The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution
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The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution

>>David Ferriero: Good evening. I’m David
Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States. Welcome to the McGowan Theater. A special
welcome to those who are joining us on our YouTube channel. We are very pleased tonight
to host Joseph Ellis to launch the publication of his new book “The Quartet: Orchestrating
the Second American Revolution. We are all familiar with the first American Revolution
which broke the bonds between the 13 colonies and Great Britain but once independence was
won, how would the new nation survive? “The Quartet” tells the story of those who shaped
the government that we still have today. Tonight’s conversation with Professor Ellis
is but one of the many programs we regularly present here in this theater. I hope you’ll
consider coming back tomorrow for our afternoon or evening programs or both. At noon tomorrow,
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Shipler will discuss his book and a book signing will
be held after the will program. At 6:00 p.m. we’ll host a forum that will dissect the results
of the recent national civics poll conducted by the Perdue Institute for Civic Communication.
And the answers may surprise and scare you. To learn more about these and all of our public
programs and exhibits consult our Calendar of Events, in print or online. There are copies
in the lobby as well as signup sheets. Another way you can get more involved in the National
Archives is to become a member of the Foundation for The National Archives, supporting all
of our education and outreach work. And there are applications also in the lobby.
In school our American history lessons usually skip from the Battle of Yorktown to the Constitutional
Convention in the beginning of the new nation under the federal Constitution. The articles
of confederation would merit a quick reference inevitably described as weak and ineffective
but the pre-Federal era was treated as a time left best unmarked. But time did not stand
still for the new United States between 1783 and 1789, crucial to the creation of a single
nation out of 13 states. And the quartet of Joseph Ellis’s title: George Washington, Alexander
Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, were instrumental in making that happen. As written,
Ellis shows the extraordinary capacity of these four leaders who understand the events
discussed, explained them to the American people, rise above pettiness, sacrifice, personal
wealth and popularity for the long-term public good. Given the rarity of these qualities
today, Ellis’ book is a reminder of the political virtues that create the American republic.
A great way to learn more about the “The Quartet” is to read the original records through Founders
Online, our website, made possible through our national historical publications and records
commission. Joseph Ellis is one of the nation’s leading
scholars of American history, the author of eight books, Ellis received the Pulitzer Prize
for “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation” and won the National Book Award
for “American Sphinx: A Biography of Thomas Jefferson.” His in-depth chronicle of the
life of our first president, “His Excellency: George Washington,” was a “New York Times”
bestseller. Ellis’ last book, “Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence,”
was a national bestseller also. His essays and book reviews appear regularly in national
publications and his commentaries have been featured on CBS, C-SPAN, CNN and the PBS “NewsHour.” He’s appeared in documentaries on early America including John and Abigail Adams for PBS “The
American Experience” and a History Channel documentary on George Washington. Ellis currently
teaches at the Commonwealth Honors School at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He
previously taught at Mount Holyoke College and at the university’s military academy at
West Point. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Joseph
Ellis. [Applause]
>>Joseph Ellis: Thank you for that. Wow. Good audience. Thank you for that overly gracious
introduction. It’s a good place for me to start talking about this book that I’ve written
because we’re in the facility that houses the two seminal documents of American history:
the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I asked the powers at be whether it’s really
true that these documents are in bullet-proof glass. If you watch people going by them there,
speaking the words to themselves much like these were pieces of scripture, and in the
evening they’re lowered beneath the surface into a deep cavern or safe where they will
be secured, even if a nuclear device strikes the city or the District of Columbia and everybody
is completely annihilated, the two documents will have survived.
Now, I’ve been told it’s not really any longer possible to talk about this because there
are new security arrangements, I’m sure after 9/11, but something like that used to be the
case. These are sacred documents. One is about how we win independence and the key document
is the Declaration. And the other is about how we declare nationhood, which is, of course,
the Constitution. And there’s a kind of dead zone between these two documents, maybe a
black hole is a better word but somehow, ok, we win the war, get independence, and then
abracadabra, we get to be a nation. That is really wrong. Let me try to begin
to probe why it’s wrong and move along to say why we need to have a different story
to tell if we are going to understand how America became a single people and a nation.
I don’t know whether the story I’ve tried to tell, and have told in this book, is new
wine in old bottles or old wine in new bottles or maybe it’s well-chilled Chardonnay in a
wonderful glass of its own. I don’t know. But partly because the profession of American
history is off pursuing other kinds of quarry, they are mostly interested in the inarticulate
and the periphery; mainly women, African Americans, and Native-Americans. I’m a bit of a throwback
or relic because I specialize in dead white males. And my major interest is to understand
how at the founding the values and institutions that became the American Republic were created
because it’s the oldest endearing republic in world history and we’re still living under
the rules and laws that they made. So, question. This is an honest to heaven’s
question. What’s the most famous speech in American history? Second Inaugural is a good
choice. I think it’s the best speech but it’s not the most famous, I don’t think. It’s got
to be the Gettysburg — you could say “I Have a Dream” speech, I think. That would make
— for the younger generation to some extent that’s maybe more resonant.
