July 8, 1776 Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land

In Denver, a group of blind girls were allowed to touch the Bell. One of them wanted to read the letters. You could have heard a pin drop, as a hushed crowd heard a small, sightless girl, pronounce these words:  “Proclaim…Liberty…throughout…all…the…land.”

For thousands of years, bells have rung out to announce religious and civic occasions, weddings, funerals and other public announcements. The rich tones of a well-cast bell is capable of carrying for miles. Great Britain has so many bells, the place has been called the “Ringing Isle”.

The first bell in the city of Philadelphia would ring out to alert citizens of civic events and proclamations, and to the occasional public danger.  Originally hung from a tree near the Pennsylvania State House, (now known as Independence Hall), that first bell  dates back as far as the city itself, around 1682.

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Eighty-foot-high replica of the Liberty Bell, built for the Sesquicentennial International Exposition in 1926

The “Liberty Bell” was ordered from the London bell foundry of Lester and Pack in 1752, (today the Whitechapel Bell Foundry), though that name wouldn’t come around until much later.   Weighing in at 2,080 lbs, the bell arrived in August of that year.  Written upon it was a passage from the Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew Bible; the third of five books of the Torah. “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”.

Mounted to a stand to test the sound, the first strike of the clapper cracked the bell’s rim. Authorities attempted to return it, but the ship’s master couldn’t take it on board.  The bell was broken into pieces, melted down and re-cast by two local workmen, John Pass and John Stow.

The recast bell used 10% copper, making the metal less brittle.  Pass and Snow bragged that the bell’s lettering was clearer on this second casting than the original. The newly re-cast bell was ready in March 1753, when City officials scheduled a public celebration to test the sound. There was free food and drink all around, but the crowd gasped and started to laugh when the bell was struck. It didn’t break this time, it was worse.  Somebody said the thing sounded like two coal scuttles, banging together.

Humiliated, Pass and Stow hurriedly took the bell away, and once again broke it into pieces, and melted it down.

The whole performance was repeated, three months later. This time, most thought the sound to be satisfactory, and the bell was hung in the steeple of the State House. One who did not like the sound was Isaac Norris, speaker of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly.  Norris ordered a second bell in 1754 and attempted to return the old one for credit, but his efforts proved unsuccessful.

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Chief Little Bear with Liberty Bell, 1915

The new bell was attached to the tower clock, while the old one was, by vote of the Assembly, devoted “to such Uses as this House may hereafter appoint.”  One of the earliest documented uses of the old bell comes to us in a letter from Benjamin Franklin to Catherine Ray, dated October 16, 1755: “Adieu. The Bell rings, and I must go among the Grave ones, and talk Politiks.

Legends have grown around the bell, ringing in the public reading of the Declaration of independence on July 4, 1776.  The story is a myth.  There was no such reading on that day.  The 2nd Continental Congress’ Declaration was announced to the public four days later on July 8, to a great ringing of bells.  Whether the old bell itself rang on this day, remains uncertain. John C. Paige, author of an historical study of the bell for the National

Liberty bell, 1908
Liberty Bell, 1908

Park Service, wrote “We do not know whether or not the steeple was still strong enough to permit the State House bell to ring on this day. If it could possibly be rung, we can assume it was. Whether or not it did, it has come to symbolize all of the bells throughout the United States which proclaimed Independence.”

Bells are easily melted down and recast as bullets, and the bell was removed for safekeeping before the British occupation of Philadelphia, in 1777. The distinctive large crack began to develop sometime in the early 19th century, around the time when abolitionist societies adopted the symbol and began calling it “The Liberty Bell”.

The Philadelphia Public Ledger reported the last clear note ever sounded by the Liberty Bell, in its February 26, 1846 edition:

“The old Independence Bell rang its last clear note on Monday last in honor of the birthday of Washington and now hangs in the great city steeple irreparably cracked and dumb. It had been cracked before but was set in order of that day by having the edges of the fracture filed so as not to vibrate against each other … It gave out clear notes and loud, and appeared to be in excellent condition until noon, when it received a sort of compound fracture in a zig-zag direction through one of its sides which put it completely out of tune and left it a mere wreck of what it was.”

