July 4, 1826: Astonishing coincidences on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration

July 4, 2014

You know the story, don’t you? If you don’t, you should commit this one to memory.  It’s not fiction, and if you proposed it for fiction, the editors would reject it as too improbable, or too sappy, a tug on your heartstrings and tear ducts.  It’s true, better than the faux patriot fiction we often get on July 4.

July 4, 2014, is the 238th anniversary of the announcement of the Declaration of Independence.  I hope you’re thinking about how you’ll fly the flag this weekend in honor of the Declaration of Independence.

The resolution proposed by Richard Henry Lee calling for independence of the 13 colonies passed the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776.  The Declaration would be Thomas Jefferson’s crowning achievement, outshining even his presidency and the Louisiana Purchase.   John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that July 2 would forever be marked by patriotic displays.

But the Declaration itself, which gave teeth to the resolution, was adopted two days later on July 4.  That has come to be the day we celebrate.

Detail, John Trumbull's Signing of the Declaration of Independence - Theodor Horydczak photo, Library of Congress

Detail, John Trumbull’s Signing of the Declaration of Independence – The committee of five presents the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock, the President of the Second Continental Congress; from left, the committee is John Adams, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin.  Theodor Horydczak photo, Library of Congress

Adams didn’t miss a beat.  Who quibbles about a couple of days when the celebrating is so good?

Adams and Jefferson were two of the five-member committee the Congress had tasked to write a declaration.  Adams and Ben Franklin quickly determined to leave it up to Jefferson, who had a grand flair with words, and who had just written a couple of stirring documents for Virginia.  Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, the other two members, went along.  And so it was that the Declaration of  Independence is almost completely the work of Thomas Jefferson.

Adams and Jefferson became friends only later, when they both served the nation at war as ambassadors to France, and then for Adams, to England.  A widower, Jefferson was taken in by Abigail Adams who worried about him.  After the war, Jefferson was in England when Adams was to meet King George III in a grand ceremony in which the king would accept the credentials of all the ambassadors of foreign nations to England.  As the king strode down the line, each ambassador or delegation would bow, the king would acknowledge them, the papers would be passed, and the king would move on.  Adams and Jefferson bowed.  King George moved on, ignoring them completely.

In such a case of such a snub, the snubbed foreigners usually made a quick exit.  Adams and Jefferson did not.  They stood at attention as if the king had treated them like all the rest, reversing the snub.  From the beginning, Americans and the United States pushed for more practical, reasonable, and compassionate government and relations.  Standing together, against the snub of the British King one more time, Adams and Jefferson formed a silent bond that held them the rest of their lives.

Back in America in peacetime, and both members of the administration of George Washington, Adams and Jefferson fell out.  Secretary of State Jefferson favored a more limited federal government; Vice President Adams favored a more powerful one.  By the end of Washington’s second term, party politics had been well developed.  Adams defeated Jefferson in the election of 1796.  As was the law then, Jefferson was vice president as the runner-up vote getter in the electoral college; but Adams kept Jefferson out of all government affairs.  Perhaps because he didn’t have Jefferson to help, Adams’s presidency did not go well.  In the rematch election in 1800, one of  the bitterest election fights ever, Jefferson’s party defeated Adams.  The gleeful Democratic-Republican electors all voted one ballot for Jefferson, the presidential candidate, and one ballot for Aaron Burr, the party’s vice presidential candidate.

Alas, that produced a tie vote in the electoral college.  Adams’s party, the Federalists, still held the House of Representatives before the new Congress came in.  A tie vote goes to the House for decision.  They could not bring themselves to vote for Jefferson, and the deadlock continued for 37 ballots.  Finally Jefferson’s former friend but now arch-enemy Alexander Hamilton intervened, explaining that Burr was clearly the greater scoundrel, and the House elected Jefferson.  Adams slunk out of town, avoiding the inauguration.

It wasn’t until after 1809 when Benjamin Rush hoodwinked Jefferson into writing to Adams, and Adams to Jefferson, that the two became friendly again.  For the next 17 years Jefferson and Adams carried on perhaps the greatest series of correspondence in history between two great minds.  Letters went out almost daily, from Monticello, Virginia,  to Braintree, Massachusetts, and from Braintree to Monticello.  They discussed the weather, their families, old times, farming — but especially the republic they had been most instrumental in creating, and how it might be preserved, and made to prosper.  Eventually the letters became harder to read, both because their eyesight was failing, and because their penmanship deteriorated, too.

The ideas, however, flowed like a great river of freedom.  Perhaps this correspondence was the river flowing justice the prophet Amos foretold.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 15th, 1820 - Library of Congress image

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 15th, 1820. From The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827. Library of Congress image

Both men took ill early in 1826.  This was a landmark year, 50 years since the Declaration of Independence.  In Massachusetts, a grand display of fireworks was planned to cap off a day of feasting and celebration.  Adams hoped he might attend.  In Virginia, a week before, it became clear Jefferson was too ill to venture even as close as Charlottesville for the celebration.  Jefferson sent his regrets to invitations from several celebrations.  Jefferson slept through most of July 3, but awoke about 9:00 p.m., and asked, “This is the fourth?”  It was not.  These are the last significant, recorded words of Jefferson.  He awoke at about 4:00 a.m. on the Fourth of July, 1826, but could not make a rally.  He died at 12:50 in the afternoon.

Adams, too, was too ill to attend the celebrations.  In the late afternoon or early evening of the Fourth, he awoke, and heard the celebration in the town.  Almost as if he had worked just to live to see that particular day, he checked the date.  Realizing he was near the end, happy that he’d seen 50 years after the Declaration, and unaware of the events a few hours earlier that day in Virginia, Adams said, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”  Adams, too, died on July 4, 1826.

Fly your flag July 4th. Remember John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Remember their great work in creating the nation that protects our freedoms today.  Remember their great friendship.  Write a letter to a good friend you’ve not written to lately.

It is Independence Day, a day created and celebrated by great men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Their spirit survives in us, as we celebrate, and if we remember why we celebrate as friends.

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Honoring James Madison, the go-to guy, on his birthday

March 16, 2014

James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, and the Father of the Constitution, was born March 16, 1751, in the Tidewater area of Virginia.

Is it sinful that we do not celebrate his birthday with a federal holiday, fireworks, picnics and speeches and concerts?

Maybe you could fly your flag to day.  If the neighbors ask why, tell them you’re flying it for freedom on James Madison’s birthday.  They’ll say, “Oh,” and run off to Google Madison.  You will have struck a blow for the education that undergirds democracy.

A few years ago I was asked to talk about freedom to a group of freedom lovers in North Texas.  I chose to speak about James Madison’s remarkable, and too-often unremarked-upon life. Later, when I started this blog, I posted it here, with an introduction.  All of that is below, in honor of the birth of James Madison.

Did you know that Madison is the shortest man ever to have been president?  His stature is measured in freedom, not in feet and inches.

(Originally a post on July 31, 2006)

James Madison, 1783, by Charles Wilson Peale.  Library of Congress collection

James Madison, 1783, miniature by Charles Wilson Peale. Madison would have been 32. Library of Congress collection

I don’t blame students when they tell me they “hate history.”  Heaven knows, they probably have been boringly taught boring stuff.

For example, history classes study the founding of the United States. Especially under the topical restrictions imposed by standardized testing, many kids will get a short-form version of history that leaves out some of the most interesting stuff.

