- Published: 08 January 2012
The indebtedness to The Founders on the part of American Posterity knows no bounds. The more prominent leaders of the pre-Revolutionary years, as well as of the period 1774-1788--embracing the life of the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, and the framing and adoption of the Constitution, also of the formative years of the Republic in the first decade of its life to 1800--constituted a group unparalleled in all history with regard to knowledge of government gained from sound scholarship and experience in self-governing; high character, exemplified in practice with such consistency as to be reflected in life-long reputation; such devotion in practice to professed principles as to prove themselves to be men of genuine convictions; and dedication to the highest ideals known to Man in the governmental field as exemplified by those recited in the Declaration of Independence and in the Preamble to the Constitution.
This is unquestionably true of them as a group, judged by the entire record, despite the inescapable frailties of human nature to which every human being is subject and at time exhibits in some degree, as history proves. Such high praise of the group has been accorded them uniformly and consistently in the light of sound understanding by various leaders abroad as well as by all in America who have been competent to judge adequately on the basis of sound scholarship and intellectual integrity--with freedom from bias due, for example, to a desire (revealed or concealed, conscious or unconscious) to belittle the philosophy and handiwork of the group so as to undermine and change, if not destroy, the governmental system and the traditional values involved, in considerable part if not as a whole.
It should, of course, never be lost sight of that this group of eminent leaders--such as the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the other famous governmental figures of that period--were truly representative of a multitude of less prominent leaders, in the localities throughout the country, who in substantial degree possessed comparable virtues within more circumscribed limits, especially as to experience governmentally. It is also well to keep in mind that the American people in general of that period were unique in their active experiences in the developing art of self-governing in the light of their heritage, of which they were so keenly aware and alert in expounding as well as fearless and vigorous in defending. Notable among these less famous leaders, for instance, were New England clergymen who, as we have seen, were so potently influential in helping to develop and nurture what ripened into the traditional American philosophy and system of government: meaning basically constitutionally limited government. A striking example is the Reverend Andrew Eliot of Boston who on May 29, 1765--the very day that Patrick Henry introduced his famous Resolutions against the Stamp Act in the Virginia House of Burgesses, in connection with which he made his celebrated oration against royal tyranny--preached the Election Sermon, before the royal Governor and the legislature of Massachusetts, in which he stressed the right of resistance against usurped power, asserting that submission to tyranny is an offense against God, mankind and the State. These factors need to be remembered in any commendatory discussion of The Founders--chief of all the above-mentioned Signers.
Many books and other writings have been produced in praise of The Founders and their handiwork. The only purpose of the present discussion of this topic, so limited necessarily by lack of space, is to call attention to certain facts and points as a stimulus to thought and, it is hoped, as an influential inducement to further reading regarding this subject--preferably of the original writings.
One of the most striking and persuasive testimonials, regarding the virtues and talents of the members of the Continental Congress, is a statement by William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, in the House of Lords on December 20, 1775, during the discussion of, and strongly supporting, the proposal that British troops be removed from Boston. It is to be found in the useful collection of writings and speeches of the general Revolutionary period: Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America, edited by Hezekiah Niles (1876). Regarding communications from the Continental Congress to the Parliament presenting the American viewpoint, Pitt stated in part:
"When your lordships look at the papers transmitted us from America, when you consider their decency, firmness and wisdom, you cannot but respect their cause, and wish to make it your own--for myself I must declare and avow that, in all my reading and observation, and it has been my favorite study--I have read Thucydides, and have studied and admired the master statesmen of the world--that for solidity and reasoning, force of sagacity, and wisdom of conclusion, under such a complication of different circumstances, no nation or body of men can stand in preference to the general congress at Philadelphia.--I trust it is obvious to your lordships, that all attempts to impose servitude on such men, to establish despotism over such a mighty continental nation--must be vain--must be futile."
The last quoted statement was induced by his sound estimate of the staunchness of spirit of Free Man in America--including not only these leaders in the Continental Congress but the American people as a whole---as stated by him earlier in this speech:
"Of this general spirit existing in the American nation . . . of this spirit of independence, animating the nation of America, I have the most authentic information. It is not new among them; it is, and ever has been their established principle, their confirmed persuasion; it is their nature and their doctrine. [Referring to an eminent and reliable informant] he assured me with a certainty which his judgment and opportunity gave him, that these were the prevalent and steady principles of America: That you might destroy their towns, and cut them off from the superfluities, perhaps the conveniences of life, but that they were prepared to despise your power, and would not lament their loss, whilst they had, what, my lords?--Their woods and liberty. . . . [They] prefer poverty with liberty, to golden chains and sordid affluence; . . . will die in defence of their rights, as men--as freemen. . . . 'Tis liberty to liberty engaged, that they will defend themselves, their families and their country. In this great cause they are immovably allied. It is the alliance of God and nature--immutable, eternal, fixed as the firmament of Heaven!" ( Emphasis per original.)
