Christmas, Family Tradition, and the Annual Reenactment of Washington Crossing the Delaware River

During the holiday season, I traditionally return to my family home in historic Bucks County, Pennsylvania to celebrate with family and attend the annual reenactment of George Washington’s daring 1776 crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Day. Washington and his men braved ice, sleet, and blinding snow to cross the river and achieve victory over the Hessian soldiers at Trenton. Washington’s bold victory reinvigorated the American people’s fight for independence.

The men and women who recreate Washington’s famous crossing take pains to preserve the integrity and accuracy of this famous military feat.  And, although, the actor interpreters do not always successfully cross the river (as rising tides and ice have prevented safe passage for many years), hundreds of patriotic citizens still gather to commemorate and relive a crucial moment in American history.

As we huddle together in the cold each year, I am reminded that there are many Americans who wish to meaningfully reconnect with and learn more about our nation’s history.

This is why I have devoted my career to connecting American citizens to our nation’s constitutional history. Learn more about my work at ConSource at http://www.ConSource.org.

You can watch a livestream of this year’s reenactment on noon ET on Christmas Day here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RS2piSau56c

A Note on Historical Preservation on the 165th Anniversary of the Library of Congress Fire of 1851

On this day in 1851, a spark from a stove causes a devastating fire at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and destroys about 2/3rds of its 55,000 volumes, including most of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, sold to the institution in 1815.

This was not the first time that the Library’s collection was ravaged by fire. When the British army invaded Washington, DC, and burned the capitol during the War of 1812, they destroyed the Library of Congress’s then 3,000 volume of books and documents.

We have lost large amounts of the world’s documentary heritage due to war, fire, water, gas and heat, dust, and just plain old neglect.

As the late historian Pauline Maier described in her extraordinary work “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence,” many of our nation’s most treasured documents were not always treated with reverence, or even care. The Declaration of Independence, one of our national treasures, serves as a particularly striking example of how our nation has evolved in its treatment of precious historic texts.

In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was copied onto low-grade parchment – the “ordinary type of colonial manufacture that could be easily found on sale in Philadelphia.” The Declaration then went on to become “one of the most abused documents in the history of preservation . . . battered and bandaged since its birth.”

The Continental Congress likely transported the document, along with other papers, as it moved from place to place throughout the Revolutionary War. Later, the Declaration would sit, along with the national government, in New York and Philadelphia, until, in 1800, it was moved to the nation’s new capital in Washington, DC, where it remains today. Once in DC, however, the Declaration was still continually transferred around to various buildings and homes.

In August 1814, when the British invaded Washington, DC, a clerk managed to save the document from destruction by removing it from the city and hiding it in Leesburg, VA.

In 1823, the document was further damaged when a “wetpressing process” was used to make a facsimile copy. The ink on the document continued to fade after the State Department in 1841 “grew tired of pulling the document out to show visitors” and instead put it on display across from a large window, where it was exposed to excessive sunlight for approximately 35 years.

In 1921, the Declaration was transferred to the Library of Congress, where enormous care was taken to protect the already damaged and worn document. In 1952, the Declaration was finally transferred to the National Archives, where it now safely resides in an “airtight thermopane container.”

Today, the Library of Congress, the National Archives and archival institutions around the country take great care to preserve our nation’s documentary history.

Over the course of the last decade, digitization has arisen as an additional means of preserving our nation’s history. Digitization provides yet another way for our nation to commit itself to preserving precious historic texts, so they can be celebrated and studied for years to come. Not only does digitization help preserve the original documents by reducing handling and potential damage, but is also creates a permanent digital file of the original and increases access to the historical documents by making the materials available online.

More of American (and world history, for that matter) is available online than ever before. But there is still much work to be done. This is why my non-profit ConSource has devoted itself to making sure that the documents comprising our nation’s constitutional history are freely available online for anyone to explore and learn from. It is an honor for us to work with archival institutions all over the country to help preserve and spotlight the precious historical documents they house in their physical locations. To view the ConSource digital library visit ConSource.org.

 

George Washington Voluntarily Resigns as Commander in Chief of Continental Army On This Day in 1783

In what is considered one of the greatest acts of statesmanship, on December 23, 1783, General George Washington voluntarily resigns as commander in chief of the Continental Army and retires to private life at his home at Mount Vernon. His resignation followed the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

By surrendering his military power to the civilian authority in the temporary national capital of Annapolis, MD, Washington set the course for American becoming a constitutional republic rather than a monarchy or, even, a military dictatorship.

