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January 24, 1788

April 12, 2021 - 5 minute read


time_capsule

Two weeks after the Constitutional Convention adjourned in Philadelphia, Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee wrote to his good friend, Samuel Adams.  “Having long toiled with you, my dear friend, in the vineyard of liberty,” he began, Lee continued by asserting that the people of the United States, having fought for free government against the British, “had no idea of being brought under despotic rule under the notion of’ ‘strong government;’ or in form of elective despotism.” His “elective despotism” was a direct reference to the Constitution which had just been circulated to the States for ratification. “Surely this is not a ground upon which a wise and good man would choose to rest the dearest rights of human nature,” he declared.

Adams’ reply was revealing. “I confess,” he wrote, “as I enter the building I stumble at the threshold.  I meet with a national government, instead of a federal union of sovereign states. I am not able to conceive why the wisdom of the Convention led them to give preference to the former before the latter.” On December 7, 1787, just four days after posting his reply to Lee, Adams was elected as one of twelve men to represent Boston as the Massachusetts ratifying convention. As the “Father of the American Resolution,” his vote would be critical.

The revolution against the British had no shortage of compelling leaders whose stories were known throughout the colonies and would fill pages of America’s founding history.  However, in Massachusetts four men stood above all others – John Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere and Samuel Adams. All but John Adams were delegates to the ratification convention. (John Adams was in London representing the United States as its emissary to Great Britain.)  Hancock, Governor of Massachusetts, had been elected President of the convention but was not presiding due to successive bouts of painful gout, making it difficult for him to stand. However, that did not stop Rufus King from noting cynically in a letter to his friend George Thatcher that “Hancock is still confined, or rather he has not yet taken his seat. As soon as the majority is exhibited on either side I think his health will suffer him to be abroad.”

The lives of Hancock, Revere, and the two Adamses had been intertwined since the earliest days of overt opposition to oppressive British taxes in the early 1760’s. More than a decade later, British authorities sought to arrest Hancock and Sam Adams. Informed by spies that the two men were secretly staying at the home of Rev. Jonas Clarke in Lexington and that munitions and military weapons were being stockpiled in Concord, British Gen. Thomas Gage ordered troops to march on both towns.

In the cool spring evening of April 18, 1775, as the Sons of Liberty monitored movements of British troops, Dr. Joseph Warren quietly sent for Paul Revere and William Dawes, dispatching them to Lexington and Concord to warn the people “the British are coming.” Revere later recalled, “I alarmed almost every house till I got to Lexington. I found Messrs. Hancock and Adams at the Reverend Mr. Clark’s…After about half an hour Mr. Dawes came.  We refreshed ourselves and went off for Concord to secure the stores.”  

In the meantime, Hancock and Adams secreted themselves as the British approached Lexington Common. Early the next morning “the shot heard round the world was fired” and the American revolution began. A year later, Hancock was elected President of the Continental Congress and was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence. Sam Adams’ signature on the Declaration would be immediately above that of his cousin, John. All three men would remain active during the war and its aftermath as the country struggled to stabilize relations among thirteen independent States and find its place in the international community. In 1788, all three have an important role in deciding whether Massachusetts will ratify the Constitution.

While Adams was believed to oppose ratification, many believed Hancock leaned toward it, although he had yet refused to take a public stand. Hancock was briefed daily by advocates of both sides, while Adams was being lobbied by Boston’s tradesmen and merchants, led by Paul Revere. In early January, more than 380 tradesmen gathered at the Green Dragon Tavern, a familiar meeting place for the Sons of Liberty years before where the Boston Tea Party had been planned and Patriots had met the night before Revere made his famous “midnight ride.” But this meeting, in January 1788, was designed to influence delegates to the ratifying convention, especially Sam Adams.

The gathering of silversmiths, cobblers, engravers, and other tradesmen unanimously approved five resolutions and chose three of their leaders, including Revere, to draft them. Immediately printed in several newspapers, the resolutions supported “the proposed frame of government, well calculated to serve the liberties, protect the property, and guard the rights of the citizens of America.” It concluded, “It is our warmest wish and prayer that the same should be adopted by this commonwealth.” Revere was assigned to deliver the resolutions to Adams.

Revere and Adams will be “reunited” in Boston 226 years later when, on a cold, snowy day in mid-December 2014, construction workers will be repairing a leak in the State House and several old coins will fall from cracks in the concrete. Further investigation will unearth a weathered brass box placed there in 1855, containing coins, several newspapers of the day, and other items. Among its contents is a cowhide capsule placed there on July 4, 1795 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of American independence. Enclosed were a Pine Tree Shilling (1652), among the earliest coins made in North America; a New Jersey Cent (1787), the first coin on which “E Pluribus Unum” appeared; a commemorative medal honoring George Washington; and an engraved rectangular plaque, probably made by Revere, commemorating laying of the cornerstone of the new State House in 1795.

An inscription on the plaque reveals the cornerstone and the capsule were laid by Gov. Samuel Adams, Masonic Grand Master Paul Revere, and Deputy Grand Master William Scollay. 

Originally uncovered in 1855 when additions to the building were under construction, the 1795 artifacts, along with new objects of the time, were placed in a new brass box and reburied, forgotten, and undiscovered for another 129 years. On January 6, 2015, as the world looked on, the box was opened and examined by antiquities experts at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Months later, on June 17, after a period of public viewing at the Museum, the capsule was returned to its historic hiding place in the cornerstone of the State House, this time with a set of 2015 U.S. mint coins and a silver plaque added to its contents for future generations to discover. 

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