Tag Archives: Founding Mothers

What John Quincy Adams Tells Us About One-Term Presidents

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, 6th president of the United States of America

Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal, prolific biographer and writer Harlow Giles Unger offers an essay on John Quincy Adams, a forgotten Founding Father whose career before and after his single presidential term is little remembered even by many professional historians. As Unger writes, JQA  was “the oldest son of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams seemed destined for greatness from birth. He served under Washington and with Lincoln; he lived with Ben Franklin, lunched with Lafayette, Jefferson, and Wellington; he walked with Russia’s czar and talked with Britain’s king; he dined with Dickens, taught at Harvard … negotiated the peace that ended the War of 1812, freed the African prisoners on the slave ship Amistad … restored free speech in Congress, (and) led the anti-slavery movement … .” It was a stellar career, one that Unger portrays excellently in his new biography of the polymathic president.

One other message of the article is that JQA could serve as a role model for President Obama should he lose this November and himself enter the ranks of one-term presidents. (“One-term president” is usually a criterion used to suggest that the individual was also a failed president.) I suggest the best purpose of the essay is to remind readers of the long-lasting living link between the founding period and the mid-nineteenth century. People like John Quincy Adams (d. 1848), Dolley Madison (d. 1849), James Monroe (d. 1831), and even the infamous Aaron Burr (d. 1836) were long-lived individuals who spoke frequently of the times which created the United States. These individuals witnessed the formative years of American history from the dawn of the American Revolution to the eve of the Civil War. New research on the War of Revolution, how the Declaration of Independence was received by Americans of the era, and the political attitudes of the Founding Fathers and Mothers would be greatly expanded by new examination of the papers of these individuals, as well as memoirs and commentators written by family and friends that recall the reminiscences of those seminal individuals.

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October 6, 2012 · 6:41 am

Some Presidents’ Day Reflections Regarding the Importance of the Declaration of Independence

      

As Presidents’ Day comes our way, it is a good time reflect on the creation of a nation where the chief executive is not the locus of government power, but power is derived from the “consent of the governed.” (By the way, “Presidents’ Day” is a misnomer. The Federal government sets the third Monday of February as George Washington’s Birthday.)  American presidents come and go. However, there are basic assummptions about the Declaration of Independence that every American should know, and every American should use as the touchstone for proper government — especially American presidents.
      

The Declaration of Independence was a necessary and vital statement made at a time when the success of the American Revolution was doubtful and government by ordinary people was considered a novel experiment (at best).

When the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration, it was a powerful reminder to a “candid world” that in all of European history no colony had ever successfully separated from a mother country to form an independent nation. Furthermore, the Declaration made it clear that the United States would be founded on Enlightenment principles such as good government is based on a respect of natural rights and the people have a right to alter or abolish a government that does not respect those rights. Equally important, the Declaration is based on an American concept of liberty that became the standard for nation, even though its principles were considered experimental at best by the European political class of the times. “A decent respect for the opinions of mankind” compelled the Second Continental Congress to explain what they were doing. George III and many British considered the Americans rebels and traitors, which by definition meant they were beyond the law and beyond the sovereign’s protection. The Declaration was a political manifesto, de facto declaration of war, and statement of the Americans’ right to exist as a free nation of people possessing liberties endowed by their Creator.

 

The Declaration of Independence was the product of a democratic process that was the broadest expression of rights and liberties in the world at the time.

Americans by the thousands debated the question of independence for months before the actual Declaration was finally issued and signed. Thomas Paine, the “firebrand of liberty,” persuaded tens of thousands of Americans with the first call for a declaration in his wildly popular tract Common Sense. Although Thomas Jefferson is the main author of the Declaration and was charged by the Continental Congress to write the “rough draught” of the document, he was one member of “The Committee of Five” comprised of congressional delegates Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. Each offered comments and exerted influence that either overtly or subtly swayed the genesis of the document. The Congress, meeting as a Committee of the Whole, debated the Declaration and edited it (including the well-known decision to strike language condemning the slave trade and slavery). When the Declaration was approved and signed by John Hancock (presiding officer of the Congress) and Charles Thomson (the secretary of the Congress), about 200 copies were printed for distribution throughout all 13 states and to the Continental Army, which was in the field fighting the British Army. In addition, it was published in newspapers and circulated as broadsides. Even with the omission of language calling for the end of slavery, the Declaration was embraced by men, women, free blacks, and slaves as the promise of a new order for the ages: a government based on the idea that ordinary people could govern themselves.

 The Declaration of Independence placed everything the Patriots held dear – their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor – in danger of utter destruction.