The first clause in the first sentence of the most famous speech in American history
is historically incorrect. And I found this out because I had to judge a contest in Putney,
Vermont, a middle school where my son was teaching. And all 28 boys, all of them, extremely
dyslexic, had to recite the Gettysburg Address. Half way through I realized Lincoln was wrong.
Now, there are reasons why he’s wrong. What’s the first clause? “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 southern states provisionally united to win the war and then go their separate
ways which is precisely what they did. Why does Lincoln want to claim — how much
is a score? 20. What’s four times 20? Plus seven. 1863 minus 87 is? 1776. The latter
part of the sentence will make it absolutely — “received in liberty and dedicated to the
proposition that all men are created equal,” Jefferson’s words. So that’s got to be 1776.
Lincoln says we were a nation in 1776. Why in 1863 does Lincoln have to make that argument
in order to justify the Civil War? He has to be able to argue the union preceded the
existence of the states. If he doesn’t argue that, the confederacy’s argument that they
can secede from the union because they preexist the union is more constitutionally correct.
And guess what. It was! So we can forgive him this blunder for reasons
— bending history here served a larger purpose, to rally support behind the union at a time
when all of those dead were mounting up to what became 632,000.
Ok. If you think about it, there’s no way we could have become a nation in 1776 and
didn’t wish to be a nation. The resolution for independence voted on July 2, 1776, put
forward by the Virginia delegation written by Richard Lee reads as follows. “These colonies
are and have every right to be independent states.”
The colonies revolted as states not a nation. And if you think back, what were the arguments
between 1765 and 1775 that the colonists were making against Great Britain? You can’t tax
us and you cannot — now by 1772 you can’t legislate at all for us. That right belongs
to? The state legislatures. If you think about it in another way — this
is almost a psychologic way. The typical American in 1770’s, ’80s, is born, lives out his or
her life and dies within a 30-mile radius. And I know this is — they don’t have cell
phones. Distance makes a real difference. And people simply did not acknowledge the
legitimacy of any source of political authority far removed from them geographically.
And so the argument was parliament can’t possibly represent us because they’re over there. By
the way, we don’t have representatives in parliament, either. As a result, when they
come to founding a government, it’s not really a government. The artists of confederation
were passed in 1777. It took four years to ratify because there was this War of Independence
going on and it was difficult to make this happen. So — passed in ’77, ratified — the
articles of confederation locate sovereignty in the individual states. There are very few
powers given to the central government: post office, currency but each state can print
its own currency, too. The last thing they want is to create a central government that
has power over them because that’s what they think they’re getting away from.
The only thing the Americans have in common before the revolution is membership and the
British Empire. The thing they have in common during the war is the cause, the common commitment
to independence, which about 19% of the population loyalists don’t go along with.
Once the war ends, what is there to hold them together? Nothing. And they start to drift.
Let me give you an example. I don’t want to go too long because I want to stay within
40 minutes and have some questions. Cornwallis gets himself on to the Tidewater Peninsula
and it’s like a perfect storm, benevolent perfect storm for us. The French fleet happens
to come up from the Caribbean just at that moment. They got him pinned but then Washington
and the French general have to get down from New York to Virginia. Right? And trap him.
And you know this is going to happen. It’s going to be the battle in the war, Yorktown.
They don’t have any money to get the troops down. Nobody in the states has paid their
levy for the Army. It’s voluntary. Robert Morris, superintendent of finance, sits down
and writes a check, a personal check for $683,000. And they go. It happens at the end of the
war — it happens when the peace — the Treaty of Paris — the troops have been paid for
two years. They don’t have uniforms. The Southern Army under Green is wearing loin cloths and
the pensions they have been promise ready not going to happen. The Continental Army
is the embodiment of a national Army. That’s where it’s hated. They leave without pensions.
They’re beggars when they go home. It’s a disgrace. Morris says this is a disgrace,
I’m going to write another check and everybody’s going to get $50.
That’s how bad it was though. And those are individual examples of the fact that people’s
allegiance was not to any central authority but to their local and state governments.
And anything more than that was beyond their kin.
Later in the ratifying convention, Patrick Henry says why would we want to sign this
document; suppose this government is created and the government votes taxes and the two
senators from Virginia and the number of representatives all vote against it. Then we’re taxed without
our consent. The people from Massachusetts for him are
like a foreign country. They’re not fellow Americans. A national ethos does not exist.
Where is history headed in the 1780s? Centrifugal forces are strengthening, are declining. We’re
a banana republic. We have a $40 million debt, no way to pay it off, and all the markets
in Europe, most especially the Dutch bankers, realize that we have no credit.
Every state has its own foreign policy. Massachusetts is negotiating maritime agreements with London
on its own, charging Tariffs against Delaware, New Jersey and Connecticut and Rhode Island.
