On Watch: Our Floundering Fathers

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By Marcus Fisk 

Trapped somewhere in old, dusty, scholastically-mired history books are some ripping yarns of how we got started as a country just begging to become a Final Jeopardy answer.

John Trumbull's “Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.”  It depicts all the attendees of the Congress that led to the signing of the document (some didn't sign).  Legend has it that the Adams-Jefferson rivalry was so nasty, that Trumbull captured it by showing Jefferson's foot on top of Adams's. It's a myth.  But fun to consider, huh? Courtesy photo.
John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.” It depicts all the attendees of the Congress that led to the signing of the document (some didn’t sign). Legend has it that the Adams-Jefferson rivalry was so nasty, that Trumbull captured it by showing Jefferson’s foot on top of Adams’s. It’s a myth. But fun to consider, huh? Courtesy photo.

Who would have thought that John Adams, the political Buzz Aldrin of his time, and good ol’ Thomas Jefferson, an early and overly-enthusiastic champion of racial diversity, once joined at the hip to rip England a new one, would go from being best buddies in Philadelphia to sending one another hate mail for nearly two decades?  The bile rising from these two Founding Fathers became so notorious that when Congress commissioned John Trumbull, a big-deal artist from Connecticut, to paint a picture depicting the entire cast and crew of the Declaration of Independence, it appeared that TJ’s foot was standing on top of Adams’s.  Art historians have since debunked that theory saying Jefferson’s foot is just really, REALLY close to Adams’s. Ironically, these two  veterans of  those halcyon days when we were busy frustrating England with our own brand of terrorism, went from being close allies to bitter enemies to becoming BFFs again at the dusk of their lives.  And they died on the SAME DAY – July 4th, 1826 – the 50th anniversary of our Independence.  How’s that for boring history?

And John Hancock?  The First Continental Congress was held from September 5th – October 26th, 1774 with Peyton Randolph (VA) presiding and succeeded by Henry Middleton (SC).  Hancock presided over the Second Continental Congress and therefore, purists say he should be recognized as a President of the U.S. – a good decade plus before George W. was President (not to be confused with the other George W).

Trumbull’s picture includes the “Big Five” of the Second Continental Congress, left-to-right, Adams (MA), Roger Sherman (CT), Robert Livingston (NY), Jefferson (VA), and Benjamin Franklin (PA),  all of whom helped Jefferson with his draft.  These men had absolutely no idea what this country was supposed to be when it grew up.  All they knew was that we were seriously pissed off over England taxing us blind without being represented and we felt we needed some kind of a press release to let Parliament know that we were really bent out of shape over the whole colony thing.  If they saw how Congress represents us today they might have backed off on the ‘taxation without representation’ bit since today we sure have plenty portions of both.

Adams was a lawyer from Boston and a good one.  He was so good that he even defended the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre in front of a hometown Boston jury – and got them off.  (I didn’t say he was popular.)  He was brilliant, and if they didn’t know – he told them.  This attitude carried over into Congress and later was probably the reason he didn’t make the first cut for President in 1790.  He was sure persistent though and convinced everyone to let him be VEEP.

Next in line is Roger Sherman.  Sherman was a cobbler who also later became a lawyer,  a Congressman, the treasurer of Yale, and the Mayor of New Haven, Connecticut.  He was Mayor for nine years – which is no small feat if you’re familiar with the crime rate in New Haven.  He was a big ‘joiner’ and is the only Founding Father who signed all four of the primary documents, the Declaration, the Articles of Association (who knew?), the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. And like George W. anybody who was anybody back then he was also a surveyor.  Roger Sherman was a doer, not a talker.  TJ’s review of him,  “Mr. Sherman of Connecticut, a man who never said a foolish thing in his life.”

Next is Robert Livingston.  Livingston made his money the old-fashioned way – he inherited it. His dad was a judge who did well and married the richest girl in New York, starting a dynasty. Robert Livingston was one of nine siblings all of whom settled in the Hudson Valley, and all did very well (In New York, money is how you get appointed to everything).  He was also a lawyer and went on to become the first Chancellor of New York, the state’s highest judicial slot.  Everyone called him ‘The Chancellor’ until his death, kind of like Trump is called ‘The Donald’ today.  Like Trump, he was also into real estate, and became the Minister to France under Jefferson, and was our go-to guy in France who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase.

Thomas Jefferson is what Americans love about a President.  He was a revolutionary, opposed  taxes, spoke six languages, dabbled in architecture, invested in real estate (see Louisiana Purchase above), and like LBJ, Reagan and Bush, had a big spread out in the country.  TJ also cut a handsome figure at 6’4” and red hair.  He was also a Governor, Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and founder of the University of Virginia.  A good shrink today would diagnose Jefferson as having A.D.D.

Franklin was the true “Father of His Country,” and really enjoyed being ambassador to France later on in his career.  The original “Most Interesting Man in the World” Franklin could have been a spokesman for Viagra.  In addition to ‘inventing’ the Franklin stove, printing Almanacs, flying kites to prove electricity, and dropping clever, witty sayings with the press every chance he got, he did more to solidify relations between the French and Americans than Bridgette Bardot and Jerry Lewis did two centuries later.

The final Declaration vote was on July 2nd, 1776 but dated July 4th  because of the printers (wonder who got the printing contract?) and hit the Colonial version of the NY Time Best-Seller’s list.  We were the first country in recorded history to revolt and start our own country.  Like a political Improv Company, we were ad-libbing ‘Democracy’ without any clue whatsoever how this whole political experiment thing would turn out.   They were enthusiastic, faithful, but clueless.  And that’s why they should have been called our ‘Floundering Fathers.’

Now there’s a couple of trivia questions worth a beer or two at Ramparts.

Marcus Fisk
Marcus Fisk

Marcus Fisk is a retired Navy Captain, Naval Academy graduate, sometime actor, sculptor, pick-up soccer player, playwright, and screenwriter.  He and his wife Pamela are former residents of Alexandria and currently live in Connecticut where they own a B&B.