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Founding Fathers History

Washington’s Presidency, the Glorious and the Mundane

George Washington, universally acclaimed nowadays as one of our best presidents, encountered a little bad press in his own day. Even before his inauguration, he knew that facing impossibly high expectations would be a challenge during his time as president.

“My movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” These were the unenthusiastic words of George Washington, written to fellow Revolutionary War veteran Henry Knox on April 1, 1789, not long before his nearly inevitable election as president.

For eight years (between 1775 and 1783) and without pay, Washington had led the Continental Army against the British. The aristocratic Virginian might have gone on to leverage his impressive victory to become a “conquering general” and establish a personal dictatorship—an end conceivably within his grasp and even suggested by some in his circle.

Instead, George Washington very emphatically retired. Lest anyone should miss the point, Washington even delivered a public resignation address. His days of service were over, and beloved Mount Vernon was calling.

But now, he was being summoned into service once more. Two weeks after Washington had compared his feelings to those of a culprit on his way to execution, a dispatch arrived at Mount Vernon notifying the retired general of his presidential election. Two days after that, 57-year-old George Washington left Mount Vernon, penning the following in his diary:

About ten o’clock I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity; and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York … with the best dispositions to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.

Perhaps no one in America was more familiar with the challenges of directing the new union than George Washington, who had played such a central role in its inception and evolution. As such, he was clearly under no illusion as to the challenges that awaited him. His acquiescence (for so it was) to the presidency was informed less by political ambition and more by solemn duty. There was no relishing of the prospect, no celebration on his part, no reveling in his political achievement. Being the sort of president people wanted—by unanimous vote of the Electoral College, no less!—seemed at the very least a daunting task, and probably an impossible one. He seems to have known this.

Bad Roads and White Robes

New York was to serve as the first temporary capital of the new United States of America, but great distance and bad roads meant that it was quite a journey to get there from Virginia. And if Washington was really weighed down by “expectations” at the moment of his departure, he was certainly more so as the journey progressed. Everywhere he went, crowds cheered his arrival, casting roses and wreaths along his path, or erecting triumphal arches for him to pass through. At Trenton, 13 girls—representing the 13 states—in white robes hailed him as “mighty Chief” in song, while Washington was made to ride beneath a 13-columned arch.

Finally reaching Elizabethtown, New Jersey, across the Hudson from New York City itself, Washington was greeted by an ostentatious barge manned by 13 white-uniformed captains. Upon this gaudy vessel, the president-elect was ferried across the river to where Wall Street met the water. New York Governor George Clinton awaited him there—atop a set of specially prepared steps with their sides draped in lavish cloth.

Engraving depicting George Washington en route to Federal Hall for the first Presidential Inauguration, April 30, 1789. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

George Washington was sworn in on April 30, his oath of office administered on the balcony of Federal Hall, in front of a massive crowd gathered along Broad and Wall Streets and on balconies and housetops in every direction. All was hushed during the swearing in, after which the officiator exclaimed, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States!”

Thunderous applause echoed throughout the city as a 13-gun salute rang out from the harbor. As the ovation continued, an American flag was hoisted above George Washington himself.

Expectations, indeed.

Complainers

Of course, the hoped-for utopia to be ushered in by America’s greatest Founding Father never materialized. Even Washington himself had hoped that the new federation would, at the very least, avoid political factions. Instead, the real world offered its usual share of complication and contention—including a highly combative two-party system. By the time Washington left office, his once-invulnerable image had taken a hit among some contemporary people. Complainers picked at flaws, real or not. American newspapers attacked his perceived disloyalty to republicanism and his personal integrity. They attacked the lavish receptions (or “levees”) he hosted with his wife, his “aristocratic” airs, his alleged “monarchical” pretensions, his cold and aloof manner. Critics accused him of being unintelligent and susceptible to bad advice from his cabinet, of treacherously betraying France by proclaiming neutrality—and of betraying the American Revolution by not eagerly supporting the French one.

A whole series of letters (called the “Belisarius” letters, after their author’s pen name), addressed personally to Washington and published in opposition newspapers, lambasted the president on a wide range of counts: for cultivating “a distinction between the people and their Executive servants”; failing to stand up to (post-war) Britain; overseeing a costly war with the American Indians; maintaining a standing army in peacetime; and supporting internal taxation (then “denouncing” the people most affected by it), among other allegations.