New York likes it this way. This is one of the reasons New York will vote against the
Constitution. In the Treaty of Paris it says you cannot
confiscate the estates and do physical harm to loyalists who did not bear arms against
the rebellion. They sat it out or they went away. They’re confiscating all of their estates
in New York, a huge stream of revenue for them.
Ok. What’s happening I would call the Europeanization of North America. America is headed in a particular
direction. The government under the articles isn’t a government; it’s a league of nations,
each state a nation. And there’s no commitment to a central force because there’s no commitment
to American existence as a national existence. The best we can hope for is something like
the EU. That’s where we’re headed. Now, I know it sounds extreme and I don’t
want it to be extreme. I want it to be sensible. I’m not saying four guys happened to change
the course of history and did it all by themselves. No. Nor am I calling them superheroes. I’ve
spent 30 years writing books about the founders in which my major goal is to turn them into
flawed founders, great but flawed. Guess what? Just like us if they weren’t flawed, if they
were gods, perfect, superheroes what in heaven’s name do we have to learn from?
But, the argument in “The Quartet” is that these four people: Washington, Hamilton, Madison
and Jay — and Jay was a discovery for me. We’ll talk about him in a second. They collaborate
to agree that the current government isn’t functioning; it’s dysfunctional. They instigate
the movement for the calling of the Constitutional Convention. They court Washington to become
a member of that. Without him it will never work. Washington legitimizes what would otherwise
not be perceived as legitimate. The reason it’s not going to be legitimate is because
the mandate from the articles is to revise the articles. And once they meet they’re not
going to revise the articles; they’re going to replace the articles.
They then set the agenda in Philadelphia with the Virginia plan. They can’t control the
agenda in the convention. And I’ll tell you why in a second. They then attempt to orchestrate
the ratification process by writing The Federalist Papers. And then Madison single-handedly writes
the Bill of Rights. That’s a lot. Ok? There are lots of other
actors in this story but these are the leaders. I don’t want them to be — I don’t want to
be accused of calling them divine in any sense of the term but this is a moment — if I’m
right, this is one of the most consequential moments of American leadership in all of American
history, consequential in terms of what comes out of it. Something happens that changes
the political chemistry and makes for some kind of national government more conspicuous,
conspicuously necessary. Story. It’s August 3, 1782. It’s Paris. John
Jay is the American representative in the talks to negotiate an end to the war. The
other negotiators, Franklin, he’s got the gout, Adams is up in Amsterdam trying to negotiate
a bank deal with the notoriously tight-fisted Dutch bankers, the guy who is supposed to
replace Jefferson, who can’t come, is Henry Lawrence and he’s captured at sea and is thrown
in the tower. So Jay sort of has to do it all himself. He meets with this Count Orlando
— like Orlando, Florida — because the French have a treaty with Spain and the Americans
have been told by the Congress that they cannot negotiate anything with the British without
the French supporting it. The French have saved our bacon. They have given us money.
They have given us troops. We couldn’t have won the war without him; therefore we can’t
simply act independently. There’s a map on the table. Orlando puts his
finger on the Great Lakes, somewhere around Erie, Pennsylvania, draws it down through
Toledo, Ohio, and ends up what is now Tallahassee, Florida. He says: Everything east of that
line is yours; everything west of that line is ours. Spain’s.
Jay doesn’t have to draw a line. He puts his finger on the Mississippi River. He says:
Everything east of that is ours. And that turns out to be the case. That is the negotiated
treaty. The principle one is independence. The great prize one is the — the third of
the continent. When the arguments are being made against
British authority, getting the run up to the American Revolution, who is saying this is
a war about empire? Nobody. But it becomes one. It essentially becomes — and Washington
understands this — a continuation of the French and Indian War. The French and Indian
War is a fight between Britain, France, Native-Americans, and Americans for control of this area that
is the eastern third of the North America continent. France gets knocked out. Now Britain
gets knocked out. It’s going to be between us and the Native-Americans and we know what’s
going to happen there. Ok. I want to try to talk briefly about the
way in which as a historian you can attempt to not — well, let — I’ll put it another
way. When you’re trained as a historian, you’re trained to be enormously committed to the
research process and to assemble enormous amounts of evidence. You can imagine if you’re
trying to write about something as famous as the constitution or the ratification process
how much material, primary and secondary, there is. Though the documents that were mentioned
at the start, the founding areas, are the single most important primary source.
My old mentor at Yale — God rest his soul, Ed Morgan, took me aside and said, “When you
construct a building, you put up scaffolding. When you take the building down, you remove
the scaffolding. Many books of history are all scaffolding and building.” We don’t do
that. That was like the voice of God to me. Therefore, I had to find a way to tell this
story about both the convention and the ratification process in a way that was true to the facts
but didn’t allow the story itself to be lost in the underbrush. And I had to try to figure
out ways in which — what patterns existed. I’ll take the ratification process first because
it’s more simple to tell you even though it’s complicated.
