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The Founding Fathers and the Luck of the Draw

If Sarah Palin doesn’t know who the Founding Fathers are, she’s not alone—neither do most Americans.

To begin with, George Washington was not the first president of the United States—John Hanson was. Hanson became president under the Articles of Confederation, which was the first constitution of the original thirteen colonies, ratified in March of 1781.

George Washington, Commander of the Continental Army fought the British Red Coats to their defeat. As a result of Washington’s strategy, his forces eventually captured the two main British combat armies at Saratoga and Yorktown, leading to the war’s end in 1783.

Washington presided over the Philadelphia Convention taking place there because of the general dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation. The delegates from the thirteen colonies at the Convention drafted a new United States Constitution in 1787 and unanimously chose Washington to
become the first President of the United States under that Constitution in 1789. He sought to create a nation capable of surviving in a world torn asunder by war between Britain and France who were always at each other’s throats in their empire building.

Washington supported plans to build a strong central government and create a national bank. For his central role in the formation of the United States, he is often referred to as “the father of our country”.

In creating the new nation, George had a little help from his friends. The Federalist Party, led by Alexander Hamilton supported him and Washington responded in kind. He occupied the presidency for eight years. His farewell address in 1796 will be remembered for its stern warning against partisanship, sectionalism, and involvement in foreign wars.

Barack Obama could take a lesson here.

Technically, the Founding Fathers were those delegates from the thirteen colonies who were the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and those who participated in framing and adopting the United States Constitution of 1789.

Historian Richard B. Morris names seven of them as the key Founding Fathers: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. These people, and other delegates to the Philadelphia Convention, were landed gentry, plantation owners and the elite of colonial America.

Some historians define the “founding fathers” as a larger group, including ordinary citizens who took part in winning American independence; even dirt farmers who would drop their plow or their scythe, grab their musket and join the rag-tag army of General George Washington to fight the Red Coats wherever they were.

But the key politicians and the delegates to the Continental Congresses and the Philadelphia Convention called the shots. There were about fifty-five of them. These delegates represented a cross-section of 18th Century American leadership.

While the fight for independence was happening in America, in England, the Industrial Revolution was booming right along. A more modern world had begun. As new inventions were created, factories followed soon thereafter.

Samuel Slater, who had been an apprentice in an English cotton factory, came to America. Once here, he reconstructed a cotton spinning machine from memory. He then proceeded to build a factory of his own.

Then came Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. In a nation where cotton was king, the cotton gin (short for cotton engine) was a machine for getting seeds out of cotton, making slave labor significantly more productive.

Then came James Watt’s steam engine. A new power source spun off a myriad of new industrial machines and the creation of new manufacturing plants. The owners became rich and ostentatious. The Industrial Revolution and Capitalism had arrived in America.

It was a boon for the 1787 delegates.

According to Wikipedia, the Internet Encyclopedia, at the time of the Philadelphia Convention, of the fifty-five or so delegates, thirty-five were lawyers or had benefited from legal education and thirteen of them were merchants.

There were six major land speculators, including Robert Morris.

Benjamin Franklin and ten others speculated in securities on a large scale.

Twelve owned or managed slave-operated plantations or large farms, including George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson—Thomas Jefferson who wrote this beautiful piece of prose—the Declaration of Independence:

“… 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, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government…”

Yet, Jefferson, who owned as many as 200 slaves, freed only two slaves in his lifetime and five in his will and chose not to pursue two others who ran away. I guess he believed in the old adage: Do as I say, not as I do.
George Washington and James Madison also owned slaves; as did Benjamin Franklin, who later freed his slave and was a key founder of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.

Alexander Hamilton was opposed to slavery and with John Jay and other anti-slavery advocates, helped to found the first African free school in New York City.

These are your Founding Fathers, Sarah Palin. Can you pick a favorite now?

STEPHEN FLEISCHMAN, writer-producer-director of documentaries, spent thirty years in Network News at CBS and ABC. His memoir is now in print. See www.amahchewahwah.com, e-mail stevefl@ca.rr.com

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STEPHEN FLEISCHMAN, writer-producer-director of documentaries, spent thirty years in Network News at CBS and ABC. His memoir is now in print. See www.amahchewahwah.com, e-mail stevefl@ca.rr.com

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