Below is a transcript of Washington’s resignation speech –

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Images of Washington’s speech are below –

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Scholars James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn described Washington’s resignation in a way that reflects the the classical republican ideals that animated the founding generation: “The Virginian, like the victorious Roman soldier Cincinnatus, went home to plow.”

Washington’s retirement was short lived. A few years later, he was unanimously elected in 1788 as the nation’s first president under the federal Constitution of 1787.

 

The 243rd Anniversary of the Boston Tea Party

On December 16, 1773, a group of Massachusetts colonists dressed as Mohawk Indians boarded three British tea ships and dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbor to protest British Parliament’s Tea Act of 1773.

The Tea Act of 1773 reads, in part,

WHEREAS by an act, made in the twelfth year of his present Majesty’s reign, (entitled, An act for granting a drawback of part of the customs upon the exportation of tea to Ireland, and the British dominions in America; for altering the drawback upon foreign sugars exported from Great Britain to Ireland; for continuing the bounty on the exportation of British-made cordage; for allowing the importation of rice from the British plantations into the ports of Bristol, Liverpool, Lancaster, and Whitehaven, for immediate exportation to foreign parts; and to empower the chief magistrate of any corporation to administer the oath, and grant the certificate required by law, upon the removal of certain goods to London, which have been sent into the country for sale;) it is amongst other things, enacted, That for and during the space of five years, to be computed from and after the fifth day of July, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-two, there shall be drawn back and allowed for all teas which shall be sold after the said fifth day of July, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-two, at the public sale of the united company of merchants of England trading to the East Indies, or which after that time shall be imported, by license, in pursuance of the said therein and hereinafter mentioned act, made in the eighteenth year of the reign of his late majesty King George the Second, and which shall be exported from this kingdom, as merchandise, to Ireland, or any of the British colonies or plantations in America, three-fifth parts of the several duties of customs which were paid upon the importation of such teas; which drawback or allowance, with respect to such teas as shall be exported to Ireland, shall be made to the exporter, in such manner, and under such rules, regulations, securities, penalties, and forfeitures, as any drawback or allowance was then payable, out of the duty of customs upon the exportation of foreign goods to Ireland; and with respect to such teas as shall be exported to the British colonies and plantations in America, the said drawback or allowance shall be made in such manner, and under such rules, regulations, penalties, and forfeitures, as any drawback or allowance payable out of the duty of customs upon foreign goods exported to foreign parts, was could, or might be made, before the passing of the said act of the twelfth year of his present Majesty’s reign, (except in such cases as are otherwise therein provided for:) and whereas it may tend to the benefit and advantage of the trade of the said united company of merchants of England trading to the East Indies, if the allowance of the drawback of the duties of customs upon all teas sold at the public sales of the said united company, after the tenth day of May, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-three, and which shall be exported from this kingdom, as merchandise, to any of the British colonies or plantations in America, were to extend to the whole of the said duties of customs payable upon the importation of such teas; may it therefore please your Majesty that it may be enacted; and be it enacted by the King’s most excellent majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons, in this present parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, That there shall be drawn back and allowed for all teas, which, from and after the tenth day of May, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-three, shall be sold at the public sales of the said united company, or which shall be imported by license, in pursuance of the said act made in the eighteenth year of the reign of his late majesty King George the Second, and which shall, at any time hereafter, be exported from this kingdom, as merchandise, to any of the British colonies or plantations in America, the whole of the duties of customs payable upon the importation of such teas; which drawback or allowance shall be made to the exporter in such manner, and under such rules, regulations, and securities, and subject to the like penalties and forfeitures, as the former drawback or allowance granted by the said recited act of the twelfth year of his present Majesty’s reign, upon tea exported to the said British colonies and plantations in America was, might, or could be made, and was subject to by the said recited act, or any other act of parliament now in force, in as full and ample manner, to all intents and purposes, as if the several clauses relative thereto were again repeated and re-enacted in this present act.