Between November 1787 and June, July of `88, 12 states had ratifying conventions, 1,648
delegates meet and eventually the Constitution is ratified.
If you read the best book on it by Pauline Maier, the only person with the patience to
go through every state and recover it, the thing that’s interesting is there’s no pattern.
Every state is different. And every state then is different from inside itself — local
groups, investors are worried about whether Maine will be a state. People in Georgia are
worried about Indian attacks. The Tidewater plant is worried if we go into federal government
we’ll have to pay debtors and they owe about four million pounds. Everything is different.
That’s the pattern. That’s the important pattern. They cannot have a national conversation.
America is incapable of having a national conversation. Their allegiances, frameworks
remain bedded in local and state-based borders. The only national conversation is the Federalist
Papers. There’s no such thing as the anti-Federalist Papers because every state is different. That’s
the pattern. The pattern in the convention, there are three
groups: people that want radical change, real nationalists; people who want to just revise
the article, moderates; and people who don’t want any change at all. The latter group boycott
the convention with the exception of New York. Patrick Henry says I’m not going; I smell
a rat. That means it’s going to be a fight between the radicals and the moderates: those
that want — not just revise but replace the articles and those who wish to merely revise
them. The first gets the advantage at the beginning
because of Madison and writes the Virginia Plan which becomes the agenda for the convention.
They seize the initiative. But they can’t win outright because — parliamentary decision.
Nobody objected to it. First day of the convention they say: How are we going to vote? One state,
one vote. That means Rhode Island has the same vote as Virginia. And that means the
small states can block anything they want to and they’re going to block the radical
agenda if at all possible. What that means is we’re set up for a series
of compromises. And the big compromise is going to be reached on July 17, when they
agree to have a two-house legislature: the Senate by state, the House by population.
There are two ghosts at the banquet during the entire summer of `87. One they keep talking
about incessantly is monarchy. Any robust expression of executive authority is going
to be called monarchy. And therefore if you read the section of the Constitution on the
executive power, you try to figure out what the president can do. It’s impossible. You
can tell how he’s supposed to be elected, this crazy thing they come up with called
the Electoral College. And you can tell how they’re going to impeach him. But they don’t
want to talk about what he can do because it’s too threatening.
The thing they can’t mention is slavery. And the word never appears, nor the word African
American or black in the document. The preferred term is that species of property.
Here’s the hard truth. Modern day abolitionists and the abolition of the 19th Century called
the Constitution a covenant with death because it doesn’t end slavery and it implicitly endorses
slavery, Three-Fifths Clause. Also, there’s a — what do you call it, a
compromised region that the slave trade will not be ended immediately; it will be extended
for 20 years in return for the fact that the vote on tariff issues, economic issues of
tariff, will not necessarily require a super majority. The South gets something but it
has to give something up. Later on Calhoun says that was a bad deal for us.
Anyway, here’s the hard truth. If they had inserted any article putting slavery on the
road to extinction, the Constitution would have never passed. And if by some miracle
it passed, it would have never been ratified. So you can hold on to your moral principles
now but they’re facing a political choice. The other tragedy is many of them, including
Madison, thought slavery was going to die a natural death; that slave labor would not
compete successfully with free labor. And they didn’t see the cotton gin coming. They
didn’t see the cotton kingdom. They made a compromise with the devil because they couldn’t
do anything else. And then you can play it out. Well, suppose
they hadn’t done that? Suppose they had insisted and then there wasn’t a constitution? That
means we’re back to the articles. What happens then? Probably division into a series of confederacies:
a New England, Middle, Southern Confederacy. Like your Scandinavia, Middle Atlantic and
Italy. Then that’s bad because the Southern Confederacy will sign a separate treaty with
Britain to produce cotton for the British industry and slavery will last even longer
than it did. So, no — here’s a good scenario. What I’ve
been trying to do here is distinguish the forest through the trees. These are the patterns
that operated both from the ratification process and then in the convention itself. And these
guys — you got to read the book to catch, you know, all the detail on this but they’re
implicated throughout. There’s a — let me tell you. Washington really
didn’t want to join this gang. He wanted to stay in Mount Vernon. Part of it was he had
said he was retiring forever. He became — soldiers retired. Cincinnatus cannot come back. There’s
a letter to Lafayette, last time he sees Lafayette. Says this is probably the last time we’ll
have seen each other. He says, “I feel myself sliding down the stream of life, climbing
for 52 years. I am a good constitution but a — but a poor — he means genes. Like nobody
in the Washington line of five generations ever lasted past their 50s. They all died
earlier. He says “I will soon be entering the dark mansion of my ancestors but I shall
not regret. I have had my day.” He doesn’t want to go back. He wants to die
at Mount Vernon. He doesn’t think he’s going to live very long. But they get him. He’s
the great prize. He makes it legitimate. He doesn’t say a single thing at the convention
until the last day when he says, by the way, instead of 40,000 make it 30,000 in terms
of the size of the congressional district. Immediately they say, that’s — yeah, yeah
>>Joseph Ellis: Everybody in “The Quartet” is disappointed at the end of the convention.
