“The full potential of the American Revolution could be realized only if, and when local, state and regional alliances, which remained hegemonic were subsumed within some larger purpose.”
–Joseph J. Ellis
This book, written by Joseph J. Ellis, is a great starting point for an exploration into the factions that divided the post-revolutionary American Colonies and ultimately shaped the U.S. Constitution, as we know it today. Unlike the modern political world, the early American “nation” divided into factions based on three fundamental disagreements impacting on the individual lives of colonial Americans. These issues included (1) a sectional division between Northern and Southern states, which revolved primarily around slavery; (2) state size, which dealt primarily with the question of representation and (3) the debate of the establishment of sovereign states or a consolidated union under a national governmental body.
Ellis explores each of these issues and how their influence on local regions ultimately came together to form a cohesive government in the wake of an anti-monarchy driven revolution. He presents an argument that these issues, combined with a highly educated group of men were able to conceive, design, introduce and implement a new method of government, tailor made to meet the challenges of a rapidly evolving American nation. Ellis lays out his argument on the premise of dual American Revolutions. His suggestion is that the American government is built on a “two tiered political process.”
The first American Revolution achieved independence. It was a mere, or perhaps not so mere, colonial rebellion. It also created a series of mini republics in the former colonies, now states. But it did so in ways that were inherently incompatible with any national political agenda. The second American Revolution modified the republican framework existent in the states, in order to create a nation-sized republic.
While the American Revolution is well known, and well documented – the second is rarely referred to as such. More commonly known as the Constitutional Convention and the events that followed, the results were no less revolutionary than the actual war for independence.
The premise of the book is how these three issues and four uniquely qualified men: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, all came together to design a government specifically designed with the American culture in mind. While I found Ellis’ assertion that each of these men, in addressing the specific issues most pressing to the new nation, essentially raised a national government from nothing interesting, there were a couple of salient parts that stuck out to me throughout the read.
The first topic I found particularly insightful that Ellis covers extensively, is the relationship between the American Revolution and nationhood. As stated above, Ellis argues that there were two distinct revolutions in this country. The first was for no more than independence. In other words, a separation from the government they
were under, which had become onerous and abusive. The crux of the argument is that unlike what we are frequently taught in history classes today, nationhood and constitutional government was not the natural result of the war. In fact I found Ellis’
argument that few, if any colonists considered anything outside of individual states as a natural result of the American Revolution even a remote possibility compelling.
In many of my readings, I found that early colonists had an innate trepidation, if not outright fear of power. It was this fear that drove the argument surrounding the issue of state’s rights or national consolidation. The danger of declaring a government under “We the people” was seen as a subsummation of the inherent power of the states, in their own respective regions. Through this process, it was perceived that it would be impossible to control, or limit a national government, due to the size of the colonies, the vast spaces involved and the differences of the myriad cultures that made up the various states/colonies.
It was this argument, more than any other that led to the debates surrounding the Constitutional Convention and the ultimate compromises needed in order to create a new “national” government. The form of this government eventually emerged as a combination of a democracy where the consent of the governed by majority rule voiced through elected representatives, were consolidated into a bicameral legislature under a supreme power head or president, who was elected by designated representatives, and governed in a modified republic.
Another argument that Ellis addresses is the role that manifest destiny played in the evolution of this nation, once it was established. I have never heard it argued before – but even in this book I came away with
the idea that this concept gave birth to many of the issues that our government still contends with today. Manifest destiny, the belief that expansion of the American nation throughout the North American continent was both inevitable and justified, created the foundation for issues such as immigration, isolationism and “America First” doctrines.
From what I have read, following the American Revolution and the War of 1812, America moved into a new phase of nationalism. Our country was our own; our affairs were those of the American people, and they took primacy over all others. We wanted to be left to ourselves. Washington referred to this as neutrality, which following the War of 1812 evolved into the concept of the early stages of isolationism. Americans adopted the idea that we will trade and do commerce with all, but refrain from engaging in the controversies and machinations of the European/world nations, from where we came. Simply put, we fought a war to separate ourselves from that theater, and we were now choosing to remain isolated in this new, Western expanding nation. We wanted to look to our Western lands and we were not safe until we were unassailable, and impenetrable due to our boundaries being nothing but ocean.
This is a book that is well worth the read. It has some great insights into what drove the early American colonists, as well as the foundations that dictated the course of the Constitutional Convention. I found some interesting insights into many of the ideologies and beliefs that are still with us today – both for the good and the bad and I would recommend this as a great foundation read for understanding the origin of the early national union.