THE QUARTET: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, by Joseph J. Ellis. Alfred A. Knopf, 290 pp., $27.95.

In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, the newly proclaimed "United States of America" were anything but. Loosely affiliated under the Articles of Confederation, the 13 states each pursued their own agendas. George Washington, aghast at the failure of Congress to properly feed and fund his ill-equipped army during the fight against the British, lamented, "We have become a many-headed Monster, a heterogeneous Mass, that never will Nor can steer to the same point."

In "The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789," Pulitzer-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis tells the story of how this heterogeneous mass was made to steer to the same point. Ellis ("American Sphinx," "Passionate Sage") lives and breathes the Founders, and he deploys his customary zip and trenchant scholarship in showing how four central figures -- Washington, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison -- conceived and promoted a new political framework built on the Constitution.

Combining sharp analysis with lively narration, Ellis traces these charged years and the debate, culminating in the ratification process of 1787-88, over how the new nation would be governed. The quartet led the way: They "diagnosed the systemic dysfunctions under the Articles," Ellis writes, "manipulated the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Convention, collaborated to set the agenda in Philadelphia, attempted somewhat successfully to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying conventions, then drafted the Bill of Rights as an insurance policy to assure state compliance with the constitutional settlement."

In 1780, most Americans, having thrown off the fetters of a faraway central power, would have thought the kind of national government envisioned by Washington and Co. as peculiar in the extreme. Some historians have viewed the Constitution as a betrayal of the American Revolution by a cabal of elites who crushed an emerging democracy. Ellis, however, reminds us that democracy was viewed skeptically in the 18th century; he prefers to see the efforts the quartet as "a quite brilliant rescue" of revolutionary principles.

Ellis' account of the run-up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the subsequent state-by-state ratification process is so pacey it almost reads like a thriller. New Yorker Hamilton, fearful that anarchy was looming, developed a national vision first; Madison was just a bit behind. Jay, serving as foreign affairs secretary, was trying to fashion coherent foreign policy. But all agreed that if their efforts were to succeed, a reluctant Washington, who had retired to Mount Vernon, had to be on board. Washington's revolutionary credentials were unassailable.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

At the heart of the debate lay the vexed question of sovereignty. Where does power reside -- at the state and local level (the position of the confederationists), or, as Hamilton proposed, in a strong national government? Enter Madison, who split the difference. The diminutive Virginian -- he was 5-foot-4 -- was a titan of political thought, whose notions of a diffusion of federal power through the executive, judicial and legislative branches represented a grand compromise. "The Constitution," Ellis reflects, "was intended less to resolve arguments than to make argument itself the solution."

Still, Ellis notes the flaws in this great document, not least the way it sidestepped the issue of slavery, a time bomb that would detonate in the next century. The author sometimes defaults to grandiose mode -- "four men made history happen in a series of political decisions and actions that, in terms of their consequences, have no equal in American history." But the Constitution has proved remarkably durable, and still reflects the arguments Americans have about how we should govern ourselves.