SocraticGadfly: Joseph Ellis slouches toward Gomorrah

August 26, 2015

Joseph Ellis slouches toward Gomorrah

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This might, in reality, be worth a third star, but it's getting so many five star reviews that I had to downrate it.

Ellis is writing primarily pablum when he's not outrightly wrong.

And, he is outrightly wrong on a couple of major issues, right at the start.

First, while Charles Beard and his progressive historian followers may have overstated the importance of class issues, whether in the American Revolution or the Constitutional Revolution, even more, they weren't all wrong, contra Ellis' claims. Indeed, there's been a resurgence in a more moderated version of Beard's thesis.

Related to that, Ellis presents a false dichotomy that the Constitutional Revolution can either be about confederationists vs nationalists OR democrats vs aristocrats, but not both. And, if there's a "totally wrong," it's that false dichotomy.

Second, Ellis gets the issue of slavery all wrong.

First of all, at the Constitutional Convention, nobody was arguing for abolition; in fact, nobody was even arguing for immediate cessation of slave importation. The only argument was if slaves counted as people for census purposes (while not counting for people otherwise, or not. THAT WAS IT.

Secondly, Ellis ignores several new books that point out how deeply slavery was already (a half-decade before the cotton gin) engrained in the American economy.Gerald Horne's "The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America" is a very good starting point, discussing the role of the Somerset decision and other slavery-related factors in the American Revolution. (That said, author Gerald Horne does stretch some points too far, I think.) "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism" takes the story from then, through the Constitutional Convention times and into the 19th century, in much more detail. (That said, author Edward E. Baptist writes often-purplish prose and really, really needs an editor better than what he's had.)

And, "Empire of Cotton" puts 19th-centure U.S. cotton capitalism in a global context.

Ellis essentially pretends these books don't exist.

Thirdly within this main point, he ignores that people like one of his Quartet, Hamilton, and another founding father, Franklin, were both actually involved with abolition efforts.

The third main issue, as other reviewers note, is to essentially dismiss the whole mindset behind Lincoln's "fourscore and seven years" at Gettysburg, rather than noting that that was a deliberate stake in the ground — an assertion that, contra Ellis, the United States did begin in 1776.

Beyond that, Ellis is wrong about the metaphysics behind the Articles of Confederation. For that, too, we have to start with the Declaration of Independence, per its text.

First, the Declaration starts:
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, 
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands...

All of that indicates that the Declaration's ratifiers saw themselves as representing one nation. An inchoate and loosely connected one, yes, but one nation.

The last paragraph refers again to "united States of America." Again, loosely connected, perhaps, but one nation.

Ellis talks elsewhere about Jefferson and Adams as ambassadors. He ignores that they were ambassadors of the "united States of America, in General Congress, assembled," and not of Virginia, Massachusetts, etc.

Indeed, I can make half an argument that the Articles of Confederation were half a step backward from this.

Ellis, IMO, goes further downhill with each new book; with this one, he accelerates his rate of decline.

(And, for Texans who have to put up with the nuttery of the State Board of Education, Ellis' respectable-sounding Constitutional hagiography fuels their pushes toward American exceptionalism.)

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