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Just what did the founders think they were doing anyway?

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789

By Joseph J. Ellis

Knopf, 290 pages, $27.95

Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It

By John Ferling

Bloomsbury, 409 pages, $30

By Edward Cuddihy


Seldom do two books published in the same cycle dovetail so perfectly into the telling of one grand story as do the latest works of noted historians Joseph Ellis and John Ferling.

American history in the second half of the 18th century is often a misunderstood blur, colored by patriotic myth and punctuated by a glorious revolution, out of which blossomed a powerful new nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Or did it happen that way?

Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, and Ferling, a much acclaimed academic historian, have dissimilar writing styles. Their grand views of the American saga are at odds. There is no evidence they even knew of each other’s latest books. Yet the volumes are perfectly complimentary and contain only minor overlap.

They attempt to answer questions that have troubled serious historians now for 150 years.

For Professor Ferling, the salient question is: Why did the Anglo-centric leaders of 13 highly successful British colonies, along with 2 million proud subjects of the British Crown, turn their backs on the most powerful – some would say the most progressive – nation in the world, reject the protection of a superpower, and beg for help from the hated enemy, the French? And Catholics, no less.

For Ellis, the question is: Why did those successful former colonies – now 13 sovereign nation-states – opt to give up the individual independence they had fought so long to win at such a staggering price in lives and treasure? Why did those diverse sovereigns decide to cobble together a new central government, which to many seemed an awful lot like the one they had just overthrown?

We will deal with the questions in reverse order because the shadowy period Ellis writes about, the years from the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 to the birth of the United States in 1789, appear the more consequential in terms of today’s American nation.

1789? Wasn’t the nation born on July 4, 1776? Ellis would claim no. He argues Abraham Lincoln, while well-intentioned, was wrong in his Gettysburg Address when he cited July 4, 1776, as the birthday of our nation.

In Ellis’ view, the all-important Declaration of Independence is just that: Thirteen former colonies, each with its own governing body and laws, most jealous and distrustful of the others, together declared to take their leave of the British Empire. The Brits knew that like audacious teenagers, they’d come crawling back when their juvenile adventure failed.

For the next 13 years, the states were not a nation, but a loose federation, probably more like Europe’s Hanseatic League along the Baltic coast than a nation, as rancorous and disjointed as today’s European Union.

During eight years of war, they ignored each others’ requests for help, they formed a Grand American Army led by George Washington, but they armed and fed their own state militias, and they defied the decrees of their own Confederation Congress. England’s ignorance of the geopolitical situation across the Atlantic went a long way toward keeping the federation and the rebellion alive.

When the war was won, the loose confederation began to disintegrate, drifting into spheres of influence, with states levying tariffs on each other and the citizenry disdainful of any taxes or laws that weren’t local.

After years of study and a half dozen books on this era, Ellis has formed a clear vision of the characters and events that transformed the federation into a single nation. His story is not what we were taught 50 years ago. Not even close.

Ellis credits Washington, John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for the compromise Constitution that has taken on an almost mystical aura over the last 226 years. All four were pragmatists. When the states couldn’t agree, they fashioned compromises. If there were no compromises as on the question of slavery, they ignored the topics altogether. In modern parlance, they kicked the can down the road. John Adams predicted an eventual North-South war over slavery. He would have been amazed at how long it took to occur.

Despite the myths, Washington, the aristocratic Southern planter, had much to gain from a strong federal government, not the least of which was his Revolutionary War legacy. Winning the Revolutionary War might have become a footnote in history if the confederation crumbled and most of the states returned to the umbrella of British rule.

A strong federal government is exactly what state leaders feared most and did not want. Think of it: If you’re the political boss of New York State, the last thing you want is a layer of government above you that will grab your power, your influence and your tax dollars.

That the men in Philadelphia even had the audacity to fashion a new constitution was beyond the scope of what the states had voted to allow. To many, it was downright illegal. And the claim that once nine states ratified the new document it would take effect was an outrage. To states like Rhode Island it was nothing short of blackmail.

Ellis’ story of how these four men hijacked the Constitutional Convention and engineered a change in government that has mystified the world ever since is a tale that will alter your view of early American history.

Then we come to John Ferling’s story of why the colonists rebelled in the first place and how they ultimately overcame British power. His story is a revelation in clarity more than the unearthing of new material.

Ferling sides with those who argue it was economics, not the highbrow rhetoric of Enlightenment philosophers as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, which led the Crown’s loyal subjects across the Atlantic to rebel against the motherland.

The colonial aristocrats whose lives were modeled after British and Continental aristocrats of the age had been in America for five generations or more. That’s longer than a great many of us today can claim, unless we are descendants of African slaves or Native Americans. So by 1776, the colonists, while loyal British citizens, saw themselves as the sole caretakers of the continent, including any lands they could claim west of the mountains.

They never had been taxed by London. London didn’t need to tax them. It made a fortune in trade with its American colonies. And they had been allowed to govern themselves with only the slightest oversight from Parliament. They were not about to become second-class subjects of a cash-strapped Parliament and a king many claimed wasn’t even English.

But a war over a tax on tea leaves? That’s a little extreme.

Not if you think of it this way: If today, our congressmen, most of them with substantial financial stakes in General Motors, voted a huge tax on GM vehicles, and then made it illegal to sell anything but GM vehicles in this country – no Fords, no Chryslers, no Toyotas – what would Americans do? Probably follow the lead of Detroit’s citizenry and flip over every Chevy in sight. We’d call that a rebellion.

On the war itself, many in London thought it was a mistake from the onset. On this side of the ocean, many weren’t keen on independence, and the colonial aristocratic leadership wanted nothing to do with that pejorative called democracy.

Author Ferling recounts the major battles of the war at some length, but this is a book about politics, British, Continental and Early American politics. As years dragged on, it becomes clear there was no army big enough, no Navy strong enough, to contain an insurgency 3,000 miles away from home over a territory nearly the size of Western Europe.

Taken individually or together, these two new authoritative books go a long way toward clarifying the murky period in our history that pundits and political candidates love to misquote.

Ellis cautions it is folly and “deeply flawed history” to try to understand the founding fathers in 21st century terms. So with presidential debates and nominating conventions already on our minds, it would behoove the candidates to take a quick look at these works before waxing poetically about the tough-minded, hard-bargaining men of great means who forged our nation.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.