The Tea Act’s passage allowed for 17 million pounds of unsold surplus tea owned by the British East Indian Tea Company to be sold to markets in the American colonies. The tea was shipped to the American colonies and sold at a reduced rate. Under the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, there was a tax on tea. It’s important to note that in 1770, British Parliament repealed all other taxes under the Townshend Acts other than the tea tax, which was left in place so Parliament could retain its right to tax the American colonists.

According to the Boston Tea Party Ship & Museum,

American colonists were outraged over the tea tax, which had existed since the 1767 Townshend Revenue Act and did not get repealed like the other taxes in 1770, and believed the Tea Act was a tactic to gain colonial support for the tax already enforced. The direct sale of tea by agents of the British East India Company to the American colonies undercut the business of colonial merchants. Prior to the Tea Act, colonial merchants purchased tea directly from British markets or smuggled from illegal markets. They then shipped it back to the colonies for resale. Outraged that American merchants were undercut, colonists initially in Philadelphia and New York refused the British East India Company tea to be offloaded and sent the ships back to England. In many colonial ports to protest the Tea Act, the shipment of British East India Company tea was unloaded and left untouched on the docks to rot. The Beaver, Dartmouth, and Eleanor arrived in Boston in late November to the middle of December 1773. The colonists, led by the Sons of Liberty, wanted the ships to return to England, and refused the unloading of the ships’ cargo of tea. Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, refused to let the ships return to England and held the Beaver, Dartmouth, and Eleanor in Boston Harbor until matters could be resolved and the tea offloaded.

You can watch a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party here: https://www.bostonteapartyship.com/webcam

Celebrating the 225th Anniversary of the Bill of Rights

Cross-posted with the ConSource blog.

According to a survey released last year, 1 in 10 Americans think the Bill of Rights includes the right to own a pet? It does not.

This statistic underscores the need for Americans to study the Bill of Rights.

Thursday, December 15 marks the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. 

We hope you will join with ConSource and others as we use this historic milestone to celebrate and study the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights was ratified on December 15, 1791, when Virginia became the 10th of 14 states to approve the 10 amendments that came to be known as our Bill of Rights.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787 that “a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.”

And, yet, the Constitution signed in September 1787 did not include a Bill of Rights.

To learn about how James Madison, who once called bills of rights “parchment barriers,” and the first federal Congress drafted the amendments we call the Bill of Rights, you can explore the legislative history of the Bill of Rights in the ConSource digital library.

You can also check out this concise history of the Bill of Rights written by our Executive Director Julie Silverbrook in the Washington Times special report celebrating the 225th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.

Another great free resource is this filmed discussion between historian Carol Berkin and ConSource Executive Director Julie Silverbrook on the history of the Bill of Rights.

On the evening of Thursday, December 15, we will host a special Bill of Rights Day program with the National Archives on the Bill of Rights in the 21st Century. 

Moderated by Supreme Court correspondent Jess Bravin from the Wall Street Journal, panelists include Judge Thomas Griffith, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; Judge Patricia Millett, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; and Judge Andre M. Davis, United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The program will be hosted at the National Archives (7th and Constitution Avenue, NW).

You can register to attend the program here, or, if you can’t join us in person, you can watch a livestream of the video here.

Wishing you a Happy Bill of Rights Day!

First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen: George Washington Dies On This Day in 1799

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On December 14, 1799, at the age of 67, George Washington, our nation’s first commander in chief and first president of the United States, dies of acute laryngitis at his home Mount Vernon.

Following Washington’s death, Congress commissioned Washington’s close friend Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee to write a eulogy for the nation’s president. Lee wrote the eulogy in Philadelphia while staying at Franklin Court, the former home of Benjamin Franklin. The eulogy was presented to Congress on December 28, 1799.

