tv Joseph Ellis on The Quartet CSPAN September 27, 2015 4:15am-5:03am EDT
the national book festival, david rubenstein. [applause] >> we are very honored and privileged to have one of the leading authors and scholars of the revolutionary war period, joseph ellis, a person who grew up in washington, went to william and mary, went to william and mary and got his ph.d. at pal and spends much of
his academic career teaching at mount holyoke college where he was dean of the faculty at one point and dow prof. and taught at williams and west point and university of massachusetts and and his. on the side when he hadn't been teaching he had been riding best-selling books. among them biographies of john adams, george washington, thomas jefferson, the national book award, the book on the revolutionary brothers, founding brothers, revolutionary generation won the pulitzer prize in 2001. most recently he has written a book, at "the quartet," that has been on the new york times best-seller list for ten weeks. it is what he calls the second american revolution, the revolution that began in 1787, not 1776. let's go into that. thank you for coming, joseph ellis. why did you decide to focus your
academic career on the revolutionary war period? what was it about this area that was interesting to you? >> i do seem obsessed, don't i? they asked willie sutton back in the 50s, why do you rob banks? will be said because that is where they keep the money. the late eighteenth century is where they keep the ideas. that is the wellspring, the big bang, the place where the values and institutions under which we continue to live pan-american work created and in some sense they are like our classics, what plutarch were to the founders the founders are to us. >> host: let's say there is
true. windier come to this realization? in college or graduate school? when did you state your family i will spend my career focusing on the revolutionary war problems? >> guest: i never said that. my wife said why are you doing this? when i was writing about jefferson she said she wouldn't write about jefferson, you don't like jefferson and i said i have red hair, i went to william and mary and virginian, i don't think -- >> host: you are not a descendant of him? >> guest: no, but the way historians work is you don't know what you are going to do when you start scout and i started out thinking i was going to be a southern historian. things just evolved and the guy that converted me to the
founders, once i got into the family correspondence between john and abigail, there was a world that i found so fascinating that i wanted to keep living in it. >> host: what is so relevant about the founding fathers for those living in 2015? >> guest: what is relevant? some things are irrelevant that i wish were not relevant. there are members of the supreme court led by justice scalia and justice thomas who believe the interpretation of the constitution must depend on what date divine to be the original intent of the framers. i think that is a crazy idea. none of the framers would actually agree with that. it is ironic but one of the only
in tensions the framers shared was the notion that their intentions should not be used in that way. but i think that they are the fixed object, the founders against which we do our political isometric exercises. >> host: we have deified our founders of bit. washington, jefferson , adams, madison, hamilton -- >> guest: hamilton is really big right now. >> host: in most areas of human conduct we have advanced, people are faster, better athletes, smarter in technology, why is it in statecraft or government we don't seem to have any more washington, adams joy and jefferson, hamilton. where are these people? are they hiding somewhere? where these people so unique that it is a once-in-a-lifetime
thing? >> guest: when i am on book for i ask the question of the audience, the wilkes bar question. i say the population of wilkes barye, pa. is twice the size of the population of virginia in 1776. if we go to the streets we walk the streets and we look carefully, will we discovered george washington, thomas jefferson, james madison, james monroe, george mason, patrick henry and john marshall? the answer is no. now one answer is they are fair in blatant form, but you won't find them. there is a kind of crisis theory of leadership, leadership only comes into existence in times of great crisis.
the problem with that is we can think of a lot of great crises that don't produce great leaders. it is certainly impossible to argue that the late eighteenth century was a time when there was something special in the water back then, it was a crisis that managed to generate the most impressive group of political leaders that the united states has ever had. they are all flawed. let's get this on the record. they are all flawed founders. if you look back there for perfection or to meet all our standards of racial justice and sexual equality you are going to be disappointed. but this is -- all apologies to who is the guy that wrote the greatest generation? >> host: tom brokaw. >> guest: this is the greatest political generation in american history.