They think they’ve failed. Madison wanted to get a provision that would allow the Executive
Branch of the federal government to veto all state legislation, a clear statement of sovereignty
at the federal level. He had also wanted popular representation in both Houses of Congress.
Lost both. Lost both. There is a moment — I might end with this.
I got all of this great stuff to tell you about, original intent. So somebody ask me
a question about the Second Amendment and I’ll tell you.
>>[Laughter]>>Joseph Ellis: Here is Madison as he enters
the ratification process and how he thinks — actually, this gets to the issue. It mentions
it at least a little bit. Let me see if I can get it here. Ok.
This thought process or perhaps his way of thinking about the ratification process was
beginning to change as he read the newspaper essay and he had Tories for multiple weeks.
It gradually dawned on him if he had gotten what he wanted at the Philadelphia convention,
the prospects for the ratification, the Constitution, would have been remote in the extreme. A long
and quite extraordinary letter to Jefferson, the exposition of what the Constitutional
Convention achieves that Madison ever wrote, he described the hybrid creature that the
constitution created as part confederation, part nation. The delegates had willy-nilly,
he said, managed to draw a line of demarcation which would give to the general government
every power requisite for general purposes and to leave to the states every power which
might be most beneficial to them. This sounds great. Left unsaid was that no
one knew where that line existed.>>[Laughter]
>>Joseph Ellis: Or what general purposes meant. Although it would take Madison several
months to develop the full implications of this evolving idea, its outlines were already
pretty clear. The key insight might be called the beauty of ambiguity. Madison had misguidedly,
he now realized, pushed for an unambiguous resolution of the sovereignty question during
the convention. Now it was becoming clear to him a great achievement of the convention
and of the Constitution as well was to embrace the inconvenient truth that there was no consensus
on the sovereignty question during the convention or in the country itself.
So what they had created, albeit out of necessity rather than choice, was a political framework
that deliberately blurred the sovereignty question and essentially says, well, if you
think sovereignty is there, that’s ok. If you think sovereign is there, that’s ok.
Most of them, by the way, at the time thought that each branch of the government should
decide are the meaning of the Constitution for itself. They didn’t think — the one thing
they didn’t want to the Supreme Court to be was supreme.
>>[Laughter]>>Joseph Ellis: In the long run — and this
was probably Madison’s most creative insight — the multiple ambiguities embedded in the
Constitution made it an inherently living document for it was designed not to offer
clear answers to the sovereignty question or, for in a matter, scope of executive or
judicial authority but instead to provide a political arena in which arguments about
those contested issues could continue in a deliberative fashion. The Constitution was
intended less to resolve arguments than to make argument itself the solution. For intent,
this should be a disarming insight. I hope Scalia is in the audience. Since it made the
Constitution the foundation for an ever-shifting political dialogue that like history itself
was an argument about end. Madison’s original intension was to make all
original intensions infinitely negotiable in the future.
I’m going to end there. Thank you for listening. [Applause]
We have microphones on both sides. Since these are going to be recorded for posterity, you
have to go to the microphone to have your answer — your question — I’ll repeat it
anyway.>>Mr. Ellis, I’ll bring it up. How about
that Second Amendment?>>Joseph Ellis: [Laughter] All right. The
Second Amendment says a well-regulated militia be necessary for the security of a free state,
the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
If you want to really take original intent seriously, ok, the question is: What was Madison’s
intentions when he wrote those words? Right? Now, you could read Scalia’s decision in DC
v. Heller, 2008. Guess what. It’s 33 pages single-spaced. It never mentions James Madison.
Doesn’t mention him. He wrote it. Right? He defended it in the House and the Senate.
How did he write it? This is how it happened. Madison didn’t believe in the Bill of Rights.
He didn’t think the Constitution needed a Bill of Rights. He had been saying throughout
the ratification process, well, if you write a Bill of Rights and you try to list the rights,
you might leave some out and that would be worse.
Jefferson wanted the Bill of Rights. Jefferson didn’t care about the Constitution. He wanted
the Bill of Rights. Madison decided to do a Bill of Rights. Initially
his first thought was to corkscrew the rights into the existing document. Then somebody
said, but you can’t do that because everybody’s already signed this document and now you’re
revising it and that’s not going to work. So he says, ok, I guess we have to put it
at the end. So it becomes a codicil at the end.
He says, my real reason here isn’t to envision the ultimate — this is not American Magna Carta By his mind. Ok? We don’t need it. You need Magna Carta because you have kings and you need
— in a republic, you don’t need this. But I’ll put it in because it will influence people
in the states who reluctantly came along on ratification. And in the process six states
made recommendations for amendments. They totaled over 200 recommended amendments. If
you synthesize, this will and bring it down, knock out the repetitions, they made 132 recommended
amendments. Madison took the 132 amendments and said: Now, out of this, how do I construct
the Bill of Rights? That’s how he went about it.
