J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

“Ellis’s strategy of building his narrative around four exemplary men”

Back in July 2013 I discussed historian Joseph J. Ellis’s focus on, in his words, “the most prominent members of the political leadership during this formative phase” of the nation, as opposed to the larger mass of less wealthy, privileged, and successful Americans.

Some reviews of Ellis’s latest book, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, fault that approach when it comes to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

In the New York Times Book Review, R. B. Bernstein wrote:
Ellis sees American nationhood as the creation of a few politicians working from above. But what of sentiments of ­national identity among the American people? ­Ellis rejects the idea that American ­nationalism existed before 1787, even reproving Abraham Lincoln for making that claim; his endnotes airily dismiss scholarship arguing otherwise. Nonetheless, currents of nationalism before 1787 helped make possible both the American victory in the Revolution and the Constitution’s adoption. . . .

Another large question concerns Ellis’s understanding of politics itself. The path to the Constitution was studded with pivotal choices, critical decision points and balking institutions. . . . These and other choices resulted from political decisions by the Confederation Congress, the state legislatures and the state ratifying conventions, all outside the control of Ellis’s four heroes [Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay].

Ellis dedicates “The Quartet” to his friend and colleague Pauline Maier, one of the finest historians of the American Revolution and the Constitution’s origins. He writes movingly of her in ways that bring her to life for all fortunate enough to have known her. And yet Maier’s work cuts against “The Quartet.” She focused on politics and political processes; her deft illumination of them produced a story more persuasive than that of “The Quartet.”
That book would be Maier’s Ratification. And Ellis’s skill is indeed bringing such big personalities to life.

The Economist, which doesn’t name its contributors, said something similar:
But in focusing on a few exceptional men, Mr Ellis also deprives his narrative of vital context. From the beginning it is an unequal contest, pitting the visionaries against the narrow-minded, the righteous few against the feckless many. None of their opponents—with the possible exception of Patrick Henry, who makes a cameo appearance near the end of the book engaging in oratorical fisticuffs with Madison over Virginia’s ratification of the constitution—rises to the stature of Mr Ellis’s heroes, or even their supporting cast. Their most doughty opponent, it turns out, is the amorphous “spirit of ’76”, which makes the book less a clash of titans than an exercise in shadow boxing.

Mr Ellis’s strategy of building his narrative around four exemplary men certainly makes for more compelling reading than delving into tax rolls or birth registers. Inevitably, though, it also carries its own subtle bias. Although he occasionally draws the reader’s attention to the moral limitations of the Founding Fathers, for instance calling their treatment of the native population one of the “less attractive features of the western story”, this is largely a triumphalist tale. Mr Ellis is not blind to the moral compromises made in Philadelphia in 1787, but he accepts rather too complacently the notion that the constitution that emerged represented the best possible agreement under the circumstances.
I haven’t read this book yet, but I’ve enjoyed some of Ellis’s previous books. I’ve found his analyses of personalities and conversations between two or three figures to be compelling. However, I’m not convinced that approach works as well in illuminating huge enterprises like nation-building.


Xathos said...

One thing Ellis does well is analyze dead white men. He even made a joke about that in a speech once. For all the complaints by historians, he has made a career writing about them. But like you say and other reviews point out, it is one thing to write an analysis of one person at a time and another to analyze the actions of many.

In my opinion, Ellis is a practitioner of the top down approach to history and this new book is a good example of that approach. R.B. is right with his review. I point out to students that it was the actions of the many that influenced the decisions of the few. There was interaction between the two, but no revolution, no movement, no uprising is sustained by a few people. It is when the many make their choices that the results come about.

The many need leadership, but the few need supporters. They go hand in hand. Look at the successful revolutions in the past and analyze them. Every time you find where the leaders had the support of the majority of the people.

Often the only way a minority can suppress the body of the people is through terror and repression. Even then, that eventually fails. This is the part where I show my students a picture of Qaddafi's body.

Chaucerian said...

I find these day that I mistrust Ellis's scholarship -- his interest in great men (being one, talking about one) is so pervasive that I think it may distort his view of what actually happened long ago. I know that I am thrilled when I come across historic figures with my own mental quirk, and I assign them a high place in the narrative -- which is unrealistic and only represents my desire that people like me can be of service. I tried reading _Passionate Sage_ recently and kept noticing how often Ellis commented that Adams was being "grandiose." He should know. I didn't finish the book.