Who could like that?

Worse, that sort of stuff does damage to the history and the people who made it, too.

James Madison gets short shrift in the current canon, in my opinion. Madison was the fourth president, sure, and many textbooks note his role in the convention at Philadelphia that wrote the Constitution in 1787. But I think Madison’s larger career, especially his advocacy for freedom from 1776 to his death, is overlooked.

Madison was the “essential man” in the founding of the nation, in many ways. He was able to collaborate with people as few others could, in order to get things done, including his work with George Mason on the Virginia Bill of Rights, with George Washington on the Constitution and national government structure, Thomas Jefferson on the structure and preservation of freedom, Alexander Hamilton on the Constitution and national bank, and James Monroe on continuing the American Revolution.

We need to look harder at the methods and philosophy, and life, of James Madison. This is an opinion I’ve held for a long time. Below the fold I reproduce a “sermon” I delivered to the North Texas Church of Freethought in November 2001.

James Madison White House portrait, John Vanderlyn, 1816

James Madison’s official White House portrait, by John Vanderlyn in 1816; in the White House collection

I have left this exactly as it was delivered, though I would change a few things today, especially emphasizing more the key role George Washington played in pushing Madison to get the Constitution — a view I came to courtesy of the Bill of Rights Insitute and their outstanding, week-long seminar, Shaping the Constitution: A View from Mount Vernon 1783-1789. The Bill of Rights Institute provides outstanding training for teachers, and this particular session, at Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, Virginia, is well worth the time (check with the Institute to see whether it will be offered next year — and apply!). I am especially grateful to have had the opportunity to discuss these times and issues with outstanding scholars like Dr. Gordon Lloyd of Pepperdine University, Dr. Adam Tate of Morrow College, and Dr. Stuart Leibiger of LaSalle University, during my stay at Mount Vernon.

James Madison by Gilbert Stuart c. 1821

James Madison, portrait by Gilbert Stuart c. 1821; National Portrait Gallery

My presentation to the skeptics of North Texas centered around the theme of what a skeptic might give thanks for at Thanksgiving. (It is available on the web — a misspelling of my name in the program carried over to the web, which has provided me a source of amusement for several years.)

Here is the presentation:

Being Thankful For Religious Liberty

As Presented at the November, 2001 Sunday Service of The North Texas Church of Freethought

Historians rethink the past at least every generation, mining history for new insights or, at least, a new book. About the founders of this nation there has been a good deal of rethinking lately. David McCullough reminds us that John Adams really was a good guy, and that we shouldn’t think of him simply as the Federalist foil to Thomas Jefferson’s more democratic view of the world. Jefferson himself is greatly scrutinized, and perhaps out of favor — “American Sphinx,” Joseph Ellis calls him. The science of DNA testing shows that perhaps Jefferson had more to be quiet about than even he confessed in his journals. While Jefferson himself questioned his own weakness in his not freeing his slaves in his lifetime, historians and fans of Jefferson’s great writings wrestle with the likelihood of his relationship with one of his own slaves (the old Sally Hemings stories came back, and DNA indicates her children were fathered by a member of the Jefferson clan; some critics argue that Jefferson was a hypocrite, but that was Jefferson’s own criticism of himself; defenders point out that the affair most likely was consensual, but could not be openly acknowledged in Virginia at that time). Hamilton’s gift to America was a financial system capable of carrying a noble nation to great achievement, we are told – don’t think of him simply as the fellow Aaron Burr killed in a duel. Washington is recast as one of the earliest guerrilla fighters, and in one book as a typical gentleman who couldn’t control his expenses. Franklin becomes in recent books the “First American,” the model after which we are all made, somehow.

Of the major figures of these founding eras, James Madison is left out of the rethinking, at least for now. There has been no major biography of Madison for a decade or more, not since Ralph Ketcham’s book for the University of Virginia press. Madison has a role in Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers, but he shares his spotlight with Hamilton and Jefferson. I think this is an oversight. As we enter into the first Thanksgiving season of the 21st century, we would do well to take a look back at Madison’s life. Madison gives us a model of reason, and more important, a model of action coupled to reason. America’s founding is often depicted as a time of great thunder — if not the thunder of the lightning Ben Franklin experimented with, an experiment he parlayed into worldwide respect for Americans, it is the thunder of the pronouncements of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, or of George Washington, just generally thundering through history.

The use of a bolt of lightning as a symbol for this group is inspired, I think. I’m a great fan of Mark Twain, and when I see that bolt of electricity depicted I think of Twain’s observation:

“Thunder is good; thunder is impressive. But it is lightning that does the work.”

Thunder at the founding is impressive; where was the lightning?

I’d like to point out two themes that run through Madison’s life, or rather, two activities that we find him in time and again. Madison’s life was marked by periods of reflection, followed by action as a result of that reflection.

We don’t know a lot about Madison’s youth. He was the oldest son of a wealthy Virginia planter, growing up in the Orange County area of Tidewater Virginia. We know he was boarded out for schooling with good teachers – usually clergymen, but occasionally to someone with expertise in a particular subject – and we know that he won admission to Princeton to study under the Rev. John Witherspoon, a recent Presbyterian transplant from across the Atlantic. Madison broke with tradition a bit in attending an American rather than an English school. And after completing his course of study he remained at Princeton for another year to study theology directly under Witherspoon, with an eye toward becoming a preacher.

Witherspoon is often held up as an example of how religion influenced the founders, but he was much more of a rationalist than some would have us believe. He persuaded the young Madison that a career in law and politics would be a great service to the people of Virginia and America, and might be a higher calling. After a year of this reflection, Madison returned to Virginia and won election to local government.

In his role as a county official Madison traveled the area. He inspected the works of government, including the jails. He was surprised to find in jail in Virginia people accused of — gasp! — practicing adult baptism. In fact Baptists and Presbyterians were jailed on occasion, because the Anglican church was the state church of Virginia, and their practicing their faith was against the common law. This troubled Madison greatly, and it directed an important part of his work for the rest of his life. In January of 1774, Madison wrote about it to another prominent Virginian, William Bradford:

“Poverty and Luxury prevail among all sorts: Pride ignorance and Knavery among the Priesthood and Vice and Wickedness among the Laity. This is bad enough. But it is not the worst I have to tell you. That diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal infamy the Clergy can furnish their Quota of Imps for such business. This vexes me the most of any thing whatever. There are at this time in the adjacent County not less than 5 or 6 well meaning men in close Gaol for publishing their religious Sentiments which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear talk or think of any thing relative to this matter, for I have squabbled and scolded abused and ridiculed so long about it, to so little purpose that I am without common patience. So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us.”

By April, Madison’s views on the matter had been boiled down to the essences, and he wrote Bradford again more bluntly:

“Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”

Madison must have done a fine job at his county duties, whatever they were, because in 1776 when Virginia was organizing its government to survive hostilities with England, Madison was elected to the legislative body.

Madison was 25, and still raw in Virginia politics. He was appointed to the committee headed by George Mason to review the laws and charter of the colony. Another who would serve on this committee when he was back from Philadelphia was Thomas Jefferson. George Mason was already a giant in Virginia politics, and by the time Madison got to Williamsburg, Mason had already completed much of the work on a bill of rights to undergird the new Virginia government. Madison noted that freedom of religion was not among the rights enumerated in Mason’s version — but it was too late, Mason said. The work was done.