How many of the 132 had anything to do with the right to bear arms? How many had to do
with the fear of a standing Army? Six. That’s what he’s responding to. He’s responding to
the fear the states have of a standing Army and thereby insisting that there be a militia
responsible for national defense rather than any kind of professional Army.
That’s what the thinking is that went into the Second Amendment. Ok?
DC v. Heller is one of the worst decisions in American constitutional history. There
are three bad decisions in American constitutional history. And two — no, no.
>>[Laughter]>>Joseph Ellis: Three really bad ones. The
worst one in American history is Dred Scott, right? 1857. That’s the worst. The second
worst is Citizens United. [Applause]
>>Joseph Ellis: And the third worst is DC v. Heller because it allows people in the
National Rifle Association who already believe this to believe they really have a constitutional
right to bring a gun into a bar and whatever they want to do.
The thing about what I’m saying here — and I’ll shut up — is if you actually do what
Scalia says you’re supposed to do and figure out what the intent of the framers is, it
comes out exactly opposite from what he intended. Ok?
All right. Thank you. Obviously I feel strongly about this.
[Applause]>>Joseph Ellis: Over there and then we’ll
get you, sir. Yes, sir?>>Yes. In talking about Lincoln and giving
the Gettysburg Address, he wasn’t correct about the day. Is one thing you’re saying
historically is that he was correct with the distance of time, that it was a new nation
and they didn’t realize it then? Is that something you’re saying?
>>Joseph Ellis: That’s a mystic question, mystic cords of memory kind of question. What
I would say is America is not a nation. It begins to be a nation after the War of 1812.
It doesn’t become a full nation until after the Civil War. It is the Civil War that destroys
the states’ rights argument completely. There’s no constitutional argument that’s going to
end it. We are not fully a nation until 1865.>>Right. And that wasn’t just dead white
men. That was a war over who was — [Inaudible]. Correct?
>>Joseph Ellis: Say again. I think I agree —
>>The idea is — you say you’re a historian of dead white men in the constitution. But
it wasn’t fully realized what it meant to be an independent country until we had a war
and the war, at least one of the causes, was over who was a human and those included not
white men.>>Joseph Ellis: Well, yeah. But did Jefferson
in the language he used intend to make blacks human? Yeah. He did. But he didn’t intend
to make them equal. Jefferson believed they were biologically unequal.
>>Did the men fighting on the Union side of Gettysburg intend to make them equal?
>>Joseph Ellis: Some of them did and some of them didn’t. When they go back home, they
segregate all the societies in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont. Right?
>>Right.>>Joseph Ellis: And I’m a southerner, so
I like to talk about that. Racism, I think, you know, it’s still with us. The notion — my
God. It’s not like poison ivy. It’s cancer. We’re never going to kill it all.
Lincoln made a step forward. Martin Luther King made another step forward. Jefferson
actually made the first step. They ought to talk to each other on the mall. They got a
lot to say to each other. But we still — there’s got to be somebody else after Martin Luther
King to take it the next step. But it’s all — it is in those words you’re talking about.
In that sense, see, Lincoln thought that the great document wasn’t the Constitution. All
the lawyers in the world think the great document is the constitution. Lincoln thought that
was just a framework for government. The moral foundation for the republic is laid in the
Declaration of Independence as he saw it.>>Thank you.
>>Joseph Ellis: You ok with what I’m saying?>>Yeah. Thank you. I’ve read a whole bunch
of your books. I enjoy them.>>Joseph Ellis: I got one kid left in college
forever.>>[Laughter] Ok. I really enjoy them.
>>Joseph Ellis: He’s going to graduate though.>>A whole bunch of things. Let me just throw
out a couple of things. You mentioned between 1755 and 1765 —
>>Joseph Ellis: `65 and `75.>>Was there any realistic chance that the
Americans could have been made English citizens? Was that a realistic option even? And would
that have prevented the revolution?>>Joseph Ellis: Ok. That’s a good question.
Was the American Revolution avoidable? Yeah. But Britain — in fact, the fact that it happened
is the biggest blunder in the history of British state craft. It wasn’t anything we had to
do. All they had to do was say: Ok, you guys can make laws for your own, your own legislate
yours can make laws. They needed to discover the British Commonwealth 100 years before
they discovered it. Burke was arguing this. Pitt was arguing this in the House of Commons
and the House of Lords. George III and his minions said, no we have the power to squash
this thing; there’s no reason to compromise; they can’t possibly win the war.
If you actually look at the war as a counterinsurgency operation, no counterinsurgency operation
has ever succeeded. If we say how could we win the war, they had no way of winning. We
didn’t win. We just didn’t lose. As long as we don’t lose, we win. And they go away. Right?
