[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding. The essay below was inspired by the whimsical cover of Parade magazine three years ago.]
As a tip of the cap to the impending Fourth of July, the cover of Parade magazine back in 2013 featured a portion of John Trumbull’s famous painting “The Declaration of Independence.” The massive (12 feet by 18 feet) canvass portrays the committee charged with drafting the declaration presenting their work to the continental congress. The five co-authors (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin) submitted their draft on June 28, and less than a week later the congress approved a considerably edited version. Completed in 1818, Trumbull’s portrayal of the scene has been on display in the rotunda of the U. S. capitol since 1826.
Parade‘s version of Trumbull’s masterpiece was altered for laughs. Captions appear over several of the prominent figures so we will know what each was thinking in the midst of this historic moment. For example: Concerned about his physical appearance, John Adams is complaining that oil paintings make him look fat (so “Don’t tag me,” he pleads), while Charles Thomson, the secretary of the congress, is thinking that what the new nation really needs “is a good theme song.” The caption that most caught my attention, though, was the question appearing over Benjamin Franklin. What the writer, philosopher, scientist, inventor, statesman and diplomat wants to know is, “Can we get this down to 140 characters?”
The caption is pretty clever, really, and I got a kick out of it. But then I began to think about it and I got depressed. What makes the Parade cover funny is that it is absurd. The captions don’t fit the time and place. What makes the Parade cover depressing, in my opinion, is that the captions do fit perfectly in our own day and age. We live in an age of slogans and bumper stickers, 8-second sound bites and tw0-minute responses in tightly-scripted debates–a time in which not only movie stars and professional athletes but also congressmen and senators communicate with the public in 140-character increments. [And in 2016, the presumptive Republican nominee for president tweets constantly.]
The Founders were realistic statesmen who recognized the need to rally popular support for the cause of independence, but they were also students of history, theology, philosophy, and classical literature, intellectuals more than politicians who worked to craft intellectually formidable arguments for the cause for which they were risking their lives.
A book that drives home this point is The Founders and the Classics, by Professor Carl J. Richard, and I highly recommend it. In his opening chapter, Richard reminds us of how well educated the Founders typically were for their day. After preparatory training in grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, they frequently went on to college studies that focused primarily, almost exclusively on classical literature and languages.
Presbyterian John Witherspoon (president of Princeton and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence) declared that such subjects were essential “to fit young men for serving their country in public stations.” He knew whereof he spoke, inasmuch as his graduates would include “ten cabinet officers, thirty-nine congressmen, twenty-one senators, twelve governors, thirty judges (including three supreme court justices), and fifty state legislators.”
Given this educational and cultural context, it is small wonder that, as the American Revolution unfolded, both patriots and loyalists peppered their political arguments with classical allusions and historical arguments. Nor did the pattern end with American independence. When the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 produced a new proposed Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, both supporters and opponents marshaled complex, erudite, and lengthy arguments for their positions.
The so-called Federalist Papers (much cited but seldom read today) are a case in point. Open their pages and read as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton sought to sway political momentum with references–repeated references– to the “Amphictyonic League” of 4th century B. C. Greece. It would be hard to fit their argument into a thirty-second ad. To read the Federalist essays today is to underscore the superficial sloganeering that now passes for substantive political argument.
If this sounds like a rant I can only plead guilty as charged. But let me end by giving Benjamin Franklin the last word. If any of the Founders would have embraced social media, Franklin would get my vote as “the Founder Most Likely to Tweet.” After all, he built much of his early public prominence on his popular Poor Richard’s Almanack with its store of pithy aphorisms like “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” (That’s only 57 characters!)
And yet Franklin was as deeply committed to intellectually substantive exchange as the far better educated statesmen who appear in Trumbull’s portrait. Although he had only a couple of years of formal schooling, he read deeply (took up Plutarch before age 12) and labored assiduously to make himself an effective communicator, seeking to fine-tune his prose by immersing himself in the best English writers of his day. His appreciation for the life of the mind are further reflected in his role in founding the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as in his decision to retell the story of his life in a lengthy autobiography, a work that even still commands a world-wide readership.
Litera scripta manet, Franklin observed in his memoir–“the written word remains.” What a convicting truth. I only wish it didn’t apply to tweets.