Madison quietly went to work on Mason, in committee, over dinner, during social occasions — noting the great injustice of jailing people solely because of their beliefs, and urging to Mason that it did Virginia no good to keep these fathers from providing for their families.

Mason ultimately agreed to accept the amendment.

The pattern was set.

Perhaps a better example of this reflection and action cycle occurred nearly a decade later. By 1785 the war was over, independence was won, but the business of government continued. While serving as governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson had drafted about 150 proposals for laws, really a blueprint for a free government. About half of these proposals had been passed into law. By 1785, Jefferson was away from Virginia, representing the Confederation of colonies in Paris. Jefferson had provided several laws to disestablish religion in Virginia, and to separate out the functions of church and state. With Jefferson gone, however, his old nemesis Patrick Henry sought to roll back some of that work. Henry proposed to bring back state support for the clergy, for the stated purpose of promoting education. (Yes, this is the same battle we fight today for church and state separation.) After Jefferson’s troubled term as governor, Virginia turned again to Henry – Henry ultimately served six terms as governor. His proposal was set for a quick approval in the Virginia assembly. It was late in the term, and everyone wanted to get home.

Henry was, of course, a thundering orator of great note. Madison was a small man with a nervous speaking style, but a man who knew the issues better than anyone else in almost any room he could be in. Madison came up with an interesting proposal. Picking the religion for the state was serious stuff, he said. A state doesn’t want to pick the wrong religion, and get stuck with the wrong god, surely – and such weighty matters deserve widespread support and discussion, Madison said. His motion to delay Henry’s bill until the next session, in order to let the public know and approve, was agreed to handily.

You probably know the rest of this story. With a year for the state to reflect on the idea, Madison wrote up a petition on the issue, which he called a “Memorial and Remonstrance.” In the petition he laid out 15 reasons why separation of church and state was a superior form of government, concluding that in the previous 1,500 years, every marriage of church and state produced a lazy and corrupt church, and despotic government. Madison’s petition circulated everywhere, and away from Patrick Henry’s thundering orations, the people of Virginia chose Madison’s cool reason.

When the legislature reconvened in 1786, it rejected Henry’s proposal. But Madison’s petition had been so persuasive, the legislature also brought up a proposal Thomas Jefferson had made six years earlier, and passed into law the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom.

This was a great victory for Madison, and for Virginia. He celebrated by convening a convention to settle disputes between Virginia and Maryland about navigation on the Chesapeake Bay. Having reflected on the nature of this issue — a dispute between colonies — Madison had sought advice from others having the same problems, such as New York and New Jersey. In that effort he got the support of a New Yorker working on the same problems, Alexander Hamilton. In the course of these discussions Madison thought it clear that the difficulty lay with the form of government that bound the colonies together under the Articles of Confederation. Hamilton agreed, and they got their respective states and conferences to agree to meet in Philadelphia in 1787 to try to fix those problems. [Since I first wrote this, I've learned that it was George Washington's desire to get a federal government, to facilitate the settling of the Ohio River Valley where Washington had several thousands of acres to sell, that prompted him to push Madison into the Annapolis Convention, and who made the introduction between Madison and Washington's old aide and friend, Alexander Hamilton; Madison's work with Washington runs much deeper than I orignally saw.]

James Madison, 1792 portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa

James Madison, 1792 portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa

Amending the Articles of Confederation was a doomed effort, many thought. The colonies would go their separate ways, no longer bound by the need to hang together against the Parliament of England. Perhaps George Washington could have got a council together to propose a new system, but Washington had stayed out of these debates. Washington’s model for action was the Roman general Cincinnatus, who went from his plow to lead the Romans to victory, then returned to his farm, and finding his plow where he had left it, took it up again.

Madison invited Washington, and persuaded Washington to attend. Washington was elected president of the convention, and in retrospect that election guaranteed that whatever the convention produced, the colonies would pay attention to it.

You know that history, too. The convention quickly decided the Articles of Confederation were beyond repair. Instead, they wrote a new charter for a new form of government. The charter was based in part on Jefferson’s Virginia Plan, with lots of modifications. Because the Constitution resembles so much the blueprint that Jefferson had written, and because Jefferson was a great founder, many Americans believe Jefferson was a guiding light at that Philadelphia convention. It’s often good to reflect that Jefferson was in Paris the entire time. While America remembers the thunder of Washington’s presiding, Franklin’s timely contributions and Jefferson’s ideas, it was Madison who did the heavy lifting, who got Washington and Franklin to attend the meeting Madison had set up, and got Jefferson’s ideas presented and explained.

It was Madison who decided, in late August of 1787, that the convention could not hang together long enough to create a bill of rights, and instead got approval for the basic framework of the U.S. government. In Virginia a few months later, while Patrick Henry thundered against what he described as a power grab by a new government, it was Madison who assembled the coalitions that got the Constitution ratified by the Virginia ratifying convention. And when even Jefferson complained that a constitution was dangerous without a bill of rights, it was Madison who first calmed Jefferson, then promised that one of the first actions of the new government would be a bill of rights. He delivered on that promise as a Member of the House of Representatives in 1789.

It is difficult to appreciate just how deeply insinuated into the creation of America was James Madison. In big ways and small, he made America work. He took the lofty ideas of Jefferson, and made them into laws that are still on the books, unamended and unedited, more than 200 years later.

When the ratification battle was won, when Madison had won election to the House over Patrick Henry’s strong objection, partly by befriending the man Henry had picked to defeat Madison, James Monroe, Madison could have savored the moment and been assured a place in history.

James Madison in 1804, by Gilbert Stuart

James Madison in 1804, by Gilbert Stuart. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia. Gift of Mrs. George S. Robbins

That’s not what a lightning bolt does. Journeying to New York for the opening of the First Congress and the inauguration of Washington as president, Madison stopped off at Mount Vernon to visit with Washington, apparently at Washington’s request. In what was a few hours, really, Madison wrote Washington’s inaugural address. While there at Mount Vernon, Madison stumbled into a discussion by several others on their way to New York, wondering what high honorific to apply to the new president. “Excellency” was winning out over “Your highness,” until Washington turned to Madison for an opinion. Madison said the president should be called, simply, “Mr. President.” We still do.

Once in New York, Madison saw to the organizing of the Congress, then to the organizing of the inauguration. And upon hearing Washington’s inauguration address — which Madison had ghosted, remember — Congress appointed Madison to write the official Congressional response.

Years later, in Washington, Madison engineered the candidacy of Thomas Jefferson for president, and after Jefferson was elected, Madison had the dubious honor as Secretary of State of lending his name to the Supreme Court case that established the Supreme Court as the arbiter of what is Constitutional under our scheme of government, in Marbury v. Madison.

Wherever there was action needed to make this government work, it seemed, there was James Madison providing the spark.

James Madison was the lightning behind the thunder of the founding of America. We should be grateful that he lived when he did, where he did, for we all share the fruits of the freedoms he worked to obtain. And in this Thanksgiving season, let us look for appropriate ways to honor his work.

James Madison circa 1829-1839, portrait by Chester Harding.  National Portrait Gallery

James Madison, 1829, portrait by Chester Harding. National Portrait Gallery. “In 1829, Madison came out of retirement to attend a convention for revising Virginia’s constitution. While there, he posed for this portrait by the Massachusetts painter Chester Harding.”