i can hide behind the observation of henry adams, writing in the grant administration said if you look at the list of american presidents from beginning until now, you got to believe darwin got it exactly backwards. [laughter and applause] >> host: who was the one indispensable founding father the washington, adams, hamilton? one person had existed what would be different? >> guest: i have a lot invested in making the case that they function so well because they are a collective and there's a kind of built in checks and balances in the personalities, idiosyncrasies and ideologies of the respective founders. if you just had hamilton we head towards dictatorship. if you just said washington, jefferson, we are moving towards anarchy.
there was one who was the founding his father of them all and they would all agree about this. you asked franklin, hamilton, madison, adams, they would all agree washington was the greatest. and because of his judgment. he wasn't as smart, hamilton was the smartest. he would have gotten the highest grades on the s.a.t.s. jefferson was the best red, madison was most publicly agile. adams was the most thoughtful about government i think. so each of them had particular strengths but they all said washington was indispensable. and he was. the most indispensable thing he ever did, which is what marks him as so different from all those revolutionary leaders is you walked away from power
twice. he was indispensable because he made himself disposable. think about revolutionary leaders in history. julius caesar doesn't do it, albert cromwell doesn't do it, napoleon doesn't do it, stalin doesn't do it, mallory doesn't do it, castro doesn't still hasn't done it. the only one who has done it was the south african leader, he walked away. washington walked away. most important act of power he ever committed was to surrender power. he did it after the revolutionary war, surprised everybody by turning in his sport in mount vernon and after he was present after two terms he could have served a third term or life, just to terms to go back. >> host: the premise of your book. we have a revolutionary war,
1776, finally win the war 1783, treaty of paris, everyone goes back to their respective states. did the people who were then operating under the articles of confederation expects to be one country or 13 separate countries? explain the articles of confederation. when did that come about? >> guest: the 1780s is a kind of dead sound, somehow we declare independence in 76 and win this war which is a big deal against the greatest army/navy in the world and then after awhile there is this interregnum and we come together again to declare nationhood in 1787 and ratification the following year. abraham lincoln gives credence to us at of assumptions which are historically on -- inaccurate. the first clause, the first sentence of the most famous speech in american history says 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 provision of the united to win the war and then go their separate ways which is precisely what they did. the resolution for independence july 2nd which is always the date adam fought should be the national anniversary, july 2nd, 1776, the american colonies are and have every right to be independent states. think about the arguments we have been hurling against parliament for ten years. sovereignty rests with the respective colonial legislatures. the last thing the americans want to do is create a federal government separate from the states because that looks like a domestic version of parliament. they don't want to do that.
the assumption most people have that there is this seamless natural evolution from 1776 to 1787 doesn't work. it is not true. you got to figure out a way to explain how you get from independence to nationhood, if in fact most people don't want it to happen. and they don't. if you took a poll, most people are born, live out their lives and die within a 28 mile radius. there is no, i know this is a surprise to some young people, there is no internet. they can't communicate. i am saying american history is headed in a particular direction after the war. it is headed for the european north american continent, headed
towards a e.u. rather than a united states, is headed towards a confederation model. somebody changes the direction in which american history is headed. there is a reason lincoln has to falsify history in order to win the civil war for to justify because he claims the war that the union precedes the states, and the confederacy has a pretty good argument, mainly the confederacy chlamys the civil war is the second american revolution to win back their own sovereignty. it is in the end war about slavery. i am on that side with the confederate flag so don't get me wrong. we are not a nation in 76. patrick henry at the virginia ratifying conventions as opposing, he opposes the constitution.
suppose we do this and virginia delegates in the senate and house all vote against a tax bill and it passes. then we have been taxed without our consent because he doesn't think that he is an american. he thinks he is the average union. jefferson fought that way too will he said i want to get out of philadelphia, don't want to write this document, i want to go back to my country, his country is virginia. so that somehow we got to explain how history is headed in one direction and changes and heads in a national direction. what happens is during the revolutionary war the colonies are governed by the articles of confederation which are put together to govern them through the war. the war ends, everyone goes back to their respective states, wash their hands of unity can the articles of confederation do not
allow congress to tax. >> guest: states don't have to pay. voluntary thing. would you like to pay $1,000? i am sorry about that, that is the way it is. we are running a $40 million debt, someone said there are two modern miracles, one is einstein's theory of relativity, one is compound interest, and it is going to be $77 million by the time you get to 1787. we are a banana republic. we cannot pay our debts. there is no way we can do it and that is -- >> host: congress is not able to tax, there is no standing army and then recognizing this, a few people say this isn't working, two of those people with james madison and alexander hamilton and how did they come together
to create something that would be different. what did they do in annapolis? in 1786, there is a recognition, needs to be coordinated among the states. new york is charging tariffs to new jersey and rhode island. wants to pay of money to expand the potomac, wants to get maryland and pennsylvania to contribute so they have this convention in annapolis with the limited purpose of trying to get some kind of agreement for interstate commerce among the states. it fails. five states show up. everybody has gone away by the time they get there.