Tempering Expectations

Women laying flowers at George Washington’s feet as he rides over a bridge at Trenton, New Jersey, on the way to his inauguration as first president of the United States on April 30, 1789. (MPI/Getty Images)

It may be that the aspersions cast in his direction were a primary reason George Washington decided to retire after just two terms. Indeed, an earlier draft of his Farewell Address actually included these words:

As some of the Gazettes of the United States have teemed with all the Invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent, to misrepresent my politics and affections; to wound my reputation and feelings; and to weaken, if not entirely destroy the confidence you had been pleased to repose in me; it might be expected at the parting scene of my public life that I should take some notice of such virulent abuse. But, as heretofore, I shall pass them over in utter silence.

The impossible expectations placed upon the first president demonstrate, perhaps, the futility of investing in one individual the utopian hopes and dreams of an entire people. One of the original American lessons, at least as they pertain to the state, is that political saviors don’t exist; not even the vaunted George Washington could be one! He’d felt the weight of such expectations right from the beginning. That weight probably helped drive him out of the spotlight in the end.

When election cycles come around, perhaps our expectations should be tempered by Washington’s experience.

And when politicians talk like saviors, remember George Washington, too.

Dr. W. Kesler Jackson is a university professor of history. Known on YouTube as “The Nomadic Professor,” he offers online history courses featuring his signature on-location videos, filmed the world over, at NomadicProfessor.com

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History Founding Fathers

Roger Sherman, Low-Key Founding Father

Among the Founding Fathers, Roger Sherman is one of the best-kept secrets. But he shouldn’t be, especially in light of the cumulative and lasting effect he has had on this nation, including the present-day debates on the meaning and legal effect of the Ninth Amendment.

Most notable is the fact that he is the only Founding Father to have signed all of these prominent founding documents: the Declaration and Resolves (1774), which contain many of the rights that are enumerated in the First Amendment; the Articles of Association (1774), which was a trade boycott with Great Britain; the Declaration of Independence (1776); the Articles of Confederation (1777); and the U.S. Constitution (1787).

Sherman’s influence on the Constitution was greater than most realize. Historian Richard Werther wrote in 2017 in the Journal of the American Revolution that, at the Constitutional Convention debates, “of 39 issues cited, Sherman prevailed on 19, Madison on 10, and 7 resulted in compromises (the other 3 were interpretational issues for which no clear-cut winner is determinable).” Werther adds, “While no one is arguing that Sherman, not Madison, assumes the mantle as ‘Father of the Constitution,’ clearly Sherman had a bigger role than may have been previously understood.”

As a boy in Connecticut, Roger Sherman was self-educated in his father’s library and later by a newly built grammar school. He managed two general stores. Although he had no formal education in law, he passed the bar exam and was admitted to the bar in 1754. He wrote and published an almanac each year from 1750 to 1761. He served as a mayor, a justice of the peace, a county judge, a Connecticut Superior Court judge, and as a delegate to both the First Continental Congress and the Second Continental Congress. After ratification of the Constitution, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1789 to 1791 and in the U.S. Senate from 1791 until his death in 1793.

Sherman’s reputation was stellar. He was described as honest, cunning, a staunch opponent of slavery, a devout Christian who was outspoken about his faith, and a protector of states’ rights. William Pierce, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention who took extensive notes, said of Sherman, “He deserves infinite praise, no man has a better heart nor a clearer head. If he cannot embellish he can furnish thoughts that are wise and useful. He is an able politician, and extremely artful in accomplishing any particular object; it is remarked that he seldom fails.”

Role in the Bill of Rights and the Ninth Amendment

Originally, Sherman was opposed to adding a bill of rights to the Constitution due to its being “unnecessary” and “dangerous.” He, like other Federalists, stated that it was unnecessary as the powers enumerated in the Constitution granted limited authority; if certain powers were not enumerated and delegated, then the federal government wouldn’t have the authority to infringe upon the rights in question. Plus, the states had their own constitutions protecting their citizens’ rights, and the Constitution is concerned only with federal guarantees, not states’ guarantees. The Federalists considered it dangerous to list certain rights as it could be construed that other rights not singled out were surrendered to the government; in other words, if they were not written down, then those rights would not be considered protected.