The Madisonian model of thoughtful reflection leading to action is one that is solidly established in psychological research. It is the model for leadership taught in business schools and military academies.

I would compare religious liberty to a mighty oak tree, under which we might seek shade on a hot summer day, from which we might draw wood for our fires to warm us in winter, or lumber to build great and strong buildings. That big oak we enjoy began its life long before ours. We enjoy its shade because someone earlier planted the seed. We enjoy our freedoms today because of men like James Madison.

How do we give thanks? As we pass around the turkey to our family, our friends, we would do well to reflect on the freedoms we enjoy, and how we got them.

Finally, remembering that someone had to plant those seeds, we need to ask: What seeds must we plant now for those who will come after us? We can demonstrate our being grateful for the actions of those who came before us by giving to those who come after us, something more to be grateful for. A life like Madison’s is a rarity. Improving on the freedoms he gave us might be difficult. Preserving those freedoms seems to me a solemn duty, however. Speaking out to defend those freedoms is an almost-tangible way to thank James Madison, and as fate would have it, there is plenty of material to speak out about. A postcard to your senators and representative giving your reasoned views on the re- introduction of the Istook Amendment might be timely now – with America’s attention turned overseas for a moment, people have adopted Patrick Henry’s tactic of trying to undo religious freedom during the distraction. I have had a lot of fun, and done some good I hope, in our local school system by asking our sons’ science and biology teachers what they plan to teach about evolution. Whatever they nervously answer — and they always nervously answer that question — I tell them that I want them to cover the topic fully and completely, and if they have any opposition to that I would be pleased to lend my name to a suit demanding it be done. We might take a moment of reflection to ponder our views about a proposed Texas “moment of silence” bill to be introduced, and then let our state representatives have our thoughts on the issue.

Do you need inspiration? Turn to James Madison’s writings. In laying out his 15-point defense of religious freedom in 1785, Madison wrote that separation of church and state is essential to our form of government:

“The preservation of a free Government requires not merely, that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be invariably maintained; but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people.”

How can we express our gratitude for such a foundation for religious liberty? Let loose a few lightning bolts, in remembrance of Madison.

Copyright © 2001 and 2006 by Ed Darrell. You may reproduce with attribution. Links added in May 2013.

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December 20, 1620: Mayflower passengers finally disembark at Plymouth, after agreeing to the Mayflower Compact

December 21, 2013

Item from The Associated Press‘s “Today in History” feature, for December 21:  “1620Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower went ashore for the first time at present-day Plymouth, Mass.”  Why in December?  The arrived at the place almost a month earlier, but because of delays in getting out of England due to the leaky second boat (which didn’t make the trip), and difficulties encountered en route, when the group anchored, they first had to come to an agreement how to govern the colony, so far out of the territory of the charter they had been granted, as explained below.  Originally, a version of this desultory ran here, on July 26, 2006.

Credit: Sarony & Major.

From the Library of Congress, one of the few illustrations of the event that makes it clear it was near winter: The Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, December 1620 Credit: Sarony & Major. “The landing of the Pilgrims, on Plymouth Rock, Dec. 11th 1620.” c1846. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Dispatches from the Culture Wars features a set of comments on an interview right-right-wing pundit John Lofton did with Roy Moore, the former chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court who lost his job when he illegally tried to force his religion on the court and on Alabama. In 2006 Moore ran for governor of Alabama, losing in the primary election.

One of the grandest canards in current thought about U.S. history is that the Mayflower Compact set up a theocracy in Massachusetts. Lofton and Moore banter about it as if it were well-established fact — or as if, as I suspect, neither of them has looked at the thing in a long time, and that neither of them has ever diagrammed the operative sentence in the thing.

The Mayflower Compact was an agreement between the people in two religiously disparate groups, that among them they would fairly establish a governing body to fairly make laws, and that they would abide by those laws. Quite the opposite of a theocracy, this was the first time Europeans set up in the New World a government by consent of the governed.

That is something quite different from a theocracy.

I think people get confused by the run-on sentences, and the flattering, intended-to-be-flowery language in the clauses prefacing the meat of the document.

First, a very brief history: There were two groups aboard the ship in 1620, about 70 artisans and craftsman along to provide the real work to make sure the colony made money, and about 30 religious refugees. The London Company (accurately) thought the religious refugees lacking in key skills, like trapping, hunting and hide tanning, and barrel-making (barrels were needed to ship goods to England). So the London Company had insisted the craftsman go along, to make sure somebody knew how to harvest stuff and ship it back.

The London Company had a charter to establish a colony in Virginia. Because of delays with leaky ships and uncooperative winds, the Mayflower got to America late, and much farther north. The Mayflower landed well outside the territory the company was chartered to colonize, and the 70 craftsmen announced they were striking out on their own. Bradford realized his group would freeze, or starve, or both, and at gunpoint he kept both groups aboard ship to work out a compromise.

Here is the full text, from the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law site:

In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord, King James, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, e&.

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620.

See what I mean? It’s loaded with clauses that tend to obscure what is going on. Starting out with the standard contract language of the day, “In the name of God, Amen,” it loses modern readers. We tend to think that with so many mentions of God without a “damn” following, it must be a religious document. But it’s not.

Here’s the meat the the document, the money quote:

We, whose names are underwritten . . . do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

Got that? They promised to form a government, enact fair laws, and obey those laws — government by consent of the governed, by mutual compact, not by divine right.

Just because God is mentioned in the document doesn’t change its nature. It’s a secular compact, an agreement between men, outside the stricture of any church, outside any particular belief.

As we noted over at Ed Brayton’s site, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, many New England settlements and towns became little theocracies. But it wasn’t the Mayflower Compact which set that up, or encouraged it.

 


‘Twas the 18th of April in ’75 . . . (Paul Revere’s Ride, 243rd anniversary)

April 18, 2013

The annual reminder:

Paul Reveretonight’s the anniversary of his famous ride.

John Copley's painting of Paul Revere

Paul Revere, 1768, by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)

John Copley painted all the bigwigs of revolutionary Boston, including this portrait of the famous horse-mounted alarm before he turned older and grayer.

And as April 18 is the anniversary of Revere’s ride, April 19 is the anniversary of the “shot heard ’round the world.”

Both events are celebrated in poetry; April is National Poetry Month. This could be a happy marriage for history and English classrooms.

Teachers, this is your cue to break out the Longfellow and Emerson and Whitman, and tie them together in the thread that runs from the French and Indian War clearly through the American Civil War, and we might hope, to today.  Give the kids some culture to get their mental juices flowing for the tests.

National Poetry Month 2013 poster

More:


If it’s an election year, it must be Bogus Quote Time! Patrick Henry on the Constitution

August 14, 2012

Keep your collections of Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, and “the founders” close to you, and right next to your Bartlett’s or Yale.  It’s an election year, and that means people are pulling out all the stops to get you to act against your interests and common sense, including making up stuff that they claim famous people said.

This quote attributed to Patrick Henry piqued my interest last night:

“The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government.”  ~ Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry before the House of Burgesses, painting by Peter F. Rothermel

As the painter imagined it, Patrick Henry before the House of Burgesses, by Peter F. Rothermel. The painting was done in 1851, 52 years after Henry’s death. It commemorates his famous speech against the Stamp Act of 1775, “If this be treason, make the most of it.”  Henry was both fiery in oration and stubborn in policy; it is unlikely that he would have abandoned his staunch opposition to the U.S. Constitution, to praise its defenses of individual rights, the very thing he criticized it for failing to do.

