The Valdosta Daily Times
An article in the July 4, 1998 issue of The Valdosta Daily Times posed the question of why the U.S. public had little to no interest in the nation’s birth or the Founding Fathers. Then, compared to the American Civil War, there was almost nothing on the colonial and revolutionary periods: few books, no films, no discussion. Several reasons were explored for the Revolution apathy. Perhaps, the Civil War held more interest because it violently dealt with the Founding Fathers’ unfinished business of slavery and what liberty means in a free country. Perhaps, Americans were still suffering a 20-plus-year hangover from the glut of revolutionary information that flowed relentlessly from the Bicentennial celebration in 1976. Perhaps, no one had made these Revolutionary characters human enough for a modern American public.
Whatever the reasons, things have changed. In the past 15 years, there has been a revival of interest in the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, from libraries of new books to people handing out replicas of the Constitution.
Historians have explored the lives of Alexander Hamilton, John Paul Jones, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, all have been subjects of recent books.
Why this shift of interest? Perhaps, it is because these authors have found the human minds, hearts and temperaments in these stone-faced historical figures. Perhaps, the nation’s founding and the documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Constitution) seem more relevant in the current political climate.
Whatever the reasons, today, Independence Day, we look at a few familiar Founding Fathers and a few reasons why they are still worth remembering.
Forget Parson Weems’ myth about the cherry tree. Forget Father of the Country. Forget first President and the rank of general. Forget, for a moment, the granite face on Mount Rushmore, the solemn head on the $1 bill, the Roman profile on the quarter. Forget the entire marble and granite image, the myths and the remoteness surrounding George Washington and think of him as a human being.
It’s hard to do.
He did exist and he was human. What makes him so unreal are likely the very qualities that made him so necessary to the type of nation we have today.
America was lucky that George Washington was a quitter.
He was not a quitter in the classical sense. He did not shirk his duties or do things half-heartedly. No. George Washington was a quitter in the sense that unlike most great men of history, he could independently relinquish power. And George Washington didn’t relinquish power once.
He did it twice.
As the popular and successful general of the Continental Army, Washington could have easily established himself as a military dictator following the Revolutionary War. He could have led his army into Philadelphia, disbanded the Continental Congress and assumed full control of the American government. Given the public adoration for him and his political capital from winning the war, Washington could have possibly accomplished this with little bloodshed. He could have become an 18th century Caesar.
But he didn’t.
Instead of Caesar, Washington followed the example of another Roman — Cincinnatus, who traded the sword of power for the plow of citizenship.
Appearing before Congress, General Washington voluntarily resigned from power.
“Having now finished the work assigned me,” Washington said, “I retire from the great theater of action, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”
“The spectators all wept, and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears,” wrote a witness, Maryland Congressman James McHenry.
“The spectators also recognized the immense significance of the relinquishment of military power,” writes historian Thomas Fleming. “It guaranteed that American liberty would never become a mere slogan mouthed by a dictator.”
To the monarchs of Europe, already stunned by the victory of independence in America, Washington’s release of power was unbelievable. Upon hearing of Washington’s intentions to return to private life, Britain’s King George III remarked, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Washington’s return to private life was short-lived, though. He was instrumental in assembling the players for the Constitutional Convention and he presided over their meetings. And he was elected as the first President of the United States. Two times, he faced no opposition for the presidency. As President, Washington became the model and set the standards for the office. Given his popularity with the public and his prestige within the ranks of his fellow Founding Fathers, Washington could have easily served as President for life.
Yet, again, he did the unexpected.
He refused to seek or accept a third term as President. With his presidential Farewell Address, Washington set a precedent that lasted nearly 150 years. No President sought more than two elected terms until Franklin D. Roosevelt won a third term in 1940. With Washington’s voluntary departure, he tested the strength of the American Constitution. As historian Joseph J. Ellis notes, “the precedent he was setting may have seemed uplifting in retrospect, but at the time the glaring and painful reality was that the United States without Washington was itself unprecedented.”
For 20 years, Washington had been the supreme figure of the new nation and, with his Farewell Address, he effectively told the American people, “they were now on their own.”
Perhaps the most misunderstood of the Founding Fathers is John Adams. He was arrogant, short-tempered, vain. He was intelligent, honorable, and crucial to the success of the Revolution. Though much is made of Thomas Jefferson’s contradictory nature, Adams was a man besieged by contradictions, personally, politically, and in historical review.
He was an early advocate for American independence, but followed the rule of law by serving as the attorney for British soldiers charged with the massacre of several American colonists prior to the war. He helped develop the Declaration of Independence but, as the second President, Adams jailed newspaper editors for criticizing his administration. If one reads the collected editions of American Aurora, an early American newspaper, a reader would believe Adams to be an evil megalomaniac who wanted to be king. Yet, if a reader finds David McCullough’s “John Adams” biography, Adams is a far more complex and compassionate character.
Though his presidency was anything but smooth, Adams ensured the change of power within American government. He faced a formidable task following George Washington, but he accepted the job. Though he was unhappy to have lost his re-election to rival Thomas Jefferson, Adams readily followed the people’s will and departed Washington prior to Jefferson’s inauguration.
Yet, the contradictions of Adams’ life and nature do not end there. In formative days of the Revolution, Adams moved that the Continental Congress name George Washington as commander in chief of the American army. Later, Adams became jealous of Washington’s fame, power and prestige.