Because it is relatively difficult to find a full transcription of the eulogy online, I have reproduced it in full here –

In obedience to your will, I rise, your humble organ, with the hope of executing a part of the system of public mourning which you have been pleased to adopt, commemorative of the death of the most illustrious and most beloved personage this country has ever produced; and which, while it transmits to posterity your sense of the awful event, faintly represents your knowledge of the consummate excellence you so cordially honor. Desperate indeed is any attempt on earth to meet correspondingly this dispensation of Heaven; for, while with pious resignation we submit to the will of an all-gracious Providence, we can never cease lamenting, in our ‘finite view of Omnipotent Wisdom, the heart-rending privation for which our nation weeps. When the civilized world shakes to its centre; when every moment gives birth to strange and momentous changes; when our peaceful quarter of the globe, exempt as it happily has been from any share in the slaughter of the human race, may yet be compelled to abandon her pacific policy, and to risk the doleful casualties of war: What limit is there to the extent of our loss?—None within the reach of my words to express; none which your feelings will not disavow. The founder of our federate republic—our bulwark in war, our guide in peace, is no more! Oh, that this were but questionable! Hope, the comforter of the wretched, would pour into our agonizing hearts its balmy dew. But, alas! there is no hope for us; our WASHINGTON is removed forever! Possessing the stoutest frame and purest mind, he had passed nearly to his sixty-eighth year, in the enjoyment of high health, when, habituated by his care of us to neglect himself, a slight cold, disregarded, became inconvenient on Friday, oppressive on Saturday, and, defying every medical interposition, before the morning of Sunday, put an end to the best of men. An end, did I say?—His fame survives! bounded only by the limits of the earth, and by the extent of the human mind. He survives in our hearts-in the growing knowledge of our children, in the affection of the good throughout the world; and when our monuments shall be done away; when nations now existing shall be no more; when even our young and farspreading empire shall have perished; still will our WASHINGTON’s glory unfaded shine, and die not, until love of virtue cease on earth, or earth itself sinks into chaos.

How, my fellow-citizens, shall I single to your grateful hearts his pre-eminent worth! Where shall I begin, in opening to your view a character throughout sublime? Shall I speak of his warlike achievements, all springing from obedience to his country’s will—all directed to his country’s good? Will you go with me to the Banks of the Monongahela, to see your youthful WASHINGTON supporting, in the dismal hour of Indian victory, the ill-fated Braddock, and saving, by his judgment and by his valor, the remains of a defeated army, pressed by the conquering savage foe? Or, when oppressed America, nobly resolving to risk her all in defense of her violated rights, he was elevated by the unanimous voice of Congress to the command of her armies: Will you follow him to the high grounds of Boston, where, to an undisciplined, courageous and virtuous yeomanry, his presence gave the stability of system, and infused the invincibility of love of country; or shall I carry you to the painful scenes of Long Island, York Island and New-Jersey, when, combating superior and gallant armies, aided by powerful fleets, and led by chiefs high in the roll of fame, he stood the bulwark of our safety; undismayed by disaster, unchanged by change of fortune. Or will you view him in the precarious fields of Trenton, where deep gloom, unnerving every arm, reigned triumphant through our thinned, worn down, unaided ranks; himself unmoved.—Dreadful was the night. It was about this time of winter—the storm raged—the Delaware, rolling furiously with floating ice, forbade the approach of man. WASHINGTON, self collected, viewed the tremendous scene—His country called; unappalled by surrounding dangers, he passed to the hostile shore; he fought; he conquered. The morning sun cheered the American world. Our country rose on the event; and her dauntless Chief pursuing his blow, completed in the lawns of Princeton, what his vast soul had conceived on the shores of Delaware. Thence to the strong grounds of Morristown he led his small but gallant band; and through an eventful winter, by the high efforts of his genius, whose matchless force was measurable only by the growth of difficulties, he held in check formidable hostile legions, conducted by a chief experienced in the art of war, and famed for his valor on the ever memorable heights of Abraham, where fell Wolfe, Montcalm, and since our much lamented Montgomery—all covered with glory. In this fortunate interval, produced by his masterly conduct, our fathers, ourselves, animated by his resistless example, rallied around our country’s standard, and continued to follow her beloved Chief through the various and trying scenes to which the destinies of our union led.