By signing their names to the Declaration, the delegates to the Continental Congress likely faced doom if the British captured them or prevailed in the Revolutionary War. The Declaration an was act of treason, punishable by public disgrace and execution by hanging. They were the de facto leadership of the United States, and by issuing the Declaration as an internationally circulated statement of intentions they had bluntly stated that they would pursue revolution, not reconciliation.  People declared rebels in Scotland and Ireland earlier in the century had suffered terrible fates, and there was no reason to believe any signer would fare any better. Ordinary Americans fighting for independence faced an equally grim fate. The men and women, white and black, who helped create this nation did so in the face of real danger and great cost – and that sacrifice in the name of principles embodied in the Declaration should be acknowledged, understood, and remembered.

The Declaration of Independence is a relevant document  important to the survival of our nation today.

The Declaration helps define us as the land of the free. It has been called by some “the birth notice of the nation,” and it is the first significant statement of the basic freedoms acknowledged as distinctly American. Even with the survival of slavery in the new republic, it set the standard for what the nation should become. Abraham Lincoln used its most important idea to call for a “new birth of freedom” during this nation’s most devastating war fought to end slavery. Civil rights leaders from Reconstruction through the 1960s held up the Declaration’s ideals to remind this nation of its failures in the realm of political equality and liberty. Martin Luther King Jr. used its words to remind a tormented and divided generation that the hope for America was the survival of the American system of liberty and democracy when given to all of the nation’s citizens. Women from Abigail Adams to the suffragettes laid claim to its promises, and still do. Its words remind us that the idea of being “American” is not simply based on the activity of enjoying the economic advantages of this nation’s economy, or simply recognizing the United States as a geographic reality. The words of the Declaration help define us as a unique people, and the value of those words is incalculable at a time when foreign enemies who wish to impose another world system upon our countrymen through violence and terror offer no apology for the words that define them.

The main promise of the Declaration – “that all men are created equal” – is not a racist or sexist statement. It is a promise to all people, at all times.

            There is more at stake here then the nature of the English language in the eighteenth century, although it is clear that the Founders meant “all humankind” when they used the word “men.” According to the Declaration, human beings are born equal in life and liberty and we are by nature equally free and independent. We are unequal in ways too numerous to list categorically (such as wealth, status, talents, physical attributes, and many others), but no human, class of humans, or group of humans is superior to another human, class of humans, or group of humans. This is the most important idea in the Declaration of Independence, the basis for true political equality in the United States, and the cynosure of human rights for great Americans such as the Founding Fathers and Mothers, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It excludes no class or race of Americans but embraces all who are willing to acknowledge this self-evident truth.

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Mr. President, Why Today Matters

Most would argue that a blog about the Declaration of Independence should have a special entry on July 4.  Common sense dictates that the failure to do so is tantamount to a devout Christian blogger neglecting Christmas or Easter, or a sports enthusiast who blogs about football remaining silent on Super Bowl Sunday.

President Obama speaking on immigration reform, July 1, 2010

            Yet, I confess that I wondered whether I should post something today. After all, there are plenty of places readers could visit to learn the facts about the Declaration of Independence, its history, or even about the “real” day the Continental Congress declared independence. (It was actually July 2, 1776, leading John Adams to predict the nation would celebrate that day, guaranteeing the United States would forever after have 2nd of July Sales Events at department stores and used-car dealers.)

            Why write today when I could be at a picnic? Well, the picnic comes later this evening. However, I will concede that recent events prompted this posting. As you know, President Obama recently broached his call for Congress to reform immigration policy in a speech full of curious assessments about American history and identity. For example, his comment that “being an American is not a matter of blood or birth” left me wondering if he had ever read the 14th Amendment. (It also made me wonder why a man facing unwavering opponents who question whether he is even a natural-born U.S. citizen would give political foes a stick to beat him with.) His roll call of American immigrant luminaries such as Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, and Andrew Carnegie completely ignored the fact those men came to the United States legally, and the issue at hand is illegal immigration. In addition, his examples of “rank discrimination and ugly stereotypes,” though undoubtedly accurate, failed to recognize that human waves of immigration flowed into this nation in spite of those difficulties because the fruits of the American dream of prosperity and freedom always outweighed the ugliness during another time in our history. Couple those comments in his speech with his famous rejection of American exceptionalism and I find myself today asking in earnest: Does the President of the United States, a man recently ranked as the 15th-greatest president in U.S. history, truly understand why today is different from any other day? (I will presume that he knows July 4 is a federal holiday.)

            I am no fool. The chances are exceeding slim that President Obama and I will ever have a conversation, and I know for a fact that he is not subscribed to my blog. But in the best of all possible worlds I would tell him to please consider what the Declaration of Independence launched, a document that gave birth to the nation we celebrate today.

            Our republic offers its people a nation that is freer, more individualistic, more dynamic, and more democratic than any other that has ever existed. Those attributes are the legacy of the Founders, the men and women of the Revolutionary Era who loved liberty, an idea based upon the proposition that freedom, reason, and morality can overcome humanity’s tendency toward limiting the rights and aspirations of our fellow man, and who created the first and best nation based on those principles. The result is a nation where a person can transform themselves and rise as far as talent, achievement, and hard work will allow.