The original Constitution was signed by 39 delegates on September 17, 1787. It was during the First Congress on June 8, 1789, that James Madison proposed to “incorporate such amendments in the Constitution as will secure those rights, which they consider as not sufficiently guarded […] to satisfy the public that we do not disregard their wishes.” After Madison persuaded Congress to create a Bill of Rights, the proposals were referred to a House select committee, the Committee of Eleven, which took up the debates. In 1987, the National Archives discovered among Madison’s papers the only known copy of the deliberations of that House Committee, and they are in Sherman’s handwriting, most likely reflecting the thoughts of the committee as opposed to his personal views.

This discovery has created a vigorous debate among legal scholars as to the meaning and legal effect of the Ninth Amendment, the text of which reads, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”: namely, what are the rights “retained by the people” referring to, and what legal effect do they have? To give context, it is essential to go back to Madison’s original draft regarding retained rights:

The exceptions here or elsewhere in the Constitution, made in favor of particular rights, shall not be so construed as to diminish the just importance of other rights retained by the people, or as to enlarge the powers delegated by the Constitution; but either as actual limitations of such powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution.

After the House committee’s debates and revisions, Sherman’s notes read:

The people have certain natural rights which are retained by them when they enter into society, such as the rights of conscience in matters of religion; of acquiring property; and of pursuing happiness and safety; of speaking, writing and publishing their sentiments with decency and freedom; of peaceably assembling to consult their common good, and of applying to government by petition or remonstrance for redress of grievances. Of these rights therefore they shall not be deprived by the government of the United States.

According to the Bill of Rights Institute, once the Bill of Rights was drafted, Sherman supported it, just as the people of Connecticut supported it.

Deborah Hommer is a history and philosophy enthusiast who gravitates toward natural law and natural rights. She founded the nonprofit ConstitutionalReflections (website under construction) with the purpose of educating others in the rich history of Western civilization.

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Founding Fathers History

Washington’s Resounding Prayer at Valley Forge

It was December 1777, one of the bleakest times during the Revolutionary War. The Continental Army had won a few battles; however, morale suffered as they had also lost a few crucial battles, such as the Battle of Long Island, the Battle for New York, the Battle of White Plains, and the Battle of Bennington. As it was common for armies to take up quarters during the winter, General George Washington chose his army’s quarters to be constructed 25 miles north of Philadelphia, near Valley Forge. The location was strategic—the British Army had captured Philadelphia that fall and the land area had small creeks that would impede attacks due to its uphill location.

The prospects looked dire for the 12,000 men encamped at Valley Forge. The roads were impassable due to snow. The Continental Army was undersupplied and underfed. The men were neglected, with tattered clothing, worn-out shoes, and disheveled hair. Their constructed shelters were dark, cold log huts with dirt floors, a pit, and a sheet for the door, and there were 12 men per hut, leading to rampant disease.

Historians estimate somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 men died in that bitter cold winter. In Philadelphia, the Red Coats were well taken care of, quartering themselves in American homes and availing themselves of their supplies while guarding the city to prevent supplies from being directed to the Valley Forge camp.

As the story is told by Reverend Snowden in his “Diary and Remembrances,” Isaac Potts, a Quaker, a Tory, and a pacifist, was strolling through the woods in Valley Forge during the winter.

“I heard a plaintive sound as, of a man at prayer,” Potts said. “I tied my horse to a sapling and went quietly into the woods and to my astonishment I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was His crisis, and the cause of the country, of humanity, and of the world. Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. I left him alone praying. I went home and told my wife, ‘I saw a sight and heard today what I never saw or heard before,’ and just related to her what I had seen and heard and observed. We never thought a man could be a soldier and a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington. She also was astonished. We thought it was the cause of God, and America could prevail.”

A Pivotal Moment

Not only was this a pivotal moment for Isaac Potts—he switched to the Whig party and was now a supporter of the war—it also appeared to be a pivotal moment for the Continental Army. Baron von Steuben took command; utilizing his manual “Regulation for the Order of Discipline of the Troops of the United States.” He created a schedule, conducted drills, and instructed on the use of bayonets and battlefield formations and maneuvers. The spring of 1778 brought the French to the side of the Americans. France and America replenished food and supplies and built new roads and bridges. In June 1778, the British abandoned Philadelphia and retreated to New York. At the end of that same month, the British withdrew at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. As more dominoes fell, eventually the British surrendered in Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781.