Who is there that has forgotten the vales of Brandywine—the fields of Germantown—or the plains of Monmouth? Everywhere present, wants of every kind obstructing, numerous and valiant armies encountering, himself a host, he assuaged our sufferings, limited our privations, and upheld our tottering Republic. Shall I display to you the spread of the fire of his soul, by rehearsing the praises of the hero of Saratoga, and his much lov’d compeer of the Carolinas? No; our WASHINGTON wears not borrowed glory. To Gates—to Greene, he gave without reserve the applause due to their eminent merit; and long may the Chiefs of Saratoga, and of Eutaws, receive the grateful respect of a grateful people. Moving in his own orbit, he imparted heat and light to his most distant satellites; and combining the physical and moral force of all within his sphere, with irresistible weight he took his course, commiserating folly, disdaining vice, dismaying treason, and invigorating despondency; until the auspicious hour arrived, when, united with the intrepid forces of a potent and magnanimous ally, he brought to submission the since conqueror of India; thus finishing his long career of military glory with a lustre corresponding to his great name, and in this his last act of war affixing the seal of fate to our nation’s birth. To the horrid din of battle sweet peace succeeded; and our virtuous Chief, mindful only of the common good, in a moment tempting personal aggrandizement, hushed the discontents of growing sedition; and, surrendering his power into the hands from which he had received it, converted his sword into a ploughshare; teaching an admiring world that to be truly great, you must be truly good. Was I to stop here, the picture would be incomplete, and the task imposed unfinished—Great as was our WASHINGTON in war, and as much as did that greatness contribute to produce the American Republic, it is not in war alone his pre-eminence stands conspicuous: His various talents, combining all the capacities of a statesman with those of a soldier, fitted him alike to guide the councils and the armies of our nation. Scarcely had he rested from his martial toils, while his invaluable parental advice was still sounding in our ears, when he who had been our shield and our sword, was called forth to act a less splendid but more important part. Possessing a clear and penetrating mind, a strong and sound judgment, calmness and temper for deliberation, with invincible firmness and perseverance in resolutions maturely formed, drawing information from all; acting from himself, with incorruptible integrity and unvarying patriotism: his own superiority and the public confidence alike marked him as the man designed by heaven to lead in the great political as well as military events which have distinguished the era of his life. The finger of an over-ruling Providence, pointing at WASHINGTON, was neither mistaken nor unobserved; when, to realize the vast hopes to which our revolution had given birth, a change of political system became indispensable.

How novel, how grand the spectacle! Independent States stretched over an immense territory, and known only by common difficulty, clinging to their union as the rock of their safety; deciding, by frank comparison of their relative condition, to rear on that rock, under the guidance of reason, a common government, through whose commanding protection, liberty and order, with their long train of blessings should be safe to themselves, and the sure inheritance of their posterity. This arduous task devolved on citizens selected by the people, from knowledge of their wisdom and confidence in their virtue. In this august assembly of sages and of patriots, WASHINGTON of course was found; and, as if acknowledged to be most wise, where all were wise, with one voice he was declared their Chief. How well he merited this rare distinction, how faithful were the labors of him-self and his compatriots, the work of their hands, and our union, strength and prosperity, the fruits of that work, best attest. But to have essentially aided in presenting to his country this consummation of our hopes, neither satisfied the claims of his fellow-citizens on his talents, nor those duties which the possession of those talents imposed. Heaven had not infused into his mind such an uncommon share of its ethereal spirit to remain unemployed, nor bestowed on him his genius unaccompanied with the corresponding duty of devoting it to the common good. To have framed a Constitution, was showing only, without realizing, the general happiness. This great work remained to be done; and America, steadfast in her preference, with one voice summoned her beloved WASHINGTON, unpracticed as he was in the duties of civil administration, to execute this last act in the completion of the national felicity. Obedient to her call, he assumed the high office with that self-distrust peculiar to his innate modesty, the constant attendant of pre-eminent virtue. What was the burst of joy through our anxious land on this exhilarating event is known to us all. The aged, the young, the brave, the fair, rivaled each other in demonstrations of their gratitude; and this high wrought, delightful scene was heightened in its effect by the singular contest between the zeal of the bestowers and the avoidance of the receiver of the honors bestowed. Commencing his administration, what heart is not charmed with the recollection of the pure and wise principles announced by himself, as the basis of his political life. He best understood the indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and individual felicity; watching with an equal and comprehensive eye over this great assemblage of communities and interests, he laid the foundations of our national policy in the unerring, immutable principles of morality, based on religion, exemplifying the pre-eminence of a free government, by all the attributes which win the affections of its citizens, or command the respect of the world. “O fortunatos nimium, sua fl bona norint !” Leading through the complicated difficulties produced by previous obligations and conflicting interests, seconded by succeeding Houses of Congress, enlightened and patriotic, he surmounted all original obstruction, and brightened the path of our national felicity. The Presidential term expiring, his solicitude to exchange exaltation for humility returned with a force increased with increase of age; and he had prepared his farewell address to his countrymen, proclaiming his intention, when the united interposition of all around him, enforced by the eventful prospects of the epoch, produced a further sacrifice of inclination to duty. The election of President followed; and WASHINGTON, by the unanimous vote of the nation, was called to resume the Chief Magistracy. What a wonderful fixture of confidence! Which attracts most our admiration, a people so correct, or a citizen combining an assemblage of talents forbidding rivalry, and stifling even envy itself? Such a nation ought to be happy; such a chief must be forever revered. War, long menaced by the Indian tribes, now broke out; and the terrible conflict, deluging Europe with blood, began to shed its baneful influence over our happy land. To the first, outstretching his invincible arm, under the orders of the gallant Wayne, the American eagle soared triumphant through distant forests.