Recall, you students of history, that Patrick Henry bitterly opposed the Constitution and its ratification.  He considered it too much government, too much intrusions of a centralized, federal government over the states and the citizens of Virginia in particular.  Henry refused to serve when elected delegate to the convention in Philadelphia in 1787.  Henry made it clear that he opposed any new charter of government that set up a real, workable, national government. Henry held considerable sway in Virginia — he was serving one of his six terms as governor, and he had the legislature wrapped around his finger, doing his bidding.  Because of that, James Madison devised a plan for ratification that excluded governors and state legislatures, but instead asked for ratification by the people of each state, in specially-called conventions.

Henry tried to stack the Virginia convention against ratification.  He did his best scuttle Madison’s attending.  Henry thundered against the Constitution from the floor of the convention, claiming that it would forever trample the rights of citizens.  Partly as a result, and partly to get the document approved, Madison pledged that he would create a bill of rights to clarify protections of citizens.  Madison thought that rights were already protected, but he conceded for political reasons.

Madison won in the convention, and Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution.  Henry was livid.

To prevent Madison from creating a bill of rights, Henry fixed the election of the new senators in the state legislature, excluding Madison.  If Madison were to carry out his promise, he’d have to get elected to the House of Representatives — but as a popular man in his home county, that should not have been a problem.  Henry persuaded the only man in the county more popular than Madison, James Monroe, to run against Madison.  It’s a great story, but for another time — Madison eked out the win.

Henry opposed ratification of any of the twelve amendments Madison proposed, which Congress approved.  Eventually ten of the amendments won ratification; we call those ten our Bill of Rights.

President-elect George Washington asked Henry to serve in the new government, perhaps in the president’s cabinet as Secretary of State.  Henry refused.  Supreme Court?  Henry refused.

Get the picture yet?  Patrick Henry was not a fan of the U.S. Constitution.  He complained that it fettered citizens of the states, and that it fettered the states.

How likely is it that he would then turn around and praise the document as a tool for restraining the state against the citizen?  Henry was a stubborn man.  It is not likely.

On history alone, then, we should regard that quote attributed to Henry as bogus.  It’s a fake, a sham, a blot on Henry’s legacy and a warping of history.  Heck, it covers up great stories about Henry fighting the Constitution — it’s not much fun, either.

The words offered most likely never crossed Patrick Henry’s mind, let alone his lips.  Of course, this quote shows up at many so-called patriotic sites — none with good attribution.  I was interested to find this very statement at Wikiquotes, listed under quotes misattributed to Henry:

The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government — lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.

More and Related Material:


Happy 254th birthday, Alexander Hamilton!

January 11, 2012

Today, January 11,  is Alexander Hamilton’s birthday — had he lived so long, he’d be 254 years old today!

Alexander Hamilton on the U.S. ten dollar note - Guardian image

Alexander Hamilton on the U.S. ten dollar note - Guardian image

But of course, the bullet from Aaron Burr’s gun cut Hamilton’s life short, after the duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton died of the wound on July 12, 1804. He was 47 years old.

Had Hamilton survived the duel, would he have been elected president? Some people think so. In any case, Hamilton’s wise management of the new nation’s finances, and his establishment of the idea that government should have a working bank, and that good government is a key to economic success of a nation, leave a great legacy for the nation, and the world.

Hamilton’s portrait adorns the U.S. $10 bill.

Read Hamilton’s biography from the U.S. National Archives’ feature on “America’s Founding Fathers/Charters of Freedom” exhibit:

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton was born in 1757 on the island of Nevis, in the Leeward group, British West Indies. He was the illegitimate son of a common-law marriage between a poor itinerant Scottish merchant of aristocratic descent and an English-French Huguenot mother who was a planter’s daughter. In 1766, after the father had moved his family elsewhere in the Leewards to St. Croix in the Danish (now United States) Virgin Islands, he returned to St. Kitts while his wife and two sons remained on St. Croix.

The mother, who opened a small store to make ends meet, and a Presbyterian clergyman provided Hamilton with a basic education, and he learned to speak fluent French. About the time of his mother’s death in 1768, he became an apprentice clerk at Christiansted in a mercantile establishment, whose proprietor became one of his benefactors. Recognizing his ambition and superior intelligence, they raised a fund for his education.

In 1772, bearing letters of introduction, Hamilton traveled to New York City. Patrons he met there arranged for him to attend Barber’s Academy at Elizabethtown (present Elizabeth), NJ. During this time, he met and stayed for a while at the home of William Livingston, who would one day be a fellow signer of the Constitution. Late the next year, 1773, Hamilton entered King’s College (later Columbia College and University) in New York City, but the Revolution interrupted his studies.

Although not yet 20 years of age, in 1774-75 Hamilton wrote several widely read pro-Whig pamphlets. Right after the war broke out, he accepted an artillery captaincy and fought in the principal campaigns of 1776-77. In the latter year, winning the rank of lieutenant colonel, he joined the staff of General Washington as secretary and aide-de-camp and soon became his close confidant as well.

In 1780 Hamilton wed New Yorker Elizabeth Schuyler, whose family was rich and politically powerful; they were to have eight children. In 1781, after some disagreements with Washington, he took a command position under Lafayette in the Yorktown, VA, campaign (1781). He resigned his commission that November.

Hamilton then read law at Albany and quickly entered practice, but public service soon attracted him. He was elected to the Continental Congress in 1782-83. In the latter year, he established a law office in New York City. Because of his interest in strengthening the central government, he represented his state at the Annapolis Convention in 1786, where he urged the calling of the Constitutional Convention.

In 1787 Hamilton served in the legislature, which appointed him as a delegate to the convention. He played a surprisingly small part in the debates, apparently because he was frequently absent on legal business, his extreme nationalism put him at odds with most of the delegates, and he was frustrated by the conservative views of his two fellow delegates from New York. He did, however, sit on the Committee of Style, and he was the only one of the three delegates from his state who signed the finished document. Hamilton’s part in New York’s ratification the next year was substantial, though he felt the Constitution was deficient in many respects. Against determined opposition, he waged a strenuous and successful campaign, including collaboration with John Jay and James Madison in writing The Federalist. In 1787 Hamilton was again elected to the Continental Congress.

When the new government got under way in 1789, Hamilton won the position of Secretary of the Treasury. He began at once to place the nation’s disorganized finances on a sound footing. In a series of reports (1790-91), he presented a program not only to stabilize national finances but also to shape the future of the country as a powerful, industrial nation. He proposed establishment of a national bank, funding of the national debt, assumption of state war debts, and the encouragement of manufacturing.

Hamilton’s policies soon brought him into conflict with Jefferson and Madison. Their disputes with him over his pro-business economic program, sympathies for Great Britain, disdain for the common man, and opposition to the principles and excesses of the French revolution contributed to the formation of the first U.S. party system. It pitted Hamilton and the Federalists against Jefferson and Madison and the Democratic-Republicans.

During most of the Washington administration, Hamilton’s views usually prevailed with the President, especially after 1793 when Jefferson left the government. In 1795 family and financial needs forced Hamilton to resign from the Treasury Department and resume his law practice in New York City. Except for a stint as inspector-general of the Army (1798-1800) during the undeclared war with France, he never again held public office.