The bell would periodically travel to expositions and celebrations, but souvenir hunters would break off pieces from the rim.  Additional cracking developed after several of these trips, and the bell’s travels were sharply curtailed after its return from Chicago, in 1893.

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With the 1915 World’s Fair about to open in San Francisco, there were discussions of sending the Liberty Bell to California.  The bell had never been west of St. Louis at that time, and the Philadelphia establishment balked. Former Pennsylvania governor Samuel Pennypacker complained that “The Bell is injured every time it leaves…children have seen this sacred Metal at fairs associated with fat pigs and fancy furniture. They lose all the benefit of the associations that cling to Independence Hall, and the bell should, therefore, never be separated from [Philadelphia].”

With the California tour off for now, Philadelphia Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg offered the next best thing. Bell Telephone had just completed a new transcontinental line, 3,400 miles of wire suspended from 130,000 poles. Three hundred dignitaries gathered at Bell offices in Philadelphia and San Francisco on February 11, 1915. With Alexander Graham Bell himself listening in from his own private line in Washington DC, the Liberty bell was sounded at 5pm, with all of them listening in on candlestick phones.

The California trip gained fresh impetus following the May 7 sinking ofn the British liner Lusitania.  A cross-country whistle stop tour was planned for the bell, using the “best cushioned” rail car, in history.

As the nation’s most prominent German-American, Mayor Blankenburg himself came along, delivering “loyalty lectures” to immigrant groups on the importance of devotion to their adopted home country.  “It is important to prepare against a possible foe abroad“, he would say, “….Let us, therefore, abolish all distinctions that may lead to ill feeling and let us call ourselves, before the whole world, Americans, first, last and all the time.”

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“A quarter of the U.S. population (including a girl in Moline, Illinois) turned out for the Liberty Bell”. H/T Smithsonian

The Liberty Bell drew crowds beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.  Fully one- quarter of the American population turned out to see the liberty bell, a generator rigged so the bell could be seen by day or night.  In many cities, those on the train couldn’t see where the crowd ended.

“Big Jim” Quirk, one of the police officers assigned to the train, recalled “In Kansas City, an old colored man who had been a slave came to touch it—he was 100 years old.” When the train pulled into another town, “an aged Mammie hobbled to the door of her cabin near the tracks, raised her hands and with her eyes streaming tears called out, ‘God Bless the Bell! God Bless the Dear Bell!’  It got to us somehow.”

In Denver, a group of blind girls were allowed to touch the Bell. One of them wanted to read the letters. You could have heard a pin drop, as a hushed crowd heard a small, sightless girl, pronounce these words:  “Proclaim…Liberty…throughout…all…the…land.”

Liberty Bell, Atchison, Kansas
Liberty Bell 1915, Atchison, Kansas. H/T Smithsonian Magazine, for this image

The Liberty Bell was enlisted once again in 1917 as the United States prepared to send her soldiers “over there” in the first democratically financed war, in history. Americans hurried to buy up war bonds, far exceeding the national goal of $2 Billion.

Today, two other bells join the Liberty Bell in the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, PA. Weighing in at 13,000lbs, a half-ton for every original colony, the Centennial Bell was cast for America’s 100th birthday in 1876. To this day, this enormous bell rings once an hour, in the tower at Independence Hall.

In 1976, the people of Great Britain presented a gift to the people of the United States, in recognition of the friendship between the former adversaries.  Weighing in at six tons and cast at the same foundry which produced the original bell, the “Bicentennial Bell” was dedicated by her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth, II, on July 6, 1976.  On the side of the bell are inscribed these words:

FOR THE
PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES
FROM THE
PEOPLE OF BRITAIN
4 JULY 1976
LET FREEDOM RING

Back in 1893, the Liberty Bell passed through Indianapolis.  Former President Benjamin Harrison may have had the last word on the subject, a sentiment fit to be inscribed on the old bell itself, below that verse from the Torah. “This old bell was made in England”, Harrison said, “but it had to be re-cast in America before it was attuned to proclaim the right of self-government and the equal rights of men.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

July 7, 1798  The X-Y-Z Affair

America’s “quasi-war” with France, begun this day in 1798, would see the first combat service of the heavy frigate USS Constitution, better known as “Old Ironsides” and today, the oldest commissioned warship in the world, still afloat. 

