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Adapted from a conversation between the Washington Library’s Doug Bradburn and author Joseph Ellis.

Each fall, Mount Vernon invites a leading scholar to present a series of talks on the founding era as part of the Gay Hart Gaines Lecture Series. While visiting as 2015’s Distinguished Lecturer, Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis shared some thoughts on his book, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution.

In this book, you make an argument that there are two American revolutions. What do you mean by that?

There’s one in 1776, when we declare our independence, and that is clinched by winning the war. The second is when we announce our nationhood in 1787, ratified in ‘88. There are two great documents associated with these two different foundings, the Declaration and the Constitution.

What makes the American Revolution a revolution? Is it revolution to separate from the imperial mother country? Not really. The creation of a nation-size republic which then becomes the model for the liberal state in the 19th and 20th century? Now that’s a revolution. 

Let’s talk a little bit about why the constitutional moment, the second revolution, isn’t inevitable.

What’s the first clause in the first sentence of the most famous speech in American history? “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation.” No, they didn’t. They brought forth a confederation of sovereign states, provisionally united to come together and win the war, and then go their separate ways, which is precisely what they did.

George Washington, Gilbert Stuart c. 1798 (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
George Washington, Gilbert Stuart c. 1798 (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)

From the end of the war onward, with the Articles of Confederation as the form of government, sovereignty was vested in the states. If they’d stayed with the Articles, most people think it [the government] would have broken into a series of regional confederations. Nationalism was nonexistent, but a very small elite, led by the four people I identify as the quartet—Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay—come together and agree that the current government isn’t really a government; it’s a dysfunctional body.

The publication of the papers of these people and documentary histories of the Confederation Congress and the ratification process have provided us with a flood of primary material that makes it pretty clear, to me at least, that this group of four managed, manipulated, and orchestrated the movement from confederation to nationhood—what I believe is the most consequential act of political leadership in American history.

And Washington is more than a symbolic figurehead in this process, he’s an actor in a critical way?

From his experience leading the Continental Army, Washington is profoundly aware of the problems that are caused when you have something that calls itself a union that isn’t really functioning as a union. He is thoughtful about the issue of whether we should go in this direction toward nationhood. He is extremely reluctant to come out of retirement. Part of it because he’s taken the vow of Cincinnatus, and Cincinnatus can’t come back—swords into plowshares. It’s going to take heaven and earth to move him out of Mount Vernon.

Eventually, he’s persuaded by the combined efforts of Jay, Madison, Hamilton, and others that he is indispensable and that his own legacy is tied up in the lasting success of the revolution. He doesn’t have anything to say during the Convention, until the last day, when he makes one recommendation about the size of a congressional district. It’s almost like he wants to say, “Okay, I want to get on the record in supporting this thing.” Although he stays clear of the ratification process in public, he works behind the scenes with Madison.

He also knows that he’s going to be named the first President, but he really didn’t want to do it. Still, he accepts the job, because Washington is the ultra-Federalist. He wants this outcome, this clear statement of federal sovereignty over the states, more than anybody.

Watch the Full Interview

Joseph Ellis, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author, discusses his latest book, "The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789."