While gaining stature in the law, Hamilton continued to exert a powerful impact on New York and national politics. Always an opponent of fellow-Federalist John Adams, he sought to prevent his election to the presidency in 1796. When that failed, he continued to use his influence secretly within Adams’ cabinet. The bitterness between the two men became public knowledge in 1800 when Hamilton denounced Adams in a letter that was published through the efforts of the Democratic-Republicans.

In 1802 Hamilton and his family moved into The Grange, a country home he had built in a rural part of Manhattan not far north of New York City. But the expenses involved and investments in northern land speculations seriously strained his finances.

Meanwhile, when Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in Presidential electoral votes in 1800, Hamilton threw valuable support to Jefferson. In 1804, when Burr sought the governorship of New York, Hamilton again managed to defeat him. That same year, Burr, taking offense at remarks he believed to have originated with Hamilton, challenged him to a duel, which took place at present Weehawken, NJ, on July 11. Mortally wounded, Hamilton died the next day. He was in his late forties at death. He was buried in Trinity Churchyard in New York City.

Image: Courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Post mostly borrowed, with express permission, from Mr. Darrell’s Wayback Machine.

Remember to watch for progress on “The Alexander Hamilton Mixtape,” a hip-hop version of Alexander Hamilton’s life by Lin-Manuel Miranda, seen here performing Aaron Burr’s soliloquey, at the White House.


Washington crossing the Delaware – a slightly different view

December 26, 2011

Past in the Present has this wonderful, terse post up:

It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Unless you’re a Hessian.

Passage of the Delaware, by Thomas Sully (1819). Now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Passage of the Delaware, by Thomas Sully (1819). Now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

  1. Hessian?  Do my students know what he’s talking about?
  2. What is the other famous painting of this event?
  3. Considering how famous that other painting is, isn’t it almost tragic this one isn’t more famous?
  4. Considering #3, how many other great paintings of U.S. history sit in museums, or in government buildings, waiting to be discovered?  Maybe bloggers could help, by finding those paintings, photographing them, and posting the photographs.

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June 7, 1776: Politics, heavy lifting and Richard Henry Lee

June 7, 2011

Thomas Jefferson got much of the glory, and we celebrate July 4.

We might learn about how politics works, and who does the heavy lifting, if we remember the full history.

Richard Henry Lee by Charles Wilson Peale

Richard Henry Lee by Charles Wilson Peale (wikimedia)

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia rose in the 2nd Continental Congress to propose a resolution calling for a declaration of independence of the thirteen colonies, from Britain.

Lee came to Philadelphia as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774, and was reappointed to the Second Continental Congress.

On June 7, 1776, Lee proposed a resolution which read in part:

Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

He had returned to Virginia by the time the Declaration of Independence was drafted and approved on July 2, but he signed the document when he returned to Congress.

Lee served as president of the Second Continental Congress (November 1784 to November 1785), and after the formation of the United States, as U.S. Senator from Virginia.  In the Senate, he was President pro tempore.

Richard Henry Lee's resolution calling for a declaration of independence - National Archives

Richard Henry Lee's resolution calling for a declaration of independence - image from the National Archives


Quotes that will live in infamy: Michelle Bachmann, another history “F” (“shot heard ’round the world”)

March 14, 2011

In Concord, New Hampshire, on March 11 and 12, 2011, apparently testing to see whether that little state has bad enough education standards before announcing a presidential bid, Michelle Bachmann butchered history and geography once again, according to the conservative Minnesota Independent:

“You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord,” she said, referencing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” an ode to the lives lost at the start of the American Revolution in Concord, Massachusetts, not New Hampshire.

How many bites at the apple does stupid get?  Has Ed Brayton picked up on this yet?

Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann

Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann

More:

Tip of the old scrub brush to Pat Carrithers.

Update:  Oh, yeah, others noticed:

Jeff Danziger on Michelle Bachmann's mixing up Concords

Jeff Danziger


Washington, by Ron Chernow – great scholarship, a good read, significant light

October 28, 2010

Welcome, Book Tourists!  This is the last stop on a virtual book tour for Ron Chernow’s biography, Washington.

Virtual cocktails afterward, I hope.  Then sit down and read the book.

In a piece of great fortune for me, six years ago I spent a week at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home in Virginia, through the good graces of the Bill of Rights Institute and the National Endowment for the Humanities, studying George Washington’s role in the creation of the U.S. Constitution.

Cover of Ron Chernow's book, Washington

Washington, by Ron Chernow. Penguin Press, 2010; 906 pages, $40.00

My academic interest leaned more toward James Madison’s role.  I thought then, and I still think, that Madison deserves a good, popular biography to complement the great recent work of others on the American Revolution and post-revolutionary organization of the nation.  We’ve had recent books by Edmund Morris, Ron Chernow, David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Walter Isaacs  and others on Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, the “founding brothers,” Hamilton and Washington.   But for Garry Wills’ short and crabby assessment of Madison’s presidency, I am unaware of a good, popularly-readable Madison book.    As a professional journalist, as a civil libertarian, as a lawyer and occasional investigator, my studies of the era favored Franklin, Jefferson and Madison.  George Washington took the center stage, in my conception of events, while those working around him and in the wings frantically worked to put on the production that made America and allowed Washington to play the role of a hero, the face of the “Father of His Country” role — while the truth was that such success really did have many fathers.

For most history purposes in elementary and secondary schools, for most of the past 200 years, Washington is the easy center of attention, and I suspected a different story.  Jefferson wrote better, and more thoughtfully, did he not?  Madison’s legislative work in Virginia alone shone above Washington’s.  Washington had military experience, and he managed to cling on through the revolution — but his role as president was often more as a referee between the great creative forces driven by Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson.

What I hoped to find at the Mount Vernon meetings were sources to reveal the true role of James Madison — maybe I could get the story together and write it myself.

Simply put, I was not prepared to confront the genius of Washington, nor did I appreciate the depth of his involvement in so many areas where our common understanding of history simply gave Washington the title of hero, but without telling much of the backstory.

I looked for the evidence of Madison’s genius.  What I found was the overwhelming evidence of Washington’s genius, too.

Washington’s economic genius now displays proudly at Mount Vernon, with the reconstruction of his 16-sided barn for wheat thrashing, and with the reconstruction of the distillery which made the man who put down the Whiskey Rebellion, ironically, the leading distiller of whiskey in America shortly before his death.  I learned that Washington got out of tobacco a decade before the revolution, because he didn’t like the economics of sending a crop to agents he did not fully trust in London, for sales in markets whose prices he could not track, for sales to purchasers he could not see.  Instead, he took his business into wheat, a commodity much in demand since most other farmers locally grew tobacco.  Washington became a leading wheat producer, and grew richer as a result of that and other similar decisions of clear-thinking economics.  By the end of his life, he was producing a surplus of wheat — which excited his Scotland-born farm foreman, who had a recipe for whiskey.

Washington was not merely the frontman for the convention in Philadelphia in 1787.  It became clear to me that he was a driving force, introducing Madison to Hamilton, and mentoring both in their work to get the convention approved, and then to get the Constitution written and ratified.   Washington had financial interests in seeing a great, united nation out of the 13 colonies:  He had land in the Ohio River Valley to sell, to get rich, if only there were an authority to made transportation into the valley hospitable to settlers, and transportation out to let those settler farmers get rich from their produce.   Washington’s vision, I learned, was much greater than I had understood.

