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Thursday, May 10, 1787  

May 10, 2020 - 4 minute read


Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison

Almost daily we learn more about the delegates chosen by the States to meet in Philadelphia, just four days from now, for the purpose of addressing deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation.  It is expected that differences of interests and opinions will divide the convention, but it is also anticipated they might be able to overcome those differences and agree to compromises that will strengthen the confederation. However, the convention will lack the creativity, experience, and passion of many patriots who led us through the dark and perilous days of the Revolution.  

John Adams is serving as our country’s ambassador to the Court of St. James. He was among the first to challenge Great Britain’s imposition of the Stamp Act in 1765. His “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” laid out a thorough justification for opposing the Stamp Act and propelled Adams into the forefront of the revolutionary movement. Yet, ever faithful to the law and fairness, he agreed to defend British soldiers who had fired on a Boston crowd in 1770.  Known as the Boston Massacre, the event and his defense of the soldiers caused him temporarily to fall out of favor with others in the movement, but it also marked him as a man of principle.  

John and his cousin, Samuel Adams, became indispensable leaders of the revolution.  John was the central figure in the First and Second Continental Congresses and it was John who insisted that Thomas Jefferson write the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Like Adams, Thomas Jefferson is playing the part of a diplomat, representing the United States in France. Like Adams, he is a lawyer, having studied law and been tutored by George Wythe, America’s first professor of law.  Both Jefferson and Wythe were signers of the Declaration and now Wythe has been selected as a delegate to the convention. 

Jefferson and James Madison have developed a particularly strong friendship, built largely on their love of liberty, Virginia, and books. Jefferson has been living in France since 1784, traveling extensively and studying everything from canals to vineyards to Roman ruins, all the while sending books on politics and philosophy – hundreds of them - to Madison who devours them as soon as they are received.  For all that he has learned about Europe, Jefferson’s love for America has only grown deeper. “How little do my countrymen know,” he wrote to a friend, “that precious blessing they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy. I confess I had no idea of it myself.”

Former Virginia governor Thomas Nelson, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry all turned down appointments to the convention.  When the Virginia Assembly voted for delegates, Henry received more votes than any other except General Washington, but he fears this is a plot to erect a strong national government at the expense of the States. In 1765,Thomas Jefferson, as a young law student, had attended the debate in Williamsburg when Henry delivered his fiery oration against the Stamp Act.  It was “such as I have never heard from any other man,” Jefferson wrote.  “He appeared to me to speak as Homer wrote.”  

However, years of political disagreements have created a political chasm between Henry on one side and Jefferson and Madison on the other.  But Henry’s refusal to participate in the convention is creating a new stir and Henry’s opponents believe it well-positions him to oppose its final recommendations if they should include a strong national government. Henry is popular and persuasive.  Madison and Washington are concerned.

John Hancock, whose bold signature on the Declaration of Independence is recognized by everyone, resigned as President of the Congress last June due to ill health. He was a true leader in the Revolution and Governor of Massachusetts more than once, but this year has been difficult for him.  In January, his nine-year-old son fell while ice-skating and hit his head.  On February 11, little Johnny was buried. Even as Hancock was burdened with this tragedy and ill health, the people of Massachusetts would not let go of him.  After the riotous events of Shay’s Rebellion, the people turned Governor Bowdoin out of office and reelected Hancock who immediately pardoned the rebels. But he will not be here at the convention.

Hancock has been friends with John Adams since childhood. In fact, John Hancock’s father, a Congregational minister, had baptized Adams. As early as 1765 Hancock and the Adams cousins, John and Samuel, had played critical roles opposing the hated British-imposed Stamp Act. Samuel had helped draft the Articles of Confederation and both he and John, along with James Bowdoin, had written the Constitution of Massachusetts in 1780.  Now, as a state senator with valuable experience drafting such documents, he could make significant contributions to the task at hand.  However, like Henry, he stands in opposition to the convention. 

“These are the times that try men’s souls” were the opening lines of Thomas Paine’s clarion call for revolution which inspired patriots and soldiers alike during the darkest hours of the war for independence. At war’s end he completed the last of his series of essays entitled Crisis by declaring, “The times that tried men’s souls are over.” No one can match Paine’s passion for liberty or his masterful pen to stir men to action, but he will not attend the convention; