Monday, March 12, 2018

Founders Series Part 1

When it comes to the challenges of sustaining the American Experiment, particularly in the Age of Trump, it's important to remember how challenging it all was at the inception.  Here are two pieces that remind us:

The Founders Flee to Philadelphia

In early May, 1787, George Washington, well tailored and well appointed, stepped into a fine coach, bid a farewell to his beloved Mount Vernon, and, attended by three men, headed for Philadelphia for a Convention that would change the course of American history.

We are at a moment in time where the viability of the new American nation is at risk.  The War for Independence has been won, but the British are not exactly speeding their way out of town (or country).  The government envisioned by the original Articles of the Confederation really doesn’t work, and the major movers in the country (Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, John Jay, etc. all know it.)   The national currency, such as there is one, is basically worthless script.  There is no ability as a nation to do much of anything collectively, because each state guards its own priorities and privileges—and those priorities do not include giving up much power to a central government.

Not everyone agrees that something has to be done.  It has taken many months to even get people to come to a convention—and the word “Constitutional” is so fraught for some states that it can’t really be used.  But, eventually, enough of them buy into the idea that they are willing to send representatives—if for no other reason to make sure that not one iota of their authority is in any way abridged.

Washington’s trip is filled with irony from the start.  The three men escorting him north are not really whole men at all, at least in the eyes of the law.  All three are slaves—his personal manservant, a coachman, and a groom.  One wonders what thoughts might have been going through their minds, or how they might have felt when they learned that the leading men of the country had assigned their lives a 3/5 value. 

The Founders Head For The Kitchen

There is a great story about George Washington’s taste in food. He, and Martha, were apparently fond of English-style cooking, and particularly meat pies.  For Christmas one year, their kitchen turned out a favorite—a savory delicacy made of a bushel of flour for crust, stuffed with five different types of boiled fowl—pigeon, partridge, duck, goose, turkey, all baked on high heat for four hours.

When you think about how the Founders actually came to create the elegant mechanism known as the Constitution, you should disavail yourself of the notion that it emerged, somehow whole, as a product of a few men’s transcendent genius, arrived at after erudite discussion at the very  highest plane of thinking.  Rather, think of George and Martha’s groaning table, and all the grinding, steaming, and plucking that brought them holiday cheer. 

It is Spring, 1788, and George Washington has left Mount Vernon and arrived in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention.  He is, as always, punctual in the extreme, and so is one of the first people to get there.  Ultimately, nearly eighty delegates join him, and when they are not eating, drinking, dancing, and otherwise entertaining themselves (Philadelphia being a party town) they get down to the business at hand, conceptualizing the framework of a new government.  While much of the work is being done in the kitchen below, Washington is the center of attention, and the elephant in the room.     

It is hard for any of us to fully grasp the esteem in which Washington was held.  As a frame of reference, in 1788 there were no political parties, so we didn’t have 2/3 of the country immediately forming a fixed, partisan opinion.  There were no trails of emails or text messages, no inappropriate tweets, no votes on obscure riders that could be held against them, and no primary voters demanding fealty to a long set of articles of faith.  People judged Washington on his service to the fledgling nation, which was considered unsurpassed.   They saw him as incorruptible man, honor-bound to duty first.   Poems and songs were written about him, in the very best of 18th Century fulsomeness.