Ron Chernow’s thick biography of Alexander Hamilton excited historians in 2004.  As studies of Jefferson lead to studies of Madison, and vice-versa, so do studies of Hamilton inevitably lead to studies of Washington.  We are fortunate that Chernow wrote the thick biography of Washington, the first great study of the man for the 21st century.

Chernow’s Washington, A Life (2010, Penguin Press, 906 pages) is every bit the great study of Washington we need and can use.  My bias as a teacher of high school students leans toward usefulness in the classroom — a higher standard than most imagine, since, for a high school classroom, a book must be eminently readable as well as accurate and clear.

Chernow had me at the Prelude.  In a brisk five pages he tells the story of Gilbert Stuart, an often-economically-bereft artist who saw fortune in Washington’s election.  Stuart arranged to get the great man to sit for a portrait — Washington did not like it — but Stuart never finished Washington’s commission in Washington’s life.  Instead, Stuart used the portrait to copy, for others.    Stuart’s fortune came not from Washington, but from the vast throng of Washington admirers who would pay handsomely for an image of the man.  It’s a well-told story, and a great introduction to the lionizing of Washington and his image, the reality of the man who sat for the portrait, and the way history has treated the man and the myth.  [Courtesy of the New York Times, you may read the Prelude, here.]

Readers of McCullough’s 1776 know of some of Washington’s genius at war, and some of his attention to details of making things work right — whether it be the way latrines were dug so an army could relieve itself and avoid disease, or the the exact tints of the color of green paint applied to the massive dining room he had added to the house at Mount Vernon.  McCullough’s book is a taste, a sampling of the work Chernow has.  One may compare Chernow’s story-telling ability to McCullough’s, and Chernow may suffer a bit.  For Washington, the drama is so often in the details, however — and details we have, galore.

Is it too much detail?  For the life of another, it may be.  Not for Washington.  Chernow is able to make readable even the details.  One may open this book at any page, start with a paragraph, and learn something about Washington — most often, learning something one did not know precisely before.  Chernow relied on the massive project at the University of Virginia to publish all the papers of Washington, collected from various sources.  Washington had not been quite so assiduous as Jefferson in making copies of everything he wrote for posterity, though much he was an assiduous diarist and taker of notes.  No biographer before had the advantage of the catalogueing done at Virginia, nor perhaps of the scope of the material there.

For this reason alone, this book should be read.

Chernow’s portrait is painstaking.  What emerges in the end is a George Washington whose vanity would be quirky and irksome in others, but necessary to the building of the image history graces to him, as the standard-bearer for the founders of the nation, truly the Father of His Country.  The vanities quickly become clear as careful consideration by a man who understood, especially as president, that each move he made would be a precedent for those who would follow, he hoped.   One example:  Washington’s work on the bank bill of 1791, made possible as we know by the dinner at Jefferson’s where Hamilton and Madison struck the bargain that sited the District of Columbia on the Potomac, and set up the finances that would make the nation successful in business and international relations over the next 200 years.

Though he had sat through every session of the Constitutional Convention, Washington did not pretend to expertise in constitutional nuances — he nce wrote that he had ‘had as little to do with lawyers as any man of my age” — and engaged in much hand-wringing over the bank bill.  He would be forced to issue a black and white opinion that would alienate some, gratify others, and irrevocably shape the future government.  He called in Madison, supremely well versed in the Constitution, for a series of quiet, confidential talks.  “The constitutionality of the nation bank was a question on which his mind was greatly perplexed,” Madison would recall, noting that Washington was already biased in favor of a national bank and “a liberal construction of the national powers.”  On the other hand, Washington was shaken by uncompromising verdicts from Randolph and Jefferson and asked Madison, as a precaution, to draft a veto message for the bank bill.

When Washington turned to Hamilton, he made plain that, unless he could vanquish the arguments of Randolph and Jefferson, he planned to veto the bank bill, telling him that he wished to “be fully possessed of the arguments for and against the measure before I express any opinion of my own.”  By this point Washington knew the vigor of Hamilton’s mind and his extraordinary knack for legal argument.  In little more than a week, Hamilton, in a superhuman burst of energy, produced more than thirteen thousand words that buried his opponents beneath an avalanche of arguments.  His exegesis of the “necessary and proper” clause not only made way for a central bank but would enable the federal government to respond to emergencies throughout American history.  Hamilton interpreted the “necessary and proper” clause to mean that “every power vested in a government is in its nature sovereign and includes, by force of the term, a right to employ all the means requisite and fairly applicable to the ends of such power.”  In other words, the Constitution gave the federal government not only the powers explicitly enumerated but also a series of unstated or “implied powers” indispensable to attain those ends.  (circa page 649)

Two paragraphs, easily read without seriously taxing the vocabulary of an SAT-studying high school junior.  They clearly detail Washington’s care in analyzing all sides of an issue.  They reveal Washington’s ability to harness the good work of men of greatly differing viewpoints, to the enlightenment of Washington and benefit of the nation — which benefit likely would not have occurred had another man been in Washington’s place (can you imagine anyone else mediating Madison and Hamilton — and keeping them both as friends?).  Chernow gracefully slips from telling a good story to providing scholarly details (I have omitted footnotes here), but not in an eye-glazing fashion — weaving the scholarship into a story fantastic enough that it would not sell for fiction, as Twain warned because it does not stick to the probabilities.

A few years ago a student offered what I considered a great insight.  We were comparing the American Revolution to the French Revolution; naturally, considering the Reign of Terror and the rise of the dictatorial Emperor Napoleon, students wondered where the French went wrong, and where the Americans got luck and went right.  Israel Pena summed it up neatly:  “The French didn’t have George Washington.  Americans came out of their revolution with George Washington; France came out of their revolution with Napoleon.”

Napoleon would have done well to have studied George Washington.

It is reported that when King George III learned that Gen. George Washington had, at the end of the American Revolution and the peace treaty negotiations, resigned his commission to the Continental Congress, the news was met with disbelief.  Washington improbably held together a ragamuffin mob of an army, disciplined them into a fighting force, and through evasion tactics, inspiration and sheer luck, and great aid from the King of France and the French Navy, defeated Great Britain in a war where no one, probably  including Washington had thought it possible to do so.  Many Europeans expected Washington would assume the crown of America and have himself declared king.

Instead, following the story of his Roman hero, Cincinnatus, Washington declined the power, deferring to civilian and more democratic rule, sublimating military might and prowess to the greater powers of reason.  (Washington, following Cincinnatus again, bowed out after two terms in the presidency — the power of story and early education over the fate of a nation.)

King George said he didn’t believe the news.  “But if it is true, [Washington] is the greatest man who ever lived.”

Without unnecessary shine, Ron Chernow has written more than 800 pages of the brief for the case proving King George’s judgment.  In these times, when people claim to wish to follow Washington and the Constitution, we would do well to study what Washington said, wrote and did, and how he came to create the Constitution and the nation it frames.

Note: My review copy did not include an index. The book, Washington covers the man as an encyclopedia.  For the sake of high school teachers and researchers, I hope an index comes with the published text.