Imagine that you’ve always considered your own beliefs to be somewhere in the political center.  Maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, your country’s politics have shifted so radically that you find yourself on the “Reactionary Right”, on the way to execution by your government.

And your personal convictions have never changed.

America’s strongest Revolution-era ally lost its collective mind in 1792, when France descended into a revolution of its own.    17,000 Frenchmen were officially tried and executed during the 1793-94 “Reign of Terror” (la Terreur) alone, including King Louis XVI himself and his queen, Marie Antoinette.  Untold thousands died in prison or without benefit of trial.  The monarchical powers of Europe were quick to intervene.  For the 32nd time since the Norman invasion of 1066, England and France once again found themselves at war.

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France had been the strongest ally the Americans had during the late revolution, yet the United States remained neutral in the later conflict, straining relations between the former allies.  Making matters worse, America repudiated its war debt in 1794, arguing that it owed the money to “l’ancien régime”, and not to the French First Republic which had overthrown it, and executed its King.

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The Marquis de Lafayette was shocked on October 15, 1795, when his cell door opened and in walked his wife and three daughters. The four women would remain with him in his prison cell, for another two years

By this time, Revolution-era America’s most important French allies were off the stage, the Comte de Grasse dead, the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau languishing, in prison.

Both sides in the European conflict seized neutral ships which were trading with their adversary.  The “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” with Great Britain, ratified in 1795 and better known as the “Jay Treaty”, put an end for now to such conflict with Great Britain, but destroyed relations with the French Republic.

French privateers cruised the length of the Atlantic seaboard preying on American merchant shipping, seizing 316 civilian ships in one eleven-month period, alone.

At this point, the United States had virtually no means of fighting back.  The government had disbanded the Navy along with its Marine contingent at the end of the Revolution, selling the last warship in 1785 and retaining only a handful of “revenue cutters” for customs enforcement.  The Naval Act of 1794 had established a standing Navy for the first time in American history and begun construction on six heavy frigates, the first three of which would launch in 1797:  the USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution.

In 1796, France formally broke diplomatic relations with the United States by rejecting the credentials of President Washington’s representative, Ambassador Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

The following year, President John Adams dispatched a delegation of two, with instructions to join with Pinckney in negotiating a treaty with France, on terms similar to those of the Jay treaty with Great Britain.

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Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

These were the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and future Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, a man who later became the 5th Vice President and lent his name to the term “Gerrymander”.

The American commission arrived in Paris in October 1797, requesting a meeting with French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.  Talleyrand, unkindly disposed toward the Adams administration to begin with, demanded bribes before meeting with the American delegation.  The practice was not uncommon in European diplomacy of the time, but the Americans refused.

Documents later released by the Adams administration describe Nicholas Hubbard, an English banker identified only as “W”.  W introduced “X” (Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer) as a “man of honor”, who wished an informal meeting with Pinckney.  Pinckney agreed and Hottinguer reiterated Talleyrand’s demands, specifying the payment of a $12 million “loan” to the French government, and a personal bribe of some $250,000 to Talleyrand himself.  Met with flat refusal by the American commission, X then introduced Pierre Bellamy (“Y”) to the American delegation, followed by Lucien Hauteval (“Z”), sent by Talleyrand to meet with Elbridge Gerry.  X, Y and Z, each in their turn, reiterated the Foreign Minister’s demand for a loan, and a personal bribe.

Believing that Adams sought war by exaggerating the French position, Jeffersonian members of Congress joined with the more warlike Federalists in demanding the release of the commissioner’s communications.  It was these dispatches, released in redacted form, which gave the name “X-Y-Z Affair” to the diplomatic and military crisis which followed.