hamilton and madison have met each other before. they worked in the confederation congress together, hamilton from new york, madison from virginia and they are part of this. this, hamiltonian version of leadership is really great, dangerous as the dickens that really great. they have just failed even to get a quorum. hamilton writes a draft to be sent back to the confederation. all of us agree that we need to call a convention this second tuesday in may to address the larger question of rights and responsibilities within this large production of states that provides energy for a federal government. it would be as if a journeymen boxer had just been knocked out
and had declared he was going to challenge the heavyweight champion of the world. that audacious form of leadership won hamilton's part. what happens, the triggers, makes more plausible such a convention two things. one, in my section of massachusetts, western massachusetts there is this uprising of farmers, really only 1800 guys who don't when to pay their mortgage and they want to vent that against boston. boston has always treated western massachusetts as a colony, they -- the whole water supply is like that. this is not manipulated, the serious crisis, madison thinks
it is a conspiracy by the british coming down from canada to take over new england and blown out of proportion. and the need for reform becomes plausible again. the other thing, to join the team. >> they send this to congress under the articles of confederation. maybe they agreed for the convention. >> they replaced the articles the convention is charged with reforming the articles. they need to do something, coordinated foreign policy, massachusetts has its own policy. adams is over there as ambassador to the court of st. james, no one believes i can represent anybody because you don't have central government for me to represent. so yes, we clearly need to do
something to reform the articles. there won't be a consensus about how much reform there should be but yes, reform we want to do. this is where what happens becomes close, the people who want to have the convention get together in the spring, washington, hamilton, madison and j. they say we will only be -- settle for not a revision of the articles but a total replacement of the articles which was a violation of their instructions. washington said i will not come out of retirement unless you promise me the we go for broke. if we don't go for broke is not worth it. risking my reputation and legacy and don't want to risk it for small potatoes and they promise
and madison is the one who organizes the plans, the va plan which sets the agenda for the philadelphia convention. >> washington agrees by madison and hamilton to lend his prestige, they get to philadelphia, people show up, they have various times 55 or so delegates, they decide to have secrecy, no one knows what is going on. >> this is the rule, total secrecy, no press coverage allowed whatsoever, nobody can communicate with anybody outside the convention about what has occurred, can't write letters or anything like that much less twitter and one of the reasons a second convention can never work, do what this one did. 55 white males get together and decide the future of the country. you can't talk to them while this is occurring.
>> they are in philadelphia, didn't know how long it would take but it started in may and went to september roughly. they are there for 90 days, madison and the virginia delegation have a plan to change the government. what is the essence of that plan? >> madison's plan, the va plan calls for a free prongs' government, the article isn't really -- it is that league of nations with congress that represents each state, every state has one vote. he says we take the model that each state has independently adopted of an executive branch, bicameral legislature, some states have single house legislatures and independent judiciary. that is the model for a national government. madison wants for there to be an article that allows the executive branch to veto all
state legislation, and he also wants both houses of the congress to be based on representation, political, population rather than be state based. he loses both arguments. his notion of executive veto is dead on our arrival. the great compromise of the convention is so-called connecticut compromise for states in the senate by population in the house. hamilton, madison, and washington all regard that as a huge defeat. what they get is a compromise. one reason i find myself so insistently arguing a judicial velocity based on original intent impossible is nobody got
what they wanted. that is to say that the intentions of both sides, those opposing the constitution and those supporting it had to be compromised and the result is a hybrid system that is part confederation, part nation. we don't become a nation in 1787. we have a foundation for a national government. as one historian nicely put it, the federal government they created is like the roof without walls. we still aren't a nation. i don't think we become a nation until the civil war. nationalism starts to reroutes head after the war of 1812. they create a federal structure which is partially based on states and partially federal and where that line is drawn, we can all disagree in peace about that.
