Just got back from a quick overnight trip to Boston. Downtown Boston is not only beautiful, but so rich with colonial history that it is a veritable feast for American Revolution buffs. Being there and taking the Freedom Trail tour (our tour guide was the fantastic Susannah Copley) reminded me of just how improbable the creation of our country actually was. It should never have happened.
Well, contrary to what some members of a current offshoot of the Republican Party would have you believe, the Sons of Liberty, many of whom became Founding Fathers, were kind of a motley crew. They didn’t all like each other and they disagreed on almost everything. They were not always brave or honorable.
Ok, well you know that midnight ride of Paul Revere that we all read about in school? As tour guide Susannah told us, it was all “baloney!” Every bit of it. Revere began the ride, but there were 50-100 other riders out that night as well, and Revere didn’t even manage to finish his part of the route. He was caught by a bunch of Redcoats who threatened to shoot him if he didn’t tell them everything he knew. And so…..
Revere told them everything he knew. Everything. At first the soldiers didn’t believe him, but he was so detailed that they were finally convinced and let him go.
So yeah, that famous poem of Longfellow’s titled “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere?”. It was actually written by Longfellow to butter up his mother-in-law, who was a descendant of Revere’s and who disliked the fact that her daughter had chosen to marry a writer rather than a doctor or a lawyer. The poem is fiction.
Possibly the most famous signer of the Declaration of Independence was John Hancock, who as most of us know made his signature so large because he “wanted fat King George to be able to read it without his spectacles.” Hancock was also very enamored of himself and many of the other signers disliked him. He made it clear that he wanted to be General of the colonial army, and when that honor went to George Washington, Hancock deferred; instead he would accept being the first leader of the new nation. Except when the time came, Washington got that as well. Needless to say, Hancock and Washington were not the best of friends. As the first Governor of Massachusetts (there was that, at least), Hancock refused to meet the new President when he came through Boston; a huge insult that Hancock explained away by claiming an attack of gout. He later had himself carted on a bed through town to where Washington was staying, just to make his point…and an entrance.
My favorite part of this story is that, in addition to being unpopular among the Founders, John Hancock was not on the best of terms with his wife either. In fact, when she went into labor with their first child, Hancock left town on business. The baby was a boy and at the time custom dictated that the firstborn son be named for the father. In her husband’s absence, Mrs. Hancock named the baby “John George Washington Hancock”.
What is the point of these stories? (I could go on and on with them all night. They are highly entertaining.) The point is that despite their missteps and sometimes intense dislike for each other, they managed to write two of the most revered and sensible documents ever; The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. How were these men able to achieve this?
Every signer of the Declaration, every member of the Continental Congress had to make major compromises to their own beliefs and desires in order to create the foundation of a nation. Everyone had to give up something they wanted. Everyone. Things hovered repeatedly on the verge of collapse. No one ever said compromise was easy.
The fact that it happened that way, though, makes it all the more impressive. Some people like to wave the Constitution around and talk about what the Founders believed or intended or wanted. These same people say that they will never compromise; that it is a sign of weakness and capitulation. What they seem to forget – or maybe they never knew – is that those Founders they love to quote? They only succeeded because they compromised.
Historian Shelby Foote said in Ken Burns’ “Civil War Series”, “America’s real genius is for compromise. Our entire government is based on it…”
Maybe the best tribute we can give our loud, sometimes vain and often disagreeable Founders is to remember that, and practice it.