American politics were sharply divided over the European war.  President Adams and his Federalists, always the believers in strong, central government, took the side of the Monarchists.  Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic-Republicans” found more in common with the liberté, égalité and fraternité espoused by French revolutionaries.

In the United Kingdom, the ruling class appeared to enjoy the chaos.  A British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, looks on in amusement from a nearby hilltop.

XYZ cartoon

Adams’ commission left without entering formal negotiations, their failure leading to a political firestorm in the United States.  Congress rescinded all existing treaties with France on July 7, 1798, the date now regarded as the beginning of the undeclared “Quasi-War” with France.

Four days later, President John Adams signed “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps,” permanently establishing the United States Marine Corps as an independent service branch, in order to defend the American merchant fleet.

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Talleyrand himself raised the stakes, saying that attacks on American shipping would cease if the United States paid him $250,000 and gave France 50,000 pounds sterling and a loan for $100 million. At a 1798 Philadelphia dinner in honor of John Marshall, South Carolina Congressman Robert Goodloe Harper’s toast, spoke for the American side: “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.”

America’s “quasi-war” with France, begun this day in 1798, would see the first combat service of the heavy frigate USS Constitution, better known as “Old Ironsides” and today, the oldest commissioned warship in the world, still afloat.  The undeclared war would be fought across the world’s oceans, from the Atlantic to the Caribbean, to the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea.

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20th century illustration depicts American Marines escorting French prisoners

The Convention of 1800 ended the Quasi-War on September 30, nullifying the Franco-American alliance of 1778 and ensuring American neutrality in the Napoleonic wars. $20,000,000 in American “Spoliation Claims” would remain, unpaid.

For the United States, military escalation proved decisive.  Before naval intervention, the conflict with France resulted in the loss of over 2,000 merchant ships captured, with 28 Americans killed and another 42 wounded.   Military escalation with the French First Republic cost the Americans 54 killed and 43 wounded, and an unknown number of French.  Only a single ship was lost, the aptly named USS Retaliation, and that one was later recaptured.

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July 6, 1863 Sallie was a Lady…

There was barely a man in the regiment, who wouldn’t have walked over the proverbial “bad road & broken glass”, for that dog.   

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Irish Brigade Memorial sculpted by William R. O’Donovan, a former Confederate soldier who fought at Gettysburg  H/T Gettysburg.stonesentinels.com

Sallie was four weeks old in 1861, when she was given as a gift to 1st Lieutenant William Terry, of the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.  Terry made her the regimental mascot, a post she would hold for the duration of the Civil War.

Sallie was a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or possibly a Pit Bull, brindle in color.  She would tag along on long marches, and kept the men of the regiment company in their camps.  She learned the drum roll announcing reveille, and loved to help wake the sleeping soldiers in the morning.

If you’ve ever had a dog in your life, you know how that goes.

There was barely a man in the regiment, who wouldn’t have walked over the proverbial “bad road & broken glass”, for that dog.   Sallie’s first battle came at Cedar Mountain, in 1862. No one thought of sending her to the rear before things got hot, so Sallie took up a position along with the colors, barking ferociously at the adversary.

There she remained throughout the entire engagement, as she would do at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Spotsylvania.

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Sallie, the smallest member of the 11th PA Infantry Regiment, is one of only two dogs so memorialized at Gettysburg, the only dog who was actually In the battle.

It was said that Sallie only hated three things:  Rebels, Democrats, and Women.

Sallie marched with “her” soldiers in review, in the spring of 1863.  Abraham Lincoln was reviewing the army at the time, when he spotted the dog from the center of the reviewing stand, and raised his famous top hat in salute.

At Gettysburg, Sallie was separated from her unit in the chaos of the first day’s fighting. They found her five days later, on July 6, parched with thirst and weakened by hunger.

She’d been standing guard over her dead and dying comrades, since July 1.

It’s been said that only a dog is capable of that kind of loyalty, yet virtue in one is capable of inspiring virtue in another. So it was on February 5, 1865. Sallie was struck in the head by a bullet at Hatcher’s Run. She was killed instantly.  Several men of the 11th PA laid down their arms and buried her, right then and there.  Even though they were still under fire from the Confederate side.