Peace followed victory; and the melioration of the condition of the enemy, followed peace. Godlike virtue, which uplifts even the subdued savage. To the second he opposed himself. New and delicate was the conjuncture, and great was the stake. Soon did his penetrating mind discern and seize the only course, continuing to us all the felicity enjoyed. He issued his proclamation of neutrality. This index to his whole subsequent conduct, was sanctioned by the approbation of both Houses of Congress, and by the approving voice of the people. To this sublime policy he inviolably adhered, unmoved by foreign intrusion, unshaken by domestic turbulence.

“Justum et tenacem propositi virum,

“Non civium ardor prava jubentium,

“Non vultus instantis tyranni,

“Mente quatit solida.”

Maintaining his pacific system at the expense of no duty, America, faithful to herself, and unstained in her honor, continued to enjoy the delights of peace, while afflicted Europe mourns in every quarter under the accumulated miseries of an unexampled war; miseries in which our happy country must have shared, had not our pre-eminent WASHINGTON been as firm in council as he was brave in the field.

Pursuing steadfastly his course, he held safe the public happiness, preventing foreign war, and quelling internal discord, till the revolving period of a third election approached, when he executed his interrupted but inextinguishable desire of returning to the humble walks of private life. The promulgation of his fixed resolution, stopped the anxious wishes of an affectionate people, from adding a third unanimous testimonial of their unabated confidence in the man so long enthroned in their hearts. When before was affection like this exhibited on earth?—Turn over the records of ancient Greece—Review the annals of mighty Rome—Examine the volumes of modern Europe; you search in vain. America and her WASHINGTON only afford the dignified exemplification. The illustrious personage called by the national voice in succession to the arduous office of guiding a free people, had new difficulties to encounter: The amicable effort of settling our difficulties with France, begun by WASHINGTON, and pursued by his successor in virtue as in station, proving abortive, America took measures of self-defense. No sooner was the public mind roused by a prospect of danger, than every eye was turned to the friend of all, though secluded from public view, and gray in public service. The virtuous veteran, following his plough, received the unexpected summons with mingled emotions of indignation at the unmerited ill-treatment of his country, and of a determination once more to risk his all in her defense. The annunciation of these feelings, in his affecting letter to the President, accepting the command of the army, concludes his official conduct. First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life: Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting. To his equals he was condescending; to his inferiors kind; and to the dear object of his affections exemplarily tender: Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand; the purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.

His last scene comported with the whole tenor of his life: Although in extreme pain, not a sigh, not a groan escaped him; and with undisturbed serenity he closed his well spent life. Such was the man America has lost! Such was the man for whom our nation mourns! Methinks I see his august image, and hear, falling from his venerable lips, these deep sinking words:

Cease, Sons of America, lamenting our separation: Go on, and confirm by your wisdom the fruits of our joint councils, joint efforts, and common dangers. Reverence religion; diffuse knowledge throughout your land; patronize the arts and sciences; let Liberty and Order be inseparable companions; control party spirit, the bane of free government; observe good faith to, and cultivate peace with all nations; shut up every avenue to foreign influence; contract rather than extend national connection; rely on yourselves only—Be American in thought and deed. Thus will you give immortality to that union, which was the constant object of my terrestrial labors: Thus will you preserve undisturbed to the latest posterity, the felicity of a people to me most dear; and thus will you supply (if my happiness is now aught to you) the only vacancy in the round of pure bliss high Heaven bestows.

