The business of baseball and the nation's business used to be conducted in Washington with similar skill. The Washington Senators were run by Clark Griffith, who said: "Fans like home runs, and we have assembled a pitching staff to please our fans." Today, however, Washington's team is a model of best practices. The government? Less so.

The nation had what historians have called a "critical period," and so has the national pastime. The nation's was in the 1780s, after the Revolution but before the Constitutional Convention, when the 13 states were linked, barely, by the Articles of Confederation, which George Washington called "a rope of sand." The federal government was too weak to collect adequate revenue or to assure the free flow of interstate commerce, and disparities between bigger states — Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York — and the rest produced a weak sense of common national endeavor.

The solution was James Madison, not the flashiest of the Founders but the one who, at this moment, mattered most. By subtle increments that were cumulatively momentous, he guided the Constitutional Convention in putting America on a path from "the United States are" to "the United States is."