There is a tale about Sallie, I don’t know if it’s true.  Probably not but it’s a nice story.

After the battle in which Sallie was killed, the soldiers were moving out when a small whining was heard from within a hollowed-out tree.  Someone went to the tree and found several small puppies, believed to be Sallie’s.  They’d had no idea that she was pregnant, or how puppies came to be in that hollowed out tree.  The soldiers gave them to local civilians, so that Sallie’s bloodline might live on.

Sallie statueTwenty-seven years after Gettysburg, surviving veterans of the regiment returned to dedicate a memorial to those members of the 11th Pennsylvania, who lost their lives on that field of battle.

Today, 1,320 memorial statues, monuments and markers dot the landscape of the Gettysburg battlefield.  Among all of them there are only two, raised in the memory of a dog.  The first is a Celtic cross, erected in honor of New York’s Irish Brigade.  Ironically, it is sculpted by a Confederate veteran of the battle.  At the foot of the cross rests a life-sized likeness of an Irish wolfhound, symbolizing honor and fidelity..

66be53833fa8c6663ee4542b2d28d73cThe other includes a brindle colored Terrier, named Sallie.  The only one of the two to have actually participated in the battle.

The monument depicts an upright Union soldier, rifle at the ready.  By unanimous consent of the veterans themselves, Sallie’s likeness looks out from the foot of the statue, where she guards over the spirits of “her boys”, for all eternity.

“Sallie was a lady,
she was a soldier too.
She marched beside the colors,
our own red white and blue.
It was in the days of our civil war,
that she lived her life so true”.

Feature image, top of page:  Only known picture of Sallie, herself.  Photographer unknown.
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July 5, 1742 The Last American Colony

Governor Montiano bought the ruse, hook, line and sinker.  The Spanish invaders left St. Simons island for good on July 25, never to return. One of the most brilliant head fakes in colonial history had ended the invasion, leaving the 13th colony in the undisputed hands of the British Crown.

colonial-georgia-3The territory which would come to be occupied by the colony of Georgia was a subject for dispute between Great Britain and Spain, since long before the state became a colony.

Spain had taken Florida for its own, dating the claim back to explorer Ponce de Leon’s first mapping the territory in 1513 and claiming Georgia to be part of it. James Oglethorpe founded the 13th colony as a buffer colony for the British in 1733, serving as a protective zone against Spanish invasion, for her twelve sister colonies to the north.

The Convention of Pardo concluded in early 1739 attempted to settle issues relating to smuggling and to the slave trade, but Spain suspected “cheating” and continued to board foreign vessels at will. The War of Jenkins’ Ear broke out later that year, when Commander Juan de León Fandiño hacked "Sword in hand, the Spanish coastguard captain lunged at Captain Jenkins."off the ear of Commander Robert Jenkins, informing the unfortunate ship’s master that he could   “Go, and tell your King that I will do the same”, to him.

Spain immediately began to draw up plans to invade the Georgia colony.

One day, St. Simons Island would be made notable for having provided the 2,000 southern Live Oak trees, forming the hull of the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides”.  On July 5, 1742, that day was far in the future.  On this day, a Spanish invasion force of somewhere between 4,500 and 5,000 men landed on the island, in 36 ships.

A much smaller force of approximately 950 British Regulars, Colonial Militia and Indian Allies was under the command of James Oglethorpe, founder of the Georgia Colony. Oglethorpe withdrew his forces in in the face of the much larger invasion, and later attacked a Spanish reconnaissance in Force at a place called Gully Hole Creek. The Spanish were routed, with almost a third of their number either killed or captured. Falling back in the face of superior numbers of Spanish reinforcements, the British attacked the Spaniards a second time as they stacked arms and pulled out their pots and pans preparing for dinner. The “Battle of Bloody Marsh” was another victory for the British, and would prove to be decisive.