 

On the Anniversary of Pennsylvania Ratifying the Constitution, A Note On Why It’s So Important to Study the Fierce Debates over the Constitution in 1787-1788.

On December 12, 1787, Pennsylvania becomes the second state to ratify the United States Constitution. The state voted in favor of ratification by a vote of 46 to 23, and did so after enduring a serious Anti-Federalist challenge to ratification.

 

It’s important to not only make note of this historic anniversary for Pennsylvania and for the nation, but also to take pause and understand the fact that on September 17, 1787, the Constitution was nothing more than a proposal. “We the People,” in state ratifying conventions, decided whether or not “to ordain and establish the Constitution of the United States.”

As the late historian Pauline Maier wrote in her masterful tome “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution: 1787 – 1788,”
Debate over the Constitution raged in newspapers, taverns, coffeehouses, and over dinner tables as well as in the Confederation Congress, state legislatures, and state ratifying conventions. People who never left their home towns and were little known except to their neighbors studied the document, knew it well, and on some memorable occasions made their views known. What the people and the convention delegates they chose decided had everything to do with making the United States in what George Washington called a ‘respectable nation.’
Pennsylvania was not the only state with significant opposition to the Constitution. I encourage folks interested in history and the Constitution to explore the other records of the other state ratifying conventions, as well, or pick up Pauline Maier’s excellent book on the topic.
In 1796, James Madison said,
…whatever veneration might be entertained for the body of men who formed our constitution, the sense of that body could never be regarded as the oracular guide in . . . expounding the constitution. As the instrument came from them, it was nothing more than a draught of a plan, nothing but a dead letter, util life and validity were breathed into it, by the voice of the people, speaking through the several state conventions. If we were to look therefore, for the meaning of the instrument, beyond the face of the instrument, we must look for it not in the general convention, which proposed, but in the states conventions, which accepted and ratified the constitution.
I hope citizens will heed Madison’s words and study not only on the Constitutional Convention records, but also the records of the state ratifying conventions, which are available, in part, in the ConSource digital library, but also through the masterful work of the historians and editors (including ConSource Board member John Kaminski) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who continue to complete work on the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution.
A good place to start this course of study is in Pennsylvania – where 21 of the 23 members of the ratifying convention who voted against ratification outlined their grievances in “The Address and Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention of the State of Pennsylvania to their Constituents.” In their dissent, they raised the following objections –
[1] The proposed plan had not many hours issued forth from the womb of suspicious secrecy, until such as were prepared for the purpose, were carrying about petitions for people to sign, signifying their approbation of the system, and requesting the legislature to call a convention.
[2] The election for members of the convention was held at so early a period and the want of information was so great, that some of us did not know of it until after it was over, and we have reason to believe that great numbers of the people of Pennsylvania have not yet had an opportunity of sufficiently examining the proposed constitution.- We apprehend that no change can take place that will affect the internal government or constitution of this commonwealth, unless a majority of the people should evidence a wish for such a change; but on examining the number of votes given for members of the present state convention, we find that of upwards of seventy thousand freemen who are intitled to vote in Pennsylvania, the whole convention has been elected by about thirteen thousand voters, and though two thirds of the members of the convention have thought proper to ratify the proposed constitution, yet those two thirds were elected by the votes of only six thousand and eight hundred freemen.
[3] We were prohibited by an express vote of the convention, from taking any question on the separate articles of the plan, and reduced to the necessity of adopting or rejecting in toto.-
The Dissent goes on to list the changes they’d make to the federal constitution –
We offered our objections to the convention, and opposed those parts of the plan, which, in our opinion, would be injurious to you, in the best manner we were able; and closed our arguments by offering the following propositions to the convention.
1. The right of conscience shall be held inviolable; and neither the legislative, executive nor judicial powers of the United States shall have authority to alter, abrogate, or infringe any part of the constitution of the several states, which provide for the preservation of liberty in matters of religion.
2. That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, trial by jury shall remain as heretofore, as well in the federal courts, as in those of the several states.
3. That in all capital and criminal prosecutions, a man has a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, as well in the federal courts, as in those of the several states; to be heard by himself and his counsel; to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses; to call for evidence in his favor, and a speedy trial by an impartial jury of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent, he cannot be found guilty, nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; and that no man be deprived of his liberty, except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.
4. That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel nor unusual punishments inflicted.
5. That warrants unsupported by evidence, whereby any officer or messenger may be commanded or required to search suspected places, or to seize any person or persons, his or their property, not particularly described, are grievous and oppressive, and shall not be granted either by the magistrates of the federal government or others.
6. That the people have a right to the freedom of speech, of writing and publishing their sentiments,therefore, the freedom of the press shall not be restrained by any law of the United States.
7. That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and their own state, or the United States, or for the purpose of killing game; and no law shall be passed for disarming the people or any of them, unless for crimes committed, or real danger of public injury from individuals;10 and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up: and that the military shall be kept under strict subordination to and be governed by the civil powers.
8. The inhabitants of the several states shall have liberty to fowl and hunt in seasonable times, on the lands they hold, and on all other lands in the United States not inclosed, and in like manner to fish in all navigable waters, and others not private property, without being restrained therein by any laws to be passed by the legislature of the United States.
9. That no law shall be passed to restrain the legislatures of the several states from enacting laws for imposing taxes, except imposts and duties on goods imported or exported, and that no taxes, except imposts and duties upon goods imported and exported, and postage on letters shall be levied by the authority of Congress.
10. That the house of representatives be properly increased in number; that elections shall remain free; that the several states shall have power to regulate the elections for senators and representatives, without being controuled either directly or indirectly by any interference on the part of the Congress; and that elections of representatives be annual.
11. That the power organizing, arming and disciplining the militia (the manner of disciplining the militia to be prescribed by Congress) remain with the individual states, and that Congress shall not have authority to call or march any of the militia out of their own state, without the consent of such state, and for such length of time only as such state shall agree.
That the sovereignty, freedom and independency of the several states shall be retained, and every power, jurisdiction and right which is not by this constitution expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.
12. That the legislative, executive, and judicial powers be kept separate; and to this end that a constitutional council be appointed, to advise and assist the president, who shall be responsible for the advice they give, hereby the senators would be relieved from almost constant attendance; and also that the judges be made completely independent.
13. That no treaty which shall be directly opposed to the existing laws of the United States in Congress assembled, shall be valid until such laws shall be repealed, or made conformable to such treaty; neither shall any treaties be valid which are in contradiction to the constitution of the United States, or the constitutions of the several states.
14. That the judiciary power of the United States shall be confined to cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls; to cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction; to controversies to which the United States shall be a party; to controversies between two or more states- between a state and citizens of different states- between citizens claiming lands under grants of different states; and between a state or the citizens thereof and foreign states, and in criminal cases, to such only as are expressly enumerated in the constitution, & that the United States in Congress assembled, shall not have power to enact laws, which shall alter the laws of descents and distribution of the effects of deceased persons, the titles of lands or goods, or the regulation of contracts in the individual states.
In the end, although there was serious dissent in Pennsylvania, the state ratifying convention voted in favor of ratification.

