Testing the waters
Maybe it’s time to add something new to this blog.
I spend the winter as a communication professor at a college in upstate New York. Summers I spend working as a seasonal guide (park ranger) for the National Park Service in Philadelphia. I teach communications. I love history. This is my double life(?)
Maybe it’s time to add something new to this blog.
Two days ago, May 14, saw the 224th anniversary of the opening of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, in May, 1787. (The painting above is by Howard Chandler Christy, and depicts the signing of the Constitution—but that doesn’t happened till September 17; there’s a whole summer to get through first.)
There’s loads to say about this Convention, which basically reinvented the United States government. I’m going to start here with a few of the key players and their roles in the Convention.
Starting in the North, there’s the Massachusetts delegation: there was Rufus King, a Federalist who worked closely with Hamilton to promote the Big States plan; Elbridge Gerry of Mass., who started out broadly in favor of the Constitution but changed his mind and didn’t sign; Nathaniel Gorham was also part of the Mass delegation.
New York’s delegation was kept deliberately weak, apart from one huge exception: Alexander Hamilton, who was the only NY member to end up signing the Constitution. Rhode Island—useful trivia fact, this—did not send any delegation at all and was not represented.
From Connecticut there was not only Roger Sherman (originator of the “Connecticut Compromise” over representation) but also Oliver Ellsworth and William Samuel Johnson. From New Jersey, in addition to William Patterson (author of the New Jersey Small States Plan), the older William Livingston was also prominent. Pennsylvania’s delegation was power-packed, with Ben Franklin, Gouverneur Morris (who penned the final draft, including the “We the People …” lines), Robert Morris (no relation), James Wilson, and George Clymer.
Delaware’s delegation included the old “farmer,” John Dickinson, and George Read. Maryland sent Daniel Carroll and James McHenry, as well as Luther Martin, a strong Anti-Federalist who refused to sign the final Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights.
South Carolina’s contingent proved to be highly adept at playing a weak hand well. It included Pierce Butler, John Rutledge, and the two Pinckneys. Charles Pinckney of SC proposed his deliberately watered-down plan (basically a weak revision of the Articles) and was supported by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and the other two.
And then there was Virginia’s high-powered delegation, which included, crucially, the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison, as well as George Washington (plus John Blair, the third member who actually signed it). But awkwardly, many of their number did not sign the final document, including George Mason, Edmund Randolph, George Wythe, and James McClurg.
To be continued.
I haven’t said much about Ben Franklin in this blog. Which is a bit of an oversight, since Independence NHP kind of “owns” Franklin and his story. Or to put it another way, no other national park spends much time on one of America’s most important Founders. INDE does.
Franklin was prominent on the world stage for a long time, right up till his death on April 17, 1790, at age 84. So, interspersed through this blog post, I’ve included portraits here of Franklin at five stages of his long life: First, #1. below, is Franklin in 1748, by Robert Feke. This was the year he retired from active business, to devote himself to science and public works (leaving the business side in the hands of his partner, David Hall.)
Then (spread out below) there’s #2, Franklin in 1759, by Benjamin Wilson, during his first stint in London as the Colonial agent for the Pennsylvania Assembly; By this point he was already a world-famous scientist and inventor, and 1759 was the year he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of St. Andrews and began to be styled “Dr. Franklin.” Then, in #3, a portrait by David Martin, it’s 1767 and Franklin is back in London for his second stint as Colonial agent, but by now he’s an imperial social climber and rising star (having helped persuade Parliament the previous year to rescind the Stamp Act). By 1777 (#4), Franklin is very much the revolutionary, and in this engraving he’s decked out in the “rustic” coonskin hat that endeared him to the French as he tried to bring them around to helping the Americans in their struggle against Britain; and finally, in #5, Franklin’s a grand old man in this portrait by Duplessis.
Anyway, back to the story.
One author I’ve read who seems to have a good take on Franklin is Gordon S. Wood. I’m going to bring up two of his works to illustrate the point: The Americanization of Ben Franklin and Revolutionary Characters. (Other books about Franklin that are worth reading include H. W. Brands, 2000, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin; and Walter Isaacson, 2003, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Simon & Schuster.) But I like Wood the best.
Wood’s The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin starts with a core proposition that is absolutely true but which most Americans conveniently forget: that Franklin was a committed royalist and Anglophile who took a long time to fully side with the Patriot cause. He only became disillusioned with Britain and King George III when he sensed that American-born Englishmen in the Americas were becoming regarded as inferior to the English-born. “Americans” began to be lumped into the same “not-English therefore inferior within the British empire” category that afflicted the Scots and Irish. (This is a theme I might like to expand on in my presentations at Independence.)
In Revolutionary Characters, Wood intersperses Franklin’s writing of his Autobiography with other key points of his life. Franklin didn’t begin writing it till 1771, in England, at a low point in his relations with Lord Hillsborough and the British Ministry (this was while Franklin was still firmly loyal to the British empire).
The Autobiography's first part was in effect an extended letter to his son, William, and essentially is a guide to how to live a good life; but it was also, according to Woods, written in the context of acting, as Wood puts it, as “a salve for his wounds and a justification for his apparent failure in British policy.” Then, when Franklin’s relations with Hillsborough and the British government temporarily improved, Franklin promptly stopped writing and resumed his attempts to find a senior office for himself in the British empire.
Of course, Franklin’s hopes of high office were dashed again in 1774 by the whole Hutchinson letters scandal, and by early 1775 he was a done with Britain and had thrown in his lot with the rebel Colonists.
Franklin did not resume the Autobiography until 1784, in France, and not till the Treaty of Paris, establishing final American independence, had been finalized.
This is the odd part. In his final years, Franklin was not generally accorded the same status as Adams, Jefferson, Washington, etc. By the time he returned to Philadelphia in 1785, his fellow Americans—at least outside of Philadelphia—“didn’t know what to make of him. They knew he was an international hero, … but they weren’t quite sure why” (Wood, p. 88). They knew he was a patriot and a famous scientist, but it was all a bit vague—he hadn’t led armies or become president, or been in the vanguard of the movement at home (as, say, Adams had been).
At his death in 1790, even as he was lauded in France—the French still loved him—the U.S. Senate refused a resolution honoring him. His eulogy at the American Philosophical Society—many of whose members had become somewhat embarrassed at Franklin’s lowly origins—“was a half-hearted affair” (Wood, p. 89).
In fact, argues Wood, it was really the publication of the Autobiography itself, in 1794, that began to resurrect Franklin’s image and give him a new prominence in the minds of his fellow Americans. The Autobiography—plus sections of Poor Richard’s Almanac—was reprinted many times in subsequent years. This work presented Franklin the “bourgeois moralist,” the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps businessman, the epitome of American can-do values. As Americans in the 19th century began to reinvent themselves, the model and archetype they looked to was, in large part, the Franklin of the Autobiography.
That’s why, in some ways, Franklin is really the Founder who most accurately represents the future of the United States, in all its raucous glory.