Friday, September 01, 2017

History or Mythstory? – Part III

Warren Gamaliel Harding (November 2, 1865 – August 2, 1923) was the 29th President of the United States, serving from March 4, 1921, until his death in 1923. At the time of his death, he was one of the most popular presidents, but the subsequent exposure of scandals that took place under his administration, such as Teapot Dome, eroded his popular regard, as did revelations of an affair by Nan Britton, one of his mistresses. In historical rankings of the U.S. presidents, Harding is often rated among the worst.” That is Wikipedia’s evaluation of our 29th president.  (It will ultimately be interesting to see Wikipedia’s evaluation of the current president).

Why mention Harding’s name at all? Despite his painful legacy, Harding did create a new and lasting appellation that more accurately describes those formerly known (throughout the 19th century) as the “Fathers” of our country. As a Republican Senator from Ohio, in his keynote address to the 1916 Republican National Convention, he coined the phrase “Founding Fathers.” He used it several times thereafter, most prominently in his 1921 inaugural address as President of the United States.

Richard B. Morris, universally considered a pre-eminent Colonial and American constitutional historian, and a former chairman of the history department at Columbia University famously used the designation “Founding Fathers” in 1973.  At the time he was preparing for the impending bicentennial of the American Revolution. He then published “Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries”, a collection of biographical essays.

In that publication, he inaugurated the following men as the official Founding Fathers of the American Revolution, a designation most other historians seem to agree with: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.  In the exalted pantheon of Founding Fathers George Washington is unanimously accepted as the primus inter pares [first among equals].  Despite some of his failings [below], Jefferson must be considered as one of the most influential.

Almost exactly four years ago Time Magazine published a long article headed “The 20 Most Influential Americans of All Time.” Four former presidents were listed: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson.  The rationale for including each nominee followed. Here is what Time wrote about Jefferson:

“The contradictions in his character and his ideas could be breathtaking. That the author of the Declaration of Independence not only owned and worked slaves at Monticello but kept one of them, Sally Hemings, as a mistress — fathering children with her but never freeing her or them — was merely the most dramatic of his inconsistencies. Yet he was arguably the most accomplished man who ever occupied the White House: naturalist, lawyer, musician, architect, geographer, inventor, scientist, agriculturalist, and philologist.

“A dozen powerful strands of the Enlightenment converged in him: a certain sky-blue clarity, an aggressive awareness of the world, a fascination with science, a mechanical vision of the universe and an obsession with mathematical precision. Many of the contradictions in his character arose from the discrepancies between such intellectual machinery and the passionate, organic disorders of life.”

The Time article continued, “Jefferson helped shape America, serving in the Continental Congress, as a diplomat, as Secretary of State, Vice President, as the President who made the Louisiana Purchase, as the founder of the University of Virginia.”  Time then states, “Yet his finest hour came when he was young, only 33. In the Declaration of Independence he formulated the founding aspiration of America and what remains its best self: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …’” states, “Despite his many later accomplishments, Jefferson’s principal legacy to the United States arguably remains the Declaration of Independence, the eloquent expression of liberty, equality and democracy upon which the country was founded.”  Would that legacy be diminished if we discovered that a number of those words (in essence) were proclaimed earlier by another author? As famous and as popular Thomas Jefferson has become for writing the Declaration, the harshest evaluation of that assumption that he did so would be, “At least a portion was plagiarized.” Therein lies the mythstory.

Few people have heard the term, “The Forgotten Founder,” and that is most unfortunate because it refers to a remarkably accomplished patriot who is an almost unknown figure, except perhaps to professional historians.  You might recognize the name since there is a George Mason University in Virginia, and until recently the George Mason School of Law at the University.  (See NOTE below for more.)

From the George Mason Memorial site in Washington D.C., the following description is written, “A Virginia plantation owner, reluctant public servant, and author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a document that helped inspire the American Declaration of Independence, and attendee at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, George Mason was called by Thomas Jefferson “the wisest man of his generation” and regarded by George Washington as a mentor. He is widely hailed as an early champion of human rights and his writings helped inspire the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.”