Somebody should have told us to betray us.>>[Laughter]
>>Joseph Ellis: They used to ask me what would Washington have done about Iraq. I said
he wouldn’t even have known where it was. But he would say: What the hell are we doing
being the British? Why are we the British? It doesn’t make sense to him.
I’m going on. You got one more.>>Thank you. You mentioned John Jay.
>>Joseph Ellis: He is going to go up in stature. Not just because I say so but because his
papers are coming out now. They’ve been delayed because they were horded by a professor — well,
let’s not mention professors.>>[Laughter]
>>Joseph Ellis: They were horded at Columbia University for 20, 30 years. Now as they come
out, this guy’s letters — his letters to his wife — I wrote — read a book about Abigail
and John. His letters to his wife Sarah are almost as good as the Abigail and John letters.
That’s the highest possible standard. Ok? His serenity is amazing.
He says that’s the Mississippi. He goes to the quarters of Franklin, takes his pipe and
throws it in the fireplace and says, “Thus we break our alliance with France.” He knew
we couldn’t stay aligned with France because that was going to allow Spain to claim all
of this land. Again, they don’t have cell phones. He can’t
check in with anybody. Say I’m going to do this. He just does it. He gives this incredible
area as a result. Did I interrupt you?
>>You answered the question but that begs the next question. Will there be a Jay Street
in Washington, D.C.?>>Joseph Ellis: Ahh. Well, there’s already
a college for him in New York because he was the first Chief Justice. I don’t know. I don’t
know. It’s like presidential sweepstakes. They go
up and down. Jefferson’s on the way down, by the way. Nobody’s going to tear down the
Jefferson Memorial. Adams is up. Jefferson’s down. Washington is there forever. But Jay’s
coming along. Yes, sir?
>>The name of your book is “The Quartet.”>>Joseph Ellis: Pretty catchy, huh?
>>When I think of it in a classical music sense, I see four people working very tightly
together. They meet all the time. They have the same script music.
>>Joseph Ellis: Some of that is true.>>When I think of a jazz quartet I think
–>>Joseph Ellis: Improvisation.
>>Yeah. Is that how you’re seeing them, as jazz or classical?
>>Joseph Ellis: Nobody’s ever asked me this question before.
>>[Laughter]>>Joseph Ellis: I think they practice once
or twice and then say everybody’s on their own after. So there is — an example. How
did the Federalist Papers get written? Three of them write the Federalist Papers. Right?
85 Federalist Papers — Madison writes 29, Hamilton writes 51. This guy’s unbelievable.
He deserves a play written about him. It’s described as the great deliberation on American
history on Republican government. Right? Absolutely no time for deliberation whatsoever. Like
Hamilton is writing it on the top of a barrel on a schooner from Albany to New York. His
wife says, you know, that’s what he’s doing. Madison says they were — I was writing as
the printer put the keys in. It’s an all-nighter. The fact that it’s cogent is a miracle. It
comes together — so you can’t — it’s taken until the 1950s for us to figure out who wrote
which one. Now we know. It’s pretty tough to know.
I like your question.>>[Question Inaudible]
>>Joseph Ellis: [Laughter]>>Electoral College. It and the juries are
the only two places in the Constitution where they thought this decision is so important
to the general people need to make the decision. And you don’t — isn’t the Electoral College
brilliant?>>Joseph Ellis: In a word, no. I would have
preferred a parliamentary government. The first proposal in the Virginia Plan would
have been a parliamentary government elected by the national legislature. They talked about
the Executive Branch more than any other subject. They kept going at it and going away, coming
back, going away because they didn’t agree and they were scared, as I said, of any robust
expression of authority. The Electoral College is the implementation
of the compromise reached about the Congress on to the presidency; meaning, southern states
are going to have extra electoral votes here because they’re going to count slaves as Three-Fifths.
Jefferson would have never been elected president if it weren’t for that. The Electoral College
gives the South a huge advantage — not a huge advantage but gives it an advantage.
It also — in modern day — why is it — we’re going to turn on TV and there’s only going
to be like five states given enormous attention because the rest are already decided.
I think that’s misguided. I wish we could go to a popular vote. That was a proposal.
You know why they didn’t adopt it? Because there was no way to record it. How do you
have an election amongst five million people in which they’re separated and you can’t count
them? Now we can count them, so let’s go back and do popular vote.
>>Similarly, mathematically, your arguments would be for the NBA finals of the World Series
being decided by the number of runs or points not seven games.
>>Joseph Ellis: Listen, I’m a real expert on the NBA so you’re not going to get me on
this. Ok? This is a false analogy.>>It’s a great analogy.
>>Joseph Ellis: Let me talk about the deflategate here.
>>[Laughter]>>Joseph Ellis: I’m from Massachusetts. That
is a crock of crap here that’s going on.>>I thought you were from the South.
>>Joseph Ellis: I am but I lived — I’ve only been in Massachusetts for 42 years. I’ve
become a Patriots fan. I’m from Virginia originally. I went to Gonzaga in DC. Yeah.