The prayer of Washington is seen by many as the pivotal moment that changed the trajectory of the Revolutionary War. This one pivotal moment is depicted in various works of art, including Arnold Friberg’s painting, “The Prayer at Valley Forge.” George Washington was a deeply religious man. He held a deep and abiding faith that God had put him in his position and that victory would come for the Americans. He encouraged days of prayer and fasting to seek God’s divine assistance in times of peril. Washington’s belief in freedom of religion and conscience was exemplified in his support of the Bill of Rights, his respect for the conscientious scruples of the Quakers, and his assurance to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island, that they would be able to enjoy “the exercise of their inherent natural rights” and that the government would protect their religious freedoms.

This country has had other archetypal leaders who answered their calling and displayed their devotion to God and the higher law principles that it was founded upon. And their prayers seem to have been answered, as time and again the trajectory of this nation has changed. Think of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy. These leaders emerged with spoken and written words humbly acknowledging that our rights come from God, not the state, and that there are self-evident, objective truths. Their leadership changed the trajectory of this country, adversity was overcome, and this nation eventually healed.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan, another iconic leader, stated: “I said before that the most sublime picture in American history is of George Washington on his knees in the snow at Valley Forge. That image personifies a people who know that it’s not enough to depend on our own courage and goodness. We must also seek help from God our father and preserver.” Reagan had Arnold Friberg’s painting on display in the White House all eight years of his presidency.

Historically as a nation, during disunity, Americans have grasped the gravity of the moment and, like their preceding iconic leaders and contemporary Americans, have returned to God and the founding principles that were embedded in the founding documents. Over the past year, it appears as though the earth has once again shifted. Not unexpectedly, Bible sales are soaring and there is an increased interest in understanding our country’s heritage. The American spirit is yet again awakening and renewing its religious and cultural allegiances.

Deborah Hommer is a history and philosophy enthusiast who gravitates toward natural law and natural rights. She founded the nonprofit ConstitutionalReflections (website under construction) with the purpose of educating others in the rich history of Western Civilization.

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Founding Fathers History

Founding Father George Clymer: A Founder Twice Over

By the time George Clymer was 1 year old, both his mother and his father were dead. Orphaned, George was placed in the care of his Philadelphia uncle, William Coleman. Coleman was an extraordinary man—a lawyer and merchant of Quaker stock, a friend of Benjamin Franklin (and member of the latter’s Junto), a founder with Franklin of the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania, and a leading philanthropist. In his “Autobiography,” Franklin described Coleman as possessed of the “coolest, clearest head, the best heart, and the exactest morals of almost any man I ever met.” And fortunately for young Clymer, uncle William loved him like a son.

Clymer was educated primarily in the extensive personal library of his new benefactor, where Coleman often found the lad poring over some tome or another. Clymer’s favorite author was Jonathan Swift. He thus developed a predilection for learning at a young age, and before long, he had adopted “republicanism” as a political philosophy. He thus cherished liberty as defined by Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard who, writing anonymously as “Cato” in the 1720s, characterized it as:

“The power which every man has over his own actions, and his right to enjoy the fruit of his labour, art, industry, as far as by it he hurts not the society, or any members of it, by taking from any member, or by hindering him from enjoying what he himself enjoys.”

George’s education continued in his uncle’s counting-house, where he was trained in numbers—and the ins and outs of running a mercantile enterprise.

An Influential Merchant in Tempestuous Times

Clymer inherited some wealth from his grandfather in 175o. Then, with the death of William Coleman in 1769, he inherited the lion’s share of his uncle’s sizable estate as well. This was a great material blessing, of course, but these were tempestuous times. The French and Indian War had effectively removed the French from North America—but British authorities decided to leave ten thousand troops on the continent. To raise revenue in support of these troops, the various Navigation Acts—heretofore somewhat ignored—would finally be enforced, including a new set of regulations: the Sugar Act (1764). Colonists from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania had protested loudly at this, questioning Parliament’s very right to levy such a tax in the first place. Many colonials boycotted British goods.

The real uproar, however, came with Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act (1765), which applied an internal tax on the colonies for the first time. In response, the Sons of Liberty rioted in the streets, colonial legislatures passed anti-Stamp Act resolutions, and an inter-colonial Stamp Act Congress issued a joint protest to Parliament and to the king. Clymer, now 26 years old and recently married, was among the protesting colonials. Indeed, among the Philadelphia elite, he was one of the most militant advocates of resistance to Britain.