As adulatory as that characterization is, its reference to the inspiration supplied by the Virginia Declaration of Rights to the American Declaration of Independence is significantly underestimated.  In June 1776 during the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg that propelled America to independence, based upon his reputation as described above, George Mason was tasked to draft The Virginia Declaration of Rights.

Here is what the Library of Congress writes:  “That draft was adopted unanimously [June 12th, 1776] and is one of the documents heavily relied on by Thomas Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence.  It can be seen as the fountain from which flowed the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Even a cursory examination of Mason’s and Jefferson’s declarations reveals the commonality of language and principle.”

The question arises as to whether this “commonality” is merely an “influential” factor, or is the confluence of words and thoughts so close as to establish that Thomas Jefferson’s claim that he “wrote” the Declaration of Independence was (in today’s parlance) “alternate facts?” (Based on Jefferson’s specific request, his tombstone reads, “AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE.”)  Although he definitely was the “writer” but should he be considered the “author?”

The timing of the creation of these documents adds to the suspicion that Mason’s words were more than just “inspiring.” Here is the key statement as it appears in its final form of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Here is how this passage was originally written, in what Thomas Jefferson called his “original Rough draught” of the Declaration:

“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness….”

Here is where “timing” comes into play: On June 12, 1776, within a day of the time that Jefferson probably began writing the Declaration, George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette. This document reads, in part:

That all men are born equally free and independant, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity, among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.  Note that the words in bold print here and above are almost exactly the same.  It seems unlikely that the close uniformity is mere coincidence.  

These similarities between Mason’s document and Jefferson’s Rough Draft have led many historians to conclude that Jefferson drew from Mason while writing the Declaration. Jefferson’s biographer Dumas Malone (Jefferson the Virginian) speculates that there may have been a “direct influence,” while Pauline Maier (a highly regarded Professor of American history at MIT, and author of American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence) goes so far as to say that that Jefferson had Mason’s draft “in hand” while working on the Declaration of Independence.

On May 8, 1825, nearly 50 years after presenting the Declaration of Independence to Congress, and just several months before his death, Thomas Jefferson wrote the following letter to Henry Lee primarily to describe what he considered as the major object of the Declaration:

“This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”

He then continues, “Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.  All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, & c….”  The historic letter ends there with no further explanation.

In this last paragraph, he virtually admitted that he used disparate phrases from a diverse group of thinkers, politicians and philosophers, utilizing some words and eliminating others.  Although Jefferson cites and credits four names as his inspiration, he fails to mention George Mason who was not only a very close friend, but also a mentor to both him and to James Madison as well.  Opinions of historians are somewhat mixed as to Jefferson’s claim the he alone is responsible for writing the Declaration of independence.  However, George Mason is almost universally recognized as “The Father of the Bill of Rights” based on his authorship of the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

So Readers, I have two questions for you.  First, knowing the facts above, do you believe George Mason’s words are actually a critical part of the Declaration, somewhat diminishing Thomas Jefferson’s role?  Second, should George Mason be enshrined into the list of the Founding Fathers thereby correcting his reputation as the “Forgotten Founder?”  You can respond to my email address below.

NOTE:  This from Fox News: Back on March 31, George Mason University said it had received a $30 million donation from both the conservative Charles Koch Foundation and an anonymous donor. In exchange for the money, the university would rename its law school for the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

The university announced it was renaming its law school the "The Antonin Scalia School of Law.” But what they were not counting on was that they had accidentally created an embarrassing acronym – “ASSoL.”  People on social media noticed and the university wound up being the target of jokes. Now, the school has decided to change the name again. In a letter to alumni, the dean of George Mason’s law school acknowledged the acronym controversy and said the school would be instead named “The Antonin Scalia Law School.”

As you can imagine, removing the name of a Founding Father in favor of a controversial ultra Conservative Supreme Court Justice was not well received by the faculty or the students.    However, another crude acronym succinctly describes the situation: “Money talks, but BS walks.”


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