Saturday, July 04, 2009

The first "Activist" Judge... NOT

Every Fourth of July all we ever hear about is Thomas Jefferson this and Thomas Jefferson that. Oh, sometimes you’ll hear a little bit about John Adams and Ben Franklin, but it’s as if the other 56 guys who signed the Declaration of Independence didn’t exist. I hear you shouting out the names of George Washington and John Hancock, but Washington was off fighting some war, too busy to even show up for the vote on the resolution to declare independence. And Hancock may not have become president of the second Continental Congress if the previous president, Peyton Randolph from Virginia hadn’t gotten sick and died (at the ripe old age of 54).

John Adam’s cousin Samuel Adams has become better known in recent years because of the premiere beers which bare his name. But in actuality while he was an excellent politician, in his time he was an unsuccessful brewer, and a poor businessman. It’s actually pretty ironic that he became such a rabble rouser for the cause of independence and “no taxation without representation” even leading the Boston Tea Party. You see, his first job was as a tax collector.

Hardly anyone remembers Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson. Probably because he didn’t sign the Declaration and in fact tried several times to stifle debate over the resolution. In fact, much to Ben Franklin’s chagrin, he split the Pennsylvania delegation on the issue. His object had always been reconciliation, not independence or revolution. He loved his country and had always been proud of his country, love her or leave her. Of course, his country was Great Brittan. Ah, a regular Benedict Arnold you say? Not at all, he served in the militia as both a private and as a brigadier general. He moved to Delaware and in 1777, while Delaware's wealthiest farmer and largest slaveholder, he free all his slaves.

So Dickinson turned out to be a decent person after all. He was so decent, that in 1781 he became the President of Delaware (under the Articles of Confederation, governors were called “president”). This was complicated by the fact that he became President of Pennsylvania in 1782 without resigning from the Delaware presidency. State presidents weren’t directly elected by the people, but appointed by the state legislatures. Needless to say, Delaware was really irked.

Josiah Bartlett was the first to sign the Declaration, after John Hancock. Bartlett served on the Supreme Court of New Hampshire. He was elected the first (and presumably only) president of independent New Hampshire, and then its first governor, under the U.S. Constitution.

Another New Hamphirean was William Whipple. He lead the successful battles of Stillwater and Saratoga against General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne. Nothing to sneeze at, but I still get a kick out of the name “General Whipple.” I imagine him ordering his troops not to squeeze the Charmin.

Speaking of grocers, they plaid a vital role in the revolutionary war. Roger Sherman started out as a humble cobbler from Connecticut. But eventually his business wasn’t limited to selling shoes, he was appointed commissary for Connecticut troops, which meant he provided groceries to military personnel. He served on the committee to write the Declaration, along with John Adams, Phillip Livingston of New York, Franklin, and of course Jefferson.

There may not have been a Declaration of Independence without Jefferson, but Congress may never have declared independence if it hadn’t been for another Virginian, Richard Henry Lee. It was Lee who actually offered the Resolutions for Independence to the committee of the whole in 1776. John Adams had tried repeatedly, but he was obnoxious and disliked, did you know that? History is stranger than mythology sometimes because this man, to whom the United States owes its birth, wound up being the great uncle of a certain Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who nearly brought about its demise.

Finally there was Judge James Wilson from Pennsylvania. You’ll remember that John Dickinson opposed declaring independence; well Wilson was the swing vote. Despite Ben Franklin’s best efforts, Wilson rode the fence so long, he got splinters. Pennsylvania was divided on the issue of separation, and Wilson refused to vote against the will of his constituents. He had spoken eloquently for independence so long as he never had to vote on it. He didn’t want to be famous. He wanted a quiet, simple life. He didn’t want to stand out as a radical. He claimed he had to consult with his constituents. He managed to stall for three weeks. Dickinson urged him to vote in the people’s best interest, which was to reconcile with Mother England.

In the end, he sided with the majority in Congress and so faded into obscurity. Sometimes swing votes are the most important.

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