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Monday, June 2, 2008

Good and Bad Founding Fathers

I've been reading David McCullough's John Adams, and aside from a fantastic
history lesson, I'm getting a picture of our early Congress that is, as hard
as it is to believe, almost as bad as that nest of vipers we have now. I'm
also learning of some of the truly brave men and women who gave us this
opportunity that our representatives now seem to be squandering. Rather than
try to explain each excerpt, I'll just present the words of David McCullough
and John Adams.

...Outraged by Dickinson's insistence on petitions to the King as essential
to restoring peace, even after Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, Adams
had strongly denounced any such step. Like many other delegates, he had been
infuriated by Congress's humble petition of July 8, 1775, the so-called
Olive Branch Petition, that had been Dickinson's major contribution. From
the day he saw with his own eyes what the British had done at Lexington and
Concord, Adams failed to understand how anyone could have any misconception
or naïve hope about what to expect from the British. "Powder and artillery
are the most efficacious, sure and infallible conciliatory measures we can
adopt," Adams wrote privately...


...The greatest minds agreed, Adams continued, that all good government was
republican, and the "true idea" of a republic was "an empire of laws and not
of men," a phrase not original with Adams but that he had borrowed from the
writings of the seventeenth-century philosopher James Harrington. A
government with a single legislative body would never do. There should be a
representative assembly, "an exact portrait in miniature of the people at
large," but it must not have the whole legislative power, for the reason
that like an individual with unchecked power, it could be subject to "fits
of humor, transports of passion, partialities of prejudice." A single
assembly could "grow avaricious . . . exempt itself from burdens . . .
become ambitious and after some time vote itself perpetual."...


...But when later that evening a preliminary vote was taken, four colonies
unexpectedly held back, refusing to proclaim independence. The all-important
Pennsylvania delegation, despite popular opinion in Pennsylvania, stood with
John Dickinson and voted no. The New York delegates abstained, saying they
favored the motion but lacked specific instructions. South Carolina, too,
surprisingly, voted no, while Delaware, with only two delegates present, was
divided. The missing Delaware delegate was Caesar Rodney, one of the most
ardent of the independence faction. Where he was or when he might reappear
was unclear, but a rider had been sent racing off to find him. When Edward
Rutledge rescued the moment by moving that a final vote be postponed until
the next day, implying that for the sake of unanimity South Carolina might
change its mind, Adams and the others immediately agreed. For while the nine
colonies supporting independence made a clear majority, it was hardly the
show of solidarity that such a step ought to have.The atmosphere that night
at City Tavern and in the lodging houses of the delegates was extremely
tense. The crux of the matter was the Pennsylvania delegation, for in the
preliminary vote three of the seven Pennsylvania delegates had gone against
John Dickinson and declared in the affirmative, and it was of utmost
interest that one of the three, along with Franklin and John Morton, was
James Wilson, who, though a friend and ally of Dickinson, had switched sides
to vote for independence. The question now was how many of the rest who were
in league with Dickinson would on the morrow continue, in Adams's words, to
"vote point blank against the known and declared sense of their
constituents." To compound the tension that night, word reached Philadelphia
of the sighting off New York of a hundred British ships, the first arrivals
of a fleet that would number over four hundred. Though the record of all
that happened the following day,Tuesday, July 2, is regrettably sparse, it
appears that just as the doors to Congress were about to be closed at the
usual hour of nine o'clock, Caesar Rodney, mud-spattered, "booted and
spurred," made his dramatic entrance. The tall, thin Rodney - the
"oddest-looking man in the world,"Adams once described him - had been made
to appear stranger still, and more to be pitied, by a skin cancer on one
side of his face that he kept hidden behind a scarf of green silk. But, as
Adams had also recognized, Rodney was a man of spirit, of "fire." Almost
unimaginably, he had ridden eighty miles through the night, changing horses
several times, to be there in time to cast his vote...


..."Unfaithfulness" was something he could not abide, and in his spells of
gloom he pondered whether the fault was in the times. Unfaithfulness in
public stations is deeply criminal [he wrote to Abigail]. But there is no
encouragement to be faithful. Neither profit, nor honor, nor applause is
acquired by faithfulness. . . . There is too much corruption, even in this
infant age of our Republic. Virtue is not in fashion. Vice is not


...Then, just as agreement seemed near, Henry Strachey proposed to amend the
line specifying the American "right" of fishing to read "liberty" of
fishing, to which young Fitzherbert declared the word "right" to be "an
obnoxious expression." The moment was one made for Adams. Rising from his
chair, smoldering with indignation, he addressed the British: Gentlemen, is
there or can there be a clearer right? In former treaties, that of Utrecht
and that of Paris, France and England have claimed the right and used the
word. When God Almighty made the Banks of Newfoundland at 300 leagues
distant from the people of America and at 600 leagues distance from those of
France and England, did he not give as food a right to the former as to the
latter. If Heaven in the Creation have a right, it is ours at least as much
as yours. If occupation, use, and possession have a right, we have it as
clearly as you. If war and blood and treasure give a right, ours is as good
as yours. We have been constantly fighting in Canada, Cape Breton, and Nova
Scotia for the defense of the fishery, and have expanded beyond all
proportion more than you. If then the right cannot be denied, why then
should it not be acknowledged? And put out of dispute? It was settled -
almost. Article III of the treaty would read, "It is agreed that the people
of the United States shall continue to enjoy unmolested the right to take
fish of every kind on the Grand Bank." However, on the matter of taking fish
along the coast of Newfoundland and "all other of his Britannic Majesty's
Dominions in America," the people of the United States were to have the
"liberty," which, insisted the British negotiators, amounted to the same
thing. "We did not think it necessary to contend for a word," wrote a more
mellow John Adams years afterward. By the end of the day there was agreement
on everything. Dining that evening at his hotel with Matthew Ridley,Adams
was in high spirits. Asked if he would have fish, he laughed and declined,
saying he had had "a pretty good meal of them" already that day. Adams
generously praised his fellow negotiators. Franklin, he told Ridley, had
performed "nobly." But to Jay belonged the greatest credit, Adams said. Jay
had played the leading part, Adams felt then and later, never failing to
give Jay credit. The following day, Saturday, November 30, 1782, all parties
made their way through still another damp Paris snowfall, again to Oswald's
quarters at the Grand Hôtel Muscovite for the signing of the preliminary
treaty. Oswald was first to fix his name, followed by the four Americans in
alphabetical order. In effect, the Americans had signed a separate peace
with the British. They had acted in direct violation of both the
French-American alliance and their specific instructions from Congress to
abide by the advice of the French foreign minister. To Adams there was no
conflict in what they had done. The decision to break with the orders from
Congress, and thus break faith with the French, had been clear-cut, the only
honorable course. Congress had left them no choice. Congress had
"prostituted" its own honor by surrendering its sovereignty to the French
Foreign Minister. "It is glory to have broken such infamous orders," Adams
wrote in his diary. "Infamous I say, for so they will be to all