Bloody Marsh, 2008
“Bloody Marsh” in 2008

A few days later, Oglethorpe launched what can only be described a a psychological warfare operation.  A Spanish prisoner was released to the other side, with information that a massive British force was on the way.  Fearing that Montiano might learn the true size of his puny force, Oglethorpe spread drummers out until their sound seemed to come from all directions.

Governor Montiano bought the ruse, hook, line and sinker.  The Spanish invaders left St. Simons island for good on July 25, never to return. One of the most brilliant head fakes in colonial history had ended the invasion, leaving the 13th colony in the undisputed hands of the British Crown.

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Georgia colony, 1764
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July 4, 1826 Friends and Rivals

In an ending no fiction writer would dare put to paper, both men died on the same day, July 4, 1826.  Fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic, they had helped to create. 

Delegates to the 2nd Continental Congress originally pushed for Richard Henry Lee to write the Declaration of Independence.  It was he who delivered the all-important resolution on June 1, 1776:  “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States...”

committLee was appointed to the Committee of Confederation, assigned to write the Articles by which the fledgling nation would govern itself.  Lee believed that two such committees were too much and, soon, he would be called home to care for a critically ill wife.

So it is that a committee of five were appointed to write the Declaration of Independence, including Massachusetts attorney John Adams, and a young Virginia delegate named Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson had no interest in writing the Declaration of Independence and suggested that Adams pen the first draft. Adams declined, and described the following conversation, in a letter to Massachusetts politician Timothy Pickering:

“Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, ‘I will not,’ ‘You should do it.’ ‘Oh! no.’ ‘Why will you not? You ought to do it.’ ‘I will not.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Reasons enough.’ ‘What can be your reasons?’ ‘Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.’ ‘Well,’ said Jefferson, ‘if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.’ ‘Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.”

Thomas Jefferson would spend the following seventeen days, writing the first draft.  He and Adams had only just met during the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  The two would develop a close personal friendship which would last for most of their lives.

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The friendship between the two men came to an ugly ending during the Presidential election of 1800, in which the mudslinging from both sides rose to levels never before witnessed in a national election.

Jefferson defeated one-term incumbent Adams and went on to serve two terms as President of the United States.  Upon Jefferson’s retirement in 1809, one of the Declaration’s signers, Dr. Benjamin Rush, took it upon himself to patch up the broken friendship between the two founding fathers.

Dr. Rush worked on this personal diplomatic mission for two years.  In 1811, he finally succeeded.

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Jefferson Seal

There followed a series of letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, which together constitute one of the most comprehensive historical and philosophical assessments ever written about the American founding.

The correspondence between the pair touched on a variety of topics, from the birth of a self-governing Constitutional Republic, to then-current political issues, to matters of philosophy and religion and issues related to their advancing years.

Both men understood that they were writing not only to one another, but also to generations yet unborn.  Each went to great lengths to explain the philosophical underpinnings of his views, Adams the firm believer in strong, centralized government, Jefferson advocating a smaller federal government which was more deferential to the states.

By 1826, Jefferson and Adams were among the very last survivors among the founding generation.  James Monroe alone, would survive these two.

In an ending no fiction writer would dare put to paper, both men died on the same day, July 4, 1826.  Fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic, they had helped to create.  Adams was 90 as he lay on his deathbed, suffering from congestive heart failure.  His last words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives”.  There was no way of knowing.  The author of the Declaration of Independence had died of a fever,  five hours earlier at his Monticello home near Charlottesville, Virginia.  Jefferson was 82.

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John Adams son John Quincy was himself President at the time of the two men’s passing, and remarked that the coincidence was among the “visible and palpable remarks of Divine Favor”.

A month after the two men passed, Daniel Webster spoke of the pair at Faneuil Hall, in Boston.

“No two men now live, (or) any two men have ever lived, in one age, who (have) given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought. No age will come, in which the American Revolution will appear less than it is, one of the greatest events in human history. No age will come, in which it will cease to be seen and felt, on either continent, that a mighty step, a great advance, not only in American affairs, but in human affairs, was made on the 4th of July 1776″.

