation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, 283 pages), Joseph J. Ellis described crucial stages in the formation of the United States, from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitutional Convention to the development of political parties. The result, he writes, is "the triumph of representative government bottomed on the principle of popular sovereignty, a market economy fueled by the energies of unfettered citizens, a secular state unaffiliated with any official religion, and the rule of law that presumed the equality of all citizens."

Now, in The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 (Alfred A. Knopf, 290 pages, $27.95), he describes how four of the Founders, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, nudged a shaky confederation into a nation state.

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Nudging was required, Ellis argues, because the newly independent American public did not much want a strong national government, which they identified with the British parliamentary monarchy against which they had successfully rebelled. They liked the minimal, weak national government under the Articles of Confederation. (Some today would still prefer that.)

But Washington had experienced the feebleness of the Confederation government during the Revolution, and Hamilton foresaw the impending financial collapse of the new nation without powers of taxation. All four of Ellis's quartet feared the breakup of the shaky nation into regional confederations, vulnerable to meddling by the European powers. So they campaigned to remake the national government.

Washington, despite his profound reluctance to quit retirement at Mount Vernon, lent his immense prestige to the Constitutional Convention, and Madison was largely responsible for providing a framework for discussion at the convention, the Virginia Plan. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay produced the Federalist to argue for the new Constitution, and Madison, diminutive and soft-spoken, outtalked Patrick Henry in the Virginia debate over adoption. Madison also provided the starting point for the Bill of Rights that moved through the first Congress, quieting objections to the Constitution that had been raised at various ratifying conventions.

Ellis, who has written substantial books on Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, knows the era. He identifies the peculiar historical point at which the American nation state emerged. His quartet acted between government by the old aristocracy—the Founders, lawyers and planters, would hardly have counted as aristocrats in British society—and the emergence of democracy in the nineteenth century. They were elitists, confident that educated men of their class could, and should, make fundamental decisions of government.

Their accomplishment was a flexible Constitution, dividing sovereignty between the national government and the states in a way that has allowed the Republic to shift one way and another to meet exigencies for more than two centuries.

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