Adams and Jefferson were close friends in revolutionary days. Following his election as President in 1796, Adams even hinted at making Vice President Jefferson his co-president. Jefferson declined. During Adams’ presidency, their friendship faded and the two men became political rivals. These one-time bosom buddies became bitter enemies, and Adams and Jefferson refused to speak or correspond for several years.
Many years after their respective presidencies, Adams and Jefferson rekindled their friendship. They wrote to each other often, with Adams writing an estimated three letters to every one of Jefferson’s.
Yet, the two men shared a great connection. While Jefferson is given the lion’s share of credit for the Declaration of Independence, Adams has been called the “voice” of Independence. Yes, Jefferson wrote the Declaration, but Adams argued for American independence. He made the case for independence in a speech before Congress. So persuasive was his argument that Congress voted for independence on July 2, 1776. On July 3, 1776, Congress debated the details of Jefferson’s Declaration before the document was approved on July 4, 1776.
Adams believed that July 2 would be Independence Day. As the years passed, it irked Adams that his arguments for independence and July 2 were forgotten while Jefferson’s Declaration and its approval on July 4 were remembered and celebrated.
Still, Adams and Jefferson were uniquely connected to each other and July 4. By 1826, Adams and Jefferson were two of only three survivors who signed the Declaration of Independence. As Americans prepared to celebrate the 50th anniversary of American independence, both Adams and Jefferson were too old and infirm to attend any of the many events marking the occasion. On July 4, 1826, Jefferson died first. Adams did not know of Jefferson’s death, but Adams too was on his death bed that day. Shortly before, Adams died on July 4, 1826, he reportedly said, “Jefferson survives.”
He was a printer, a writer, a statesman, a revolutionary, a soldier, a scientist, an inventor, a businessman, a politician, a satirist, an observer, a diplomat, a thinker and a doer. Benjamin Franklin was all of these things, and more, but he was also a celebrity. In his day, he was indeed the most famous American in the world.
As a young man living in colonial America, he didn’t set out to become famous. He did seek riches though. Franklin spent long hours and years studying and pursuing his craft as a printer and entrepreneur. Through printing, Franklin became wealthy. He published and owned several newspapers as well as the popular “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” He also wrote the majority of items that appeared in his newspapers and almanacs. Yet, he often wrote pieces under other names. One of his earliest published works was a series of articles in which a teen-aged Franklin pretended to be an earthy widow. Later, in the almanacs, Franklin claimed they were written by Poor Richard. As Richard, Franklin wrote that people were daft to think Franklin wrote the pieces when it was Poor Richard who penned the series of sayings, stories and weather charts.
Yet, Franklin’s celebrity could not be contained. While he often attempted to divert attention from himself, Franklin attracted attention in everything he did. He was not a public speaker, yet, his pen was one of the age’s most eloquent and prolific. He invented the Franklin stove, bifocals, and numerous other items, and he did not seek patents, claiming the plans for his inventions should be given freely since they were for the good of mankind.
Having become wealthy from the printing business, a middle-aged Franklin retired from their daily operations to explore scientific research. He charted the Gulf stream. He studied America’s population growth. He prescribed fresh air for avoiding colds and flus. He experimented with electricity.
It was Franklin’s work in electricity and his famed flying of the kite in a lightning storm that thrust Franklin onto the world stage. His experiments in the conductivity of electricity — the idea that lightning could be diverted from church steeples and other buildings through a lightning rod — awarded him honors and recognition in America and Europe.
Throughout his life, Franklin was also involved in public works. He formed intellectual societies. He developed the colonial postal service. He established a fire department in Philadelphia. He instituted the concept of a public library. In his travels and through his writings, he became deeply involved in colonial American politics and the colonies’ relationship with England. He traveled to England to represent Pennsylvania and eventually represented several colonies and, finally, he became a spokesman for Americans’ dissatisfaction with no representation in Britain’s Parliament. It took years to convince Franklin that America should break with England, but when he realized there was no other course, Franklin wholeheartedly joined the move for independence.
Returning to America, he sat on the commission to create a Declaration of Independence and he comforted Jefferson when Congress made numerous changes to the document. But Franklin did not stay in America long. Soon, Congress assigned the aging Franklin to travel as an American representative to France, where he was to seek funds for the war with England.
In France, Franklin was a true celebrity. Dressed in his humble clothes, the French pressed Franklin’s likeness on almost everything. He was honored at parties. All of Paris knew of Franklin and sought his company. Franklin was successful in obtaining the money to fund America’s war for independence and negotiating the peace.
Following the war, Franklin participated in the Constitutional Convention and died during the early years of the nation.
But his impact on America and its reputation in the world was immense.
Historian H.W. Brands, who refers to Franklin as “The First American,” writes “Franklin’s story is the story of a man — an exceedingly gifted man and a most engaging one. It is also the story of the birth of America — an America this man discovered in himself, then helped to create in the world at large.”
So, yes, Franklin was a celebrity. Unlike many modern celebrities though, Franklin was famous for actually doing something — in his case, for doing many things.
Historian Edmund S. Morgan writes, “We know what many of his contemporaries came to recognize, that (Franklin) did as much as any man ever has to shape the world he and they lived in.”