 

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July 3, 1947 The May Incident

History is replete with examples of what power concentrated in the hands of a few, leads to.

Two hundred and forty-two years ago, our founding fathers bequeathed to us a nation unique in all history. A nation founded on an idea, that all men are created equal, and government derives its powers from the just consent of the governed. A Federal, Constitutional Republic in which our politicians are not our ‘leaders’ but rather our Representatives, operating within a system of diffuse powers with checks and balances, periodically accountable through democratic processes to their bosses – the people who put them there.

In modern times, it has become fashionable to point to the flaws in such a system. Howard Zinn and others present a victim’s-eye narrative of American history.  Smug, faculty iconoclasts and a pop culture Commentariat, decrying the ‘sugar coated fairy tales’, of our past.  Yet, the Great Winston Churchill may have had the final word, describing ‘Democracy” as the worst form of government there is…except for all the others.

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For many among us, most I should think, some form of that Constitutional, self-governing Republic envisioned by our founders, remains preferable to all other forms of government.  Warts and all.

History is replete with examples of what power concentrated in the hands of a few, leads to.

Ambrose+bierce+majorityIndeed, such a system has imperfections, not least among them those who would ascend to political office.

Hearst columnist Ambrose Bierce, a social satirist of his day and my favorite curmudgeon, once defined politics as ‘A strife of interests, masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

In the late 19th century, Democrat William “Boss” Tweed owned New York politics, fleecing city taxpayers at the head of the Tammany Hall political machine. New York debt levels soared by over $100 million between 1868 and 1870 alone, a figure equivalent to over a Billion dollars, today.

As Governor of Tennessee, Democrat Ray Blanton ran a ‘pay for play’ operation selling pardons, paroles and commutations, until drawing the attention of the eye of Sauron, at the FBI.  Blanton’s corruption was extensive enough to spawn a book and a later movie, and launched the political career of prosecutor and sometime actor, Fred Thompson.

And, lest I be accused of picking on Democrats, Pennsylvania Republican and Representative in Congress R. Budd Dwyer faced up to 55 years in prison and a $300,000 fine for racketeering and mail fraud, when he took a .357 Magnum revolver out of a manila envelope and blew his brains out.  On live television, no less.

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There are so many more and we all have our ‘favorites’, in this parade of horribles.  Yet, for insensate cupidity and pure boneheadedness, it would be hard to outdo the attorney, circuit court judge and member of the United States House of Representatives, Andrew Jackson May.

The Kentucky Democrat was a staunch supporter of the ‘New Deal’ policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, serving in seven succeeding Congresses between 1931 and 1947. As Chairman of the powerful Committee on Military Affairs, May became involved with New York businessmen Murray and Henry Garsson, a relationship which would lead to war profiteering allegations.

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Congressman Andrew Jackson May

After the war, a Senate investigating committee discovered evidence of substantial kickbacks from the Garsson brothers. Making matters worse, their munition business took excessive profits, while producing shoddy product. May’s bribery scandal revealed evidence that the Garsson factory produced defective fuses for their 4.2-inch mortar shells, detonating prematurely and leading to the death of no fewer than 38 American soldiers.

Andrew May would serve nine months in Federal prison for accepting bribes in exchange for securing munitions contracts during WW2.

Yet, even that pales in comparison with the ‘May incident’, for which the man has earned eternal infamy. As an influential member of an important committee, Andrew May was necessarily entrusted with highly confidential information, among them deficiencies in Imperial Japanese Navy anti-submarine depth-charge tactics.

Depth Charge
Imperial Japanese Navy light Crusier using Depth Charges against an American submarine, South Pacific 1942 H/T ww2incolor

For some time, the American submarine service had enjoyed considerable success in its war on Japanese shipping. Imperial Japanese naval planners held some bad assumptions about American submarine specifications, among them maximum depth capabilities.

Japanese depth charges were set to detonate at too shallow a depth, leading to a high survival rate for American subs. Congressman May took care of that problem, in 1943.