            Other nations have followed those principles, to be sure, but it is safe to say that our practices are example to the rest of the planet – an obvious reason why we are praised when we live up to those values, condemned when we don’t. No one has the same expectations of Zimbabwe, but the world does expect the United States to fulfill the exceptional promises made by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. That fact alone proves that a belief in the unique contribution of the United States of America to the world is not narrow or chauvinistic, but the acknowledgement of a self-evident reality.

            Lincoln, when defending his Emancipation Proclamation in midst of our Civil War from charges of hypocrisy and radicalism, told the world that our culture of liberty was our greatest gift to the planet. He wrote:

 “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

 The world watches us because the people of this globe know we are unique. They expect that America will always be the exception to what humankind already knows: Liberty is fleeting, opportunity is rare, freedom is lacking – but not in the United States.  Because of those facts, Mr. President, surely you and I can agree about why today matters.

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The Dog Days of the Declaration: Just When Was It Signed?

Detail of a copy of the John Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

Detail of a copy of the John Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

Most Americans consider July 4 the day when all the action took place that made the Declaration what it was: A statement of liberty and freedom, a proclamation of independent nationhood, and even a manifesto defining what American patriots had been fighting for during a war that had been waging for 16 bloody months. The Continental Congress voted, declared, and signed all in one earth-shattering climax of patriotic energy. Charming popular depictions of the history of the Declaration reinforce this misconception. As a high school student enthralled with the bicentennial celebration of the nation in 1976, I saw the musical 1776 repeatedly, awed by its closing scene of the Congress’ delegates signing the Declaration as a bell tolled once for each of the 13 states. It was dramatic, heady stuff for a sophomore who already knew that he was in love with this nation’s history.

            The truth is just as dramatic – but more complex. August is a significant month in the history of the Declaration for many reasons, including the fact it’s probably when the majority of the delegates actually signed the document. Contrary to the popular tradition established late in the 18th century and fostered to this day, the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4, 1776. We have good records of the proceedings in the Continental Congress, including the Journals of the Continental Congress that were kept from 1774 to 1789. The entry for July 4, 1776, contains a copy of the Declaration in its adopted form and the words, “Signed by order and in behalf of the Congress, John Hancock, President.”  There is no list of additional signatures. A later entry (July 19) clearly states an order that the Declaration passed on July 4 be “fairly engrossed,” defined in Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language as “written in large fair characters.” No doubt, this order created an official copy of Declaration – but again, there is no record of additional signers. However, the order also included a directive that the Declaration “when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.” On August 2, the journal notes “The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.” Thus, the best documentary evidence indicates that on July 4 the only founder who signed the Declaration was John Hancock, whose iconic and bold five-inch-long signature

John Hancock's signature from the Declaration of Independence

John Hancock's signature from the Declaration of Independence

prompted the birth of the phrase synonymous with placing one’s name on something: “He put his John Hancock on it.” Eventually, 56 delegates signed. Eight did not, some because they actually opposed independence. A few might have even signed as late as September or October 1776 because they were absent on other business.

            Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all stated more than decade later that the Declaration had been signed on July 4. How could these titans of the American Revolution get such a basic fact wrong? Memories fade, and their idea of what “signing” meant could simply mean that when Hancock signed the Declaration as the president of Congress he was validating the document in the name of all the delegates.  It is clear that some delegates were not even present in Congress on July 4, a fact substantiated by multiple sources. One thing is certain: When the majority of delegates gathered to sign the Declaration in August, they had to be prepared to do more than fight the heat, flies, and thunderstorms of a Philadelphia summer. They now had to fight for their lives. Certainly, the men who signed the Declaration knew they had signed their death warrants. George III had promised the Patriot leaders “condign punishment,” 18th-century regal cant for swinging by the neck on a British rope as a traitor until the offender was dead.  Dr. Benjamin Rush, a delegate from Pennsylvannia, left an account of the mood in the room when he and the delegates present at the time took their turns signing the Declaration several weeks after Congress approved it. In an 1810 letter to John Adams, he wrote:

“Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many to be our own death warrants? The silence and gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, by Colonel Harrison of Virginia who said to Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts ‘I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body, I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.’ This speech procured a transient smile, but it was succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.”

These were men who had truly pledged “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.” They knew what they had done, but they could not look back across 233 years of national history to put their minds at ease regarding the outcome of their actions. Many of them were people who in the world of 18th-century America had the most to lose. The members of the Continental Congress were lawyers, men of property and commercial success, local politicians, a world-famous scientist and writer, Virginia aristocrats and New York millionaires who risked everything they had on a revolution that challenged the most powerful nation on earth. Few of us have faced risks like that when we signed a document. Their signatures, and the country they created to the blessing of us all, are more than just ink on parchment.

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