>> they reach an agreement after three months. they then have to send the agreement to someone to approve it, to the confederation congress to approve it, they ascended to the state conventions. what do they decide about the approval process? >> guest: in the document itself it specifies how they can be approved. it cannot just be approved by the confederation congress or the state legislatures. it must be approved by the elected ratifying collections selected in each state. that is their way of saying it has to go back to the people. it has to be ratified, a group solely there to vote on this. and late to this game, intractable in a place where massachusetts sens which is and
quakers and crazy people, they are all down there in 1787 and won't even cooperate. nobody at the constitutional convention. they boycott the convention and ratification process. >> host: ratification means nine states. >> guest: is another illegality. according to the articles, for the articles to be modified it requires the unanimous vote. they say and they say this in the document, this will be approved if nine states ratify. to give them authority to do that? nobody. they know if it is unanimous it will never pass. it goes right out, the against everything and they make it nine the and the whole strategy for ratification, not enough americans know about this, there is a sequence of states that
have their meeting this and they will vote, 1,638 delegates in 13 states will meet and argue about this, if we can get to nine there are certain states it is going to be tough, rhode island, new york, virginia is going to be tough because you have patrick henry on the other side but if we can get to nine it is over and they will have to come in. the other states have to come in so they're trying to get to nine and virginia looks like it will be the ninth state. >> at the end of the constitutional convention three delegates, two from virginia and one from massachusetts refuse to sign because there's no bill of rights. is that a big issue in the ratification? >> guest: it is the biggest critique, the document should have had some kind of bill of rights. every state convention concludes some version of this.
madison -- madison, hamilton, jay wright the federalist papers which are the most important -- >> total of 85 of them? >> 85, madison wrote 29, hamilton wrote 51, jay wrote the others, j. got hit in the head by a rock in the beginning, defending hospital that was being attacked by at mob in new york because they claimed they were doing work on cadavers which people felt was the bad thing. he got hit in the head, couldn't cooperate but j. if you wear an investor in american statesman, go long on john j.. his reputation is going to go up not just because i have written about him favorably, but his papers are being published and all of a sudden we see a luminous presence, serenity,
incredible correspondence with his wife and he is a formidable figure, when washington becomes president, he goes to jack, john jay, he says what do you want to do? any office you want is yours. everyone thinks he will go to hamilton first, no. he will go to jefferson first, he is that prominent a figure. >> didn't take any position. >> he wants to the head of the supreme court. big mistake. >> host: ratification of occurs. >> guest: most people in the ratification conventions would have preferred to say we don't like the articles and want them to be changed but we don't really like the full changes of the constitution.
that option is not available to them. it should be. madison controls this. you can make recommended amendments but they cannot be mandatory. you either vote this up or down, yes to the constitution or no. that is the only choice you got. if you voted down we are back to the articles. you can recommend amendments and if you do, this is where the bill of rights is going to get made, we will take the monday consideration. but you cannot make a mandatory. >> host: the constitution is ratified, the ninth stage was new hampshire and virginia came next. but when they were ratified there was no requirement of a bill of rights. why did madison feel in the first congress he should draft a bill of rights? >> guest: great question. this is like the setup question.
the bill of rights, we like to think of it as the american magna carta partly because it comes at the end, is us separate legal documents about defined rights and a lot of people jefferson included think the bill of rights is more important than the document called the constitution. a lot of americans think that wait too. that is not the way madison thought about it. he thought we got to add a bill of rights to take some of the recommended amendments that have been proposed by six states, there are 128 amendments. a lot of them are repetitious. he takes the 120 amendments, some of those amendments, all six states that make amendments make the following recommendation in one form or another, we don't want to pay taxes and we don't want to pass the thing. ..