This American spirit was manifested in one of the papers to which Pitt referred: "Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms," adopted by the Continental Congress, July 6, 1775, in which it was emphatically asserted:
"Our cause is just. Our union is perfect . . . [our arms] we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverance, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to dye Free-men rather than to live Slaves." ["one" is "our" in original.l
Pitt's just estimate of the American leaders in the Continental Congress in 1775 was, of course, equally true of the members of the same body which issued the Declaration of Independence a few months after his tribute quoted above. Its President, John Hancock, truly reflected the American spirit in this entire period in an oration he delivered in Boston on March 5, 1774, on the anniversary of the "Boston Massacre" of Americans by British troops, in which he extolled the restraint showed by the Americans in not executing reprisals:
"May that magnificence of spirit which scorns the low pursuits of malice, may that generous compassion which often preserves from ruin, even a guilty villain, forever actuate the noble bosoms of Americans! But let not the miscreant host vainly imagine that we feared their arms. No; them we despised; we dread nothing but slavery. Death is the creature of a poltroon's brains; 'tis immortality to sacrifice ourselves for the salvation of our country. We fear not death."
It was in this address that Hancock reiterated the typical American sentiment so scornful of unqualified submissiveness to government:
". . . it is to the last degree vicious and infamous to attempt to support a government, which manifestly tends to render the persons and properties of the governed insecure. Some boast of being friends to government; I am a friend to righteous government founded upon the principles of reason and justice; but I glory in publicly avowing my eternal enmity to tyranny."
Those principles were a main part of the basis of the Declaration of Independence--of the Twin Revolution of 1776: for Freedom from Government-over-Man, as previously discussed. As a leading spokesman of the philosophy of 1776, Jefferson summed it up--and, at the same time, noted the effect of the Declaration on the minds and spirits of the peoples of the world--only a few days before he died (letter to R. C. Weightman, June 24, 1826):
"All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."
The fact that the glorious significance and value to Free Man in America of the proclamation of the principles of the Declaration could be fully realized and preserved enduringly only through endless and great efforts was noted at the time by John Adams (letter to Mrs. Adams, July 3, 1776), who urged that annual celebrations take place --"from this time forward forever"--to help keep alive the Spirit of '76, stating:
"You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil, and blood, and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that posterity will triumph in that day's transaction, even although we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not."
With regard to The Framers of the Constitution, it is of interest to quote another Prime Minister of Great Britain, William E. Gladstone, who expressed himself in 1887 in a letter to an official committee in America in charge of the celebration of the centennial of the framing of the Constitution, in part as follows:
"I have always regarded that Constitution as the most remarkable work known to me in modern times to have been produced by the human intellect, at a single stroke (so to speak), in its application to political affairs."
Earlier he had expressed a like sentiment more briefly (North American Review, September 1878): ". . . the American Constitution is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man."
The Framers were paid a high tribute during their deliberations by Jefferson--then resident in Paris as the American Minister--in a letter to John Adams of August 30, 1787: "It is really an assembly of demigods." One of the most striking aspects of the Framing Convention's accomplishment, noted by Madison and others, was the entire lack of any model (for a federated system of Republics) to go by in this Constitution-making in 1787. One of the Framers, James Wilson, commented on this and other aspects of great significance in the following statement in the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention:
"Permit me to add, in this place, that the science even of government itself seems yet to be almost in its state of infancy. Governments, in general, have been the result of force, of fraud, and of accident. After a period of six thousand years has elapsed since the creation, the United States exhibit to the world the first instance, as far as we can learn, of a nation, unattacked by external force, unconvulsed by domestick insurrections, assembling voluntarily, deliberating fully, and deciding calmly, concerning that system of government, under which they would wish that they and their posterity should live."
He called attention to the peaceful change from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution, in sharp contrast to other nations' changes by war and revolution, in these words:
". . . the scene, hitherto unparalleled, which America now exhibits to the world--a gentle, a peaceful, a voluntary, and a deliberate transition from one constitution of government to another."
The foregoing brief presentation is sufficient, by way of illustration, to indicate the more than deserved reputation of The Founders for highest qualities and superb performance. Any attempt to belittle them in either regard can only serve to prove either incompetence or evil intent--either a state of being confused or an intent to confuse others--on the part of the one culpable, when judged with intellectual honesty by any one adequately informed. One striking illustration of such an attempt in the present generation will be stressed as the discussion proceeds because of its great, evil and continuing influence.