Even though the Stamp Act was eventually repealed, Parliament immediately passed the Declaratory Act, reminding the colonists that Parliament hadn’t given up the principle that it could legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” The subsequent Townshend Acts demonstrated this, and once again the non-importation movement roared to life, crippling British exports. Clymer himself led boycott efforts in Philadelphia, at the same time authoring political pamphlets and broadsides in support of separation from Britain—a very radical view at the time. Despite the barrage of colonial opposition, Charles Townshend, the British politician who proposed the Townshend Acts, stringently enforced the acts. When the Massachusetts assembly issued an anti-Townshend circular letter, the governor dissolved the assembly, sparking mob violence, in turn precipitating the arrival of four regiments of British troops to Boston.

It was in this atmosphere that Clymer inherited his uncle’s significant mercantile business. He now had much more to lose, even as the military occupation up north produced ever-worsening relations between British authorities and the people of Massachusetts—and, by extension, those of other colonies as well. The killing of a twelve-year-old named Christopher Snider by a customs informer in Boston was the last straw, leading within a couple of weeks to the “Boston Massacre.” Troops were subsequently pulled out of Boston proper.

The Tea Act and Tea Parties

Though things seemed to quiet down after 1770, the Gaspee Affair of 1772—when a British customs schooner was attacked off the coast of Rhode Island—sparked both British and colonial outrage once more. The next year, the Tea Act was passed, favoring the British East India Company at the expense of countless American smugglers.

At 34 years of age, Clymer took charge of local resistance to the Tea Act. When the Boston rebels established a committee of correspondence with fellow rebels in Philadelphia, they particularly sought out Clymer. Clymer also played a leading role in Philadelphia’s Oct. 16, 1773 “tea meeting,” when, according to an early biographer, citizens of the city were impressed by Clymer’s “reasoning, sincerity, zeal, and enthusiastic patriotism.” The gathering produced a series of resolutions, one of which declared that:

“The resolution lately entered into by the East India Company, to send out their tea to America subject to the payment of duties on its being landed here, is an open attempt to enforce the ministerial plan, and a violent attack upon the liberties of America.”

The resolutions of the Philadelphia “tea meeting” inspired Bostonians to similar resolves. Indeed, Massachusetts man John Adams would later write that:

“The flame kindled on that day [Oct. 16, 1773] soon extended to Boston and gradually spread throughout the whole continent. It was the first throe of that convulsion which delivered Great Britain of the United States.”

That December, just days after Boston’s more famous “Tea Party,” Philadelphia held one of her own, intercepting a British tea ship. Clymer himself convinced the captain to turn around and return to Britain.

George Clymer thus helped set in motion the chain of events that would ultimately explode into armed revolution.

Signing the Founding Documents

After the “shot heard round the world” was fired at Lexington, initiating the American Revolutionary War, Clymer answered the call for “Patriot” volunteers, engaging the British in company with other Pennsylvanians in support of George Washington and the Continental Army. He also established a militia and helped fortify Philadelphia. Around the same time, and in a show of support for “the cause,” he poured much of his gold and silver into the Congress’s paper money, or “continentals,” eventually losing a fortune when the “continentals” were inflated into worthlessness. But when part of the Pennsylvania delegation to the Second Continental Congress rejected the proposed joint Declaration of Independence and abandoned that body, Clymer was elected to help fill their vacant positions.

This he did—and as such, he was present to inscribe his signature onto the new confederation’s founding document, along with 55 other men. “For the support of this Declaration,” Clymer and his fellows thereby announced, “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

Clymer went on to act as a liaison between George Washington and the Continental Congress, a risky business, since it often involved covert travel across enemy territory to the front; served in the Congress for most of the war years; helped formulate Pennsylvania’s constitution; secured an alliance with the Shawnee and the Delaware; and raised vital funds for the Continental Army. After the war, he continued to work as a merchant while serving in the Pennsylvania legislature, then represented that state in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. It was there that the Constitution was written. Clymer was a signatory.

Thus it was that Clymer became one of only half a dozen men to have signed both the Declaration of Independence and, 11 years later, the federal Constitution. In his honor, a borough and a township in Pennsylvania and a town in New York are all named after him.

Dr. W. Kesler Jackson is a university professor of history. Known on YouTube as “The Nomadic Professor,” he offers online history courses featuring his signature on-location videos, filmed the world over, at NomadicProfessor.com