would have probably opposed the constitution. >> he thought a constitution should last 20 years in redoing every 20 years. >> guest: madison spend all those years trying to get it through in the first thing jefferson says is all constitutions should go out of existence every 20 years. >> host: if you could have dinner with any one founding father who would it be and what question would you want to ask that one founding father? >> guest: my favorite founding father is adams. not just because i have been a massachusetts man but because he is the most garrulous and outspoken. he will tell me the truth. he will tell me what he is really thinking and what he feels towards the other. the question i would ask him now is john, now that you are sitting up in heaven, what do you really think of from. ..
we have now time for questions be you talk about the process of this whole thing was kind of unauthorized. he said only nine of the 13 had to ratify, what did they think happened to the remaining four states. did they say do your own thing? you said they never actually joined. eventually a. >> eventually all this dates had it happen. they could do do it correctly with the pressure to join. if virginia hadn't ratified, even if nine states had, that would've caused a major problem. i don't know if the unit could
have functioned without virginia. it is virginia. it is the largest staple the new land, economy, population. they assumed that if you get to nine. the pressure will build. new york was 321 opposed to ratification. george clinton was opposed, there's no way to win a debate, the only way to win was kicking and screaming because they had no choice. by the way, hamilton was part of the new york debate says, if you don't come in, i'm going to get new york city to succeed and join connecticut. [laughter] >> one of the problems was also that there's three delegates to the constitution, to work put in supporters and against the constitution. so hamilton had no influence, because every state had one vote he be outputted every time. >> as you mentioned the genius of the constitution is to change and deal with different issues
at different times. do you think the founders would be shocked by the fact that today, we find it hard to pass amendments of the constitution and have to go through the supreme court for every issue. more often,. >> that's a loaded question. i think there is some consensus that the current legislation is dysfunctional. i think it is also pretty much a bureaucracy, i don't think the founders can be blamed for this. one way you could blame them, this this is where you are blaming madison although, we don't have a parliamentary system.
that is to stay, you can have a president elected and you can have another party controlled both houses of congress, as it does now and that makes for divided government. there's a believe in checks and balances that seems to be somewhat a stumbling block. i would argue, the major reasons for dysfunction are not themselves and for the function of the structure of the constitution, it's what by and large, we have done to it up here in the 20th and 20% true. the filibuster is unconstitutional, especially the form in which it is taken, and the rule by the speaker of the house may not report a build if
the parties. >> you may go into a little more detail but what would the founders think about the current state of the united states senate. with the popular election of senators but the role that says one senator creates his or her hand and now creates 60 votes to pass any item of substance. >> their differences of opinion back then about the role of the senate. i think if madison would think the way in which the filibuster has evolved in which you just described is a violation of what he intended and he should be put before the supreme court and rendered it possible the judgment, in keeping keeping with his intent in this case, that form, a silent filibuster is unconstitutional.
>> thank you very much i have read a lot of your books. in page 185 you five you mentioned veterans in your new book to tea parties. basically with that in mind, when i think of the u.s. constitution, i also think think of the age of enlightenment. , do you think basically that we need a new style, a new change in government right now, i don't think we would be able to get it. you mentioned maybe today, your.
>> your question is what. >> today's lobbyists and the executive orders do we need to do something today relative to the constitution and the way it is structured? >> oh. i'll pick something out of your question to answer. the larger answer is we are only 320 million from success in that regard. the tea parties real origins are not with the tea party of the revolution. remember the original tea party is protesting the fact that it doesn't have any right because parliament is taxing without their consent because they don't have representatives in parliament. the anti-federalist say, were being taxed without our consent even though we have representatives. the reasoning is they don't
trust the big government. they don't trust any large federal government far from their own borders and their own neighborhoods. that is the real political origin of the tea party mentality which is a constant strain in america and it takes on different names at different times. now the 21st century it is calling itself the tea party. the government is not us. you get into all kinds of conflict now, i don't want the federal government to take away my medicare,. the if you're looking for the origins, last. >> last question were out of time. >> at the beginning of the talk you said the topics discussing today came from a great
political party, what will it take the country to see that class of leaders ever again question work. >> impossible to answer that question. i would say there's only one crisis that have the potential to generate that kind of leadership. , global warming. that will grow to come as lines miami's underwater and droughts are killing millions of people in africa and the weather is the first item on the news every night. we will have the energy to think about, in that sense global