The word “miracle” comes easily to mind whenever we think or speak of the events which led to the Declaration of Independence and the resulting Constitution we celebrate each July. If there is an underlying truism associated with such a view, I believe it is especially manifest when examining the sheer likelihood that such a uniquely qualified group of spirits should be present at one time and in one place in the entire story of human events. Of the original 58 who pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, hardly a one failed to lose his wealth, his property, his family or very life in the Revolution that followed. And those who gathered in Philadelphia to draft our empowering document were not some obscure or random collection of theoretical zealots. All were professional politicians – in the highest sense of that calling – rather than amateur theorists. 42 had served in Congress, 10 were serving judges, 30 were then state legislators, 7 had served as state governors and 20 had helped draft their own state’s constitution; 21 had fought in the Revolution and ALL had been born British subjects. The oldest was Benjamin Franklin at 81, the youngest Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey at 26; Alexander Hamilton the committed Centrist from New York, only 30. The average age was 42.
Nor were they uneducated “frontiersmen”. Thomas Jefferson had studied law, languages, physics, agriculture, mathematics, philosophy, chemistry, anatomy, zoology, botany, religion, politics, history, literature and rhetoric. He was conversant in Latin, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew and he was a Master of French. Not yet satisfied he dabbled in Anglo Saxon, and he chartered the University of Virginia.
Though one of the lesser-known of the “great men” of U.S. history, George Wythe of Virginia was a life-long classical scholar, learning one more foreign language at the age of 80. He helped to educate and polish such men as Thomas Jefferson, John Marshal, James Monroe, Henry Clay and scores of other prominent shapers. He was America’s first professor of law and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was an undying advocate of emancipation, freeing his own slaves and providing for them in his will.
Alexander Hamilton, born in the West Indies, became an ardent supporter of America’s patriotic cause earning Washington’s admiration and trust as a military leader in the field, and then as a self-educated expert in designing a system of banking and a national monetary direction capable of bridging a wide disparity of regional opinions.
If Washington was the “Man of Order” and “Little Jimmy” Madison the “Man of History” at Philadelphia, then Benjamin Franklin was the “Man of the People”. After years of loving and reading U.S. Constitutional History, I have a deeply-held affection for this “senior apostle” of Representative Republicanism. Always affable and approachable, universally and genuinely held in fatherly esteem by his countrymen, he was as much at home before the courts and palaces of Europe as under the branches of his favorite backyard Mulberry tree. Without apology or pretense, he was a shameless materialist, taking unabashed delight in flouting convention and unproductive polity. He was an enthusiastic “citizen of the world”, possessing a depth and breadth of self-acquired knowledge and material wealth rare at any time and in any place. He maintained an eclectic personal library of nearly 5,000 volumes and whatever device he couldn’t find or purchase somewhere, he invented and produced himself. Skeptical of a strong central government, he brought to the Convention a sense of democracy few others could match. Most of all, Franklin was unflinching in his belief in THE PEOPLE.
Speaking of our Constitution in 1792, James Madison warned us:
“Every word of it decides a question between power and liberty” If we remember nothing else about who we once were and who we are this July 4th, this is worth giving thought to.