Sir?>>I have so many questions I don’t know where
to start. In answer to what the gentleman said — not everybody could vote then.
>>Joseph Ellis: Women couldn’t vote. People without property couldn’t vote although the
property qualification in the United States didn’t knock out that many people because
most people owned land. Most white males. The property qualification in Britain limited
the electorate to about 15% in New England, for example, it was 60%.
>>My question to you is — we’ve all grown up in a system where the Supreme Court comes
to a decision which becomes not an opinion but a decision. Initially the Supreme Court
was a body that was used by the House of Representatives to form law because these were experts in
the law.>>Joseph Ellis: I’m not sure about that.
No. I think what I’d say is that if you are honest historically, there is a need to believe
that somewhere in the government there is this one place where wisdom overcomes all
form of partisanship and so there is a need to sanctify the judiciary. That’s one reason
they didn’t want to be televised. You see how stupid some of those guys are.
>>[Laughter]>>Joseph Ellis: Really.
The truth is, the Supreme Court, from the time it existed, has always been a political
body. It’s always been shaped by the partisan values of the people on it.
And if it’s like John Marshall, I happen to agree with the partisanship. If it’s like
Scalia or Roberts, then I’m on the other camp. The illusion is — like the Roberts thing
— I just call balls and strikes; I don’t decide on the strikezone. Bullshit. You know?
Give me a break. You know? I stopped believing in that when I stopped believing in the Easter
Bunny, ok? Excuse me, sir. Have I upset you? Ok. All
>>Joseph Ellis: Last one. We got to go.>>First of all, did you fail all of those
kids at Putney?>>Joseph Ellis: No. I gave them all As. You
didn’t pass them. You picked the winner.>>Ok. As the ratification process goes on,
the states obviously ratify. What happens to places like Rhode Island that don’t sign
on before the — are they in limbo?>>Joseph Ellis: One of the things you’re
saying that I didn’t stress enough is in the Constitution it says if nine states ratify,
it’s law. That’s illegal! According to the articles, unanimity was necessary for any
amendment much less for a whole government. They picked nine.
And the whole game in ratification is get to nine. Once we get to nine, everybody else
will have to come along. We’ll never win New York. We’ll never win North Carolina. We might
lose Virginia. But if we get to nine before those late states, we’re going to win.
And enforcing that is one of the roles that Madison plays as an orchestrator. I don’t
know how he does it. He doesn’t, again, have technology but he’s a nose counter, man. This
guy knows exactly how many votes there are in Maryland, how many votes there are in New
Hampshire, who voting which way and who has to be — it’s amazing what he can do. That’s
a form of political behavior most Virginia gentlemen regard as unseemly. It comes to
Madison naturally. He loves it. That’s what he is. He thinks like a politician. He doesn’t
think like a philosopher. He thinks like a lawyer.
So like I’m here to defend a sovereign government and therefore I’m going to make every argument
and subordinate or cover up all the other arguments. That’s the way his mind works.
But the nine votes — how did I get to this? What was the question you asked?
The ratification process in South Carolina and New York — New York was 2-1 against it.
What Hamilton did, the biggest contribution Hamilton made in New York — he’s part of
the debate, Jay and Hamilton are part of the debate. Their game is to delay, delay, delay.
He’s got horses set up in Poughkeepsie to go down to Philadelphia and down to Williamsburg
to find out results. Ok? That’s the most important thing he did.
So like Virginia ratified. Ok. We can shut up now because that’s it. And it turns out
New Hampshire, they didn’t even know this, had already ratified. Virginia was the 10th.
Once that happens — in New York the Clinton people say we’re going to fight this. Later
on Henry says we’re going to fight it, too. And they start a second convention movement.
This is one of the reasons Madison writes the Bill of Rights to kill this. The second
convention is going to kill the Constitution and he knows that.
Rhode Island — like Washington says I’m going to visit all the states while I’m president.
Like Obama has just done. He only has 13 to go. Later it’s going to be more than because
of Vermont. He bypasses Rhode Island. Because Rhode Island hasn’t ratified. Then he has
to make a separate trip to go to Rhode Island. They suffer nothing. In other words, there’s
no political prejudice against them. I think there’s a little prejudice against New York
but it’s less because of their tardiness on this issue than because they’ve really got
a lot of Tories there and were under British control throughout the war. New York takes
a lot of shit. Excuse me. Yes. I want to thank you for coming. I hope that
I’ve interested you in a way of understanding how we moved from the Declaration to the Constitution.
It’s actually an interesting story. It is a top-down story and not a bottom-up story.
And I know that the profession — and any democratic culture tends to privilege bottom-up.
The revolution as a story can be told bottom-up. There’s truth to that. This one no. This was
not that movement. Unless you’re prepared to make the case that we would have been better
off without a Constitution, which seems to be a hard case to make, it was a benevolent
coup d’ tat. Thank you very much.
>>[Applause]>>Joseph Ellis: I think I’m going to sign
books back there.

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