Returning home from a junket, the Congressman revealed this highly sensitive information, before a press conference. Various press associations ran with the story and some were bright enough to ‘sit on it’, but not all. Several newspapers published the information, including one in Hololulu.

Vice Admiral Charles A Lockwood
Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood

Japanese naval ASW (Antisubmarine Warfare) forces were quick to adjust depth charge settings. Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, commander of the U.S. submarine fleet in the Pacific, estimated that May’s indiscretion killed as many as 800 American crewman, with the loss of ten submarines. “I hear Congressman May said the Jap depth charges are not set deep enough”, he said. “He would be pleased to know that the Japs set them deeper now.”

Andrew Jackson May was convicted by a federal jury on this day in 1947, for accepting cash bribes from Murray and Henry Garsson, to use his position as Chairman of the Military Affairs Committee to secure munitions contracts for the Garsson firm.  The Garsson brothers also received prison terms.

President Harry Truman granted May a full pardon in 1952, though his political career was finished. Andrew May returned home to Kentucky to resume the practice of law, until his death in 1959.  We are left only to contemplate, what the man or the press could be thinking, to divulge information more safely left in the hands of a stupid child.  That, and the horrifying realization that the democratic process might actually work, and the government we elect is just…like…Us.

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July 2, 1776 Independence Day

56 men would sign the Declaration of Independence in the days and weeks that followed, giving birth to a nation unique in all history.  A nation founded on an idea.

The first Virginia Convention organized in 1774, when Royal Governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the colony’s House of Burgesses. The colonial governing body had called for a day of prayer, a show of solidarity with her sister colony in Boston, after the British government closed the harbor in retaliation for the “Boston Tea Party“.

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Three additional such meetings would take place in the following year-and-one-half, to discuss increasingly fractious relations with the British Empire. No expression emerged from these conventions, in favor of independence.

That would change on May 15, 1776, when the fifth Virginia Convention declared that the colonial government as “formerly exercised” by King George III in Parliament, was “totally dissolved”. Three resolutions emerged from this body:  one calling for a declaration of rights in Virginia, another calling for the establishment of a republican constitution, and a third instructing its delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to declare independence from Great Britain.

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Richard Henry Lee’s resolution was taken almost verbatim from instructions from the Virginia Convention. As presented to the second Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, Lee’s resolution read:

“Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation”.

At the time, several colonies were not yet ready to declare independence.

Representatives agreed to delay the vote until July 1, appointing a “Committee of Five” to draft a declaration of independence from Great Britain. Members of the committee included John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. The committee selected Jefferson to write the document, the draft presented to the Congress for review on June 28.

Debate resumed on July 1, 1776, with most of the delegates expressing favor for Lee’s resolution.

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The final vote was taken on July 2, when delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies voted in favor. Delegates from New York abstained, having as yet received no clear instructions from their constituents.

The Pennsylvania Evening Post reported on July 2nd that “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States”.

The Pennsylvania Gazette followed suit on the third with “Yesterday, the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared the UNITED COLONIES FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES”.

John Adams believed that July 2 would go down as Independence Day, for the young nation.

Declaration of Independence

56 men would sign the Declaration of Independence in the days and weeks that followed, giving birth to a nation unique in all history.  A nation founded on an idea.

That line was drawn in the sand, two hundred and forty two years ago, today.  As Caesar had ‘crossed the Rubicon’ nearly two thousand years earlier, a decision had been taken from which there would be no turning back.  Fifty-six men affixed their signatures to that document, affirming that to this “… we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

These were no empty words.  One of those signers, Benjamin Franklin, stated in all candor, that now “We must all hang together or, assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

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On this day in 1984, exactly 208 years after a young nation declared its independence, a memorial was dedicated in the Constitution Gardens, on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The monument consists of fifty-six stone blocks, each bearing the inscribed likeness of the actual signature, of every man who so pledged his life, his fortune and his sacred honor.

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Today, this day is mostly forgotten in favor of July 4, when the final edits of Jefferson’s Declaration were adopted, the final document engrossed (handwritten onto parchment), and sent off to the printer.

Happy Independence Day.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.