You can explore the full debates in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention in the ConSource digital library here.

The Pennsylvania Form of Ratification reads

In the Name of the People of Pennsylvania. Be it Known unto all Men that We the Delegates of the People of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in general Convention assembled Have assented to, and ratifyed, and by these presents Do in the Name and by the authority of the same people, and for ourselves, assent to, and ratify the foregoing Constitution for the United States of America. Done in Convention at Philadelphia the twelfth day of December in the year of our Lord one Thousand seven hundred and eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the twelfth. In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our Names.
Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg President George Latimer Benjn Rush Hilary Baker James Wilson Thomas M’Kean W Macpherson John Hunn George Gray Samuel Ashmead Enoch Edwards Henry Wynkoop John Barclay Thos. Yardley Abraham Stout Thomas Bull Anthony Wayne William Gibbons Richard Downing Thomas Cheyney John Hannum Stephen Chambers Robert Coleman Sebastian Graff John Hubley Jasper Yeates Heny Slagle Thomas Campbell Thomas Hartley David Grier John Black Benjamin Pedan John Arndt Stephen Balliet Joseph Horsfield David Deshler William Wilson John Boyd Tho Scott John Nevill Jno Allison Jonathan Roberts John Richards James Morris Timothy Pickering Benjn Elliot Attest James Campbell Secretary