More, and resources; other reviews:

Other stops on the virtual book tour:


A missed Bill of Rights anniversary, and the 27th Amendment

September 26, 2010

September 25, 1789, Congress had approved and enrolled the proposals, and sent twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution to the states for ratification.  Ten of the twelve amendments were approved, rather quickly, and by 1791 the were attached to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

The two proposals that failed to earn the required approval of three-fourths of the 13 states fell into a special limbo for Constitutional amendments that became clear only in the late 1970s when Congress discussed how long to wait for states to approve the Equal Rights Amendment (this is a much-simplified explanation, I know).  Congress put deadlines on the ratification process in the late 20th century, but the first twelve proposals had no deadlines.  In the 1980s, Congress passed a law that said any amendments floating around, unapproved, would be considered dead after a date certain.

Before that date passed, more states took a look at one of James Madison’s 1789 proposals, liked it, and passed it.

That amendment became the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, on May 7, 1992, 203 years after it was proposed:

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.


Tea Party medical care

July 21, 2010

Last spring, as the local Tea Party gatherings were shouting hosannahs to the Constitution, they also advocated not answering the decennial census.  I pointed out that the census is required by the Constitution, and got disinvited.

Unbridled and unquestioning support of what the “founders” did, instead of the laws they wrote, can lead one astray, as this cartoon shows:

Tea Party medical care, based on love for the "founders ways" - atheist cartoons.com

Tea Party philosophy: 'If the founders did it, it's good.'

Tip of the old scrub brush to Job’s Anger.


Something to think about as you get your flag ready to fly for July 4

July 2, 2010

This is mostly an encore post, from last year.

July 4th is the 234th anniversary of the announcement of the Declaration of Independence.  I hope you’re thinking about how you’ll fly the flag this weekend in honor of the Declaration of Independence.

The resolution proposed by Richard Henry Lee calling for independence of the 13 colonies passed the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776.  The Declaration would be Thomas Jefferson’s crowning achievement, outshining even his presidency and the Louisiana Purchase.   John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that July 2 would forever be marked by patriotic displays.

But the Declaration itself, which gave teeth to the resolution, was adopted two days later on July 4 — and that has come to be the day we celebrate.

Detail, John Trumbull's Signing of the Declaration of Independence - Theodor Horydczak photo, Library of Congress

Detail, John Trumbull's Signing of the Declaration of Independence - The committee of five presents the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock, the President of the Second Continental Congress; from left, the committee is John Adams, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin. Theodor Horydczak photo, Library of Congress

Adams didn’t miss a beat.  Who quibbles about a couple of days when the celebrating is so good?

Adams and Jefferson were two of the five-member committee the Congress had tasked to write a declaration.  Adams and Ben Franklin quickly determined to leave it up to Jefferson, who had a grand flair with words, and who had just written a couple of stirring documents for Virginia.  Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, the other two members, went along.  And so it was that the Declaration of  Independence is almost completely the work of Thomas Jefferson.

Adams and Jefferson became friends only later, when they both served the nation at war as ambassadors to France, and then for Adams, to England.  A widower, Jefferson was taken in by Abigail Adams who worried about him.  After the war, Jefferson was in England when Adams was to meet King George III in a grand ceremony in which the king would accept the credentials of all the ambassadors of foreign nations to England.  As the king strode down the line, each ambassador or delegation would bow, the king would acknowledge them, the papers would be passed, and the king would move on.  Adams and Jefferson bowed.  King George moved on, ignoring them completely.

In such a case of such a snub, the snubbed foreigners usually made a quick exit.  Adams and Jefferson did not.  They stood at attention as if the king had treated them like all the rest, reversing the snub.  From the beginning, Americans and the United States pushed for more practical, reasonable, and compassionate government and relations.

Back in America in peacetime, and both members of the administration of George Washington, Adams and Jefferson fell out.  Secretary of State Jefferson favored a more limited federal government; Vice President Adams favored a more powerful one.  By the end of Washington’s second term, party politics had been well developed.  Adams defeated Jefferson in the election of 1796.  As was the law then, Jefferson was vice president as the runner-up vote getter in the electoral college; but Adams kept Jefferson out of all government affairs.  Perhaps because he didn’t have Jefferson to help, Adams’s presidency did not go well.  In the rematch election in 1800, one of  the bitterest fights ever, Jefferson’s party defeated Adams.  The gleeful Democratic-Republican electors all voted one ballot for Jefferson, the presidential candidate, and one ballot for Aaron Burr, the party’s vice presidential candidate.

Alas, that produced a tie vote in the electoral college.  Adams’s party, the Federalists, still held the House of Representatives before the new Congress came in.  A tie vote goes to the House for decision.  They could not bring themselves to vote for Jefferson, and the deadlock continued for 37 ballots.  Finally Jefferson’s former friend but now arch enemy Alexander Hamilton intervened, explaining that Burr was clearly the greater scoundrel, and the House elected Jefferson.  Adams slunk out of town, avoiding the inauguration.

It wasn’t until after 1809 when Benjamin Rush hoodwinked Jefferson into writing to Adams, and Adams to Jefferson, that the two became friendly again.  For the next 17 years Jefferson and Adams carried on perhaps the greatest series of correspondence in history between two great minds.  Letters went out almost daily, from Monticello, Virginia,  to Braintree, Massachusetts, and from Braintree to Monticello.  They discussed the weather, their families, old times, farming — but especially the republic they had been most instrumental in creating, and how it might be preserved, and prosper.  Eventually the letters became harder to read, both because their eyesight was failing, and because their penmanship deteriorated, too.

The ideas, however, flowed like a great river of freedom.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 15th, 1820 - Library of Congress image

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 15th, 1820. From The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827. Library of Congress image

Both men took ill early in 1826.  This was a landmark year, 50 years since the Declaration of Independence.  In Massachusetts, a grand display of fireworks was to cap off a day of feasting and celebration.  Adams hoped he might attend.  In Virginia, a week before, it became clear Jefferson was too ill to venture even as close as Charlottesville for the celebration.  Jefferson slept through most of July 3, but awoke about 9:00 p.m., and asked, “This is the fourth?”  It was not.  These are the last significant, recorded words of Jefferson.  He awoke at about 4:00 a.m. on the Fourth of July, 1826, but could not make a rally.  He died at 12:50 in the afternoon.

Adams, too, was too ill to attend the celebrations.  In the late afternoon or early evening of the Fourth, he awoke, and heard the celebration in the town.  Almost as if he had worked just to live to see that particular day, he checked the date.  Realizing he was near the end, happy that he’d seen 50 years after the Declaration, and unaware of the events earlier that day in Virginia, Adams said, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”  Adams, too, died on July 4, 1826.

Fly your flag July 4th. Remember John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Remember their great work in creating the nation that protects our freedoms today.  Remember their great friendship.  Write a letter to a good friend you’ve not written to lately.

It is Independence Day this Sunday.  Their spirit survives in us, as we celebrate, and if we remember why we celebrate.


June 17 in history: Watergate and Bunker Hill

June 17, 2010

I didn’t know the Associated Press shares its “This Day in History” feature on YouTube in video form.

Is there a really good way to use ‘today in history’ features in the classroom?


Concord Hymn, read by Bill Clinton

April 19, 2010

What came after Paul Revere’s ride?  The Battle of Lexington, and the Battle of Concord.

Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” was written in 1860, 23 years after Emerson wrote “The Concord Hymn” for the dedication of the monument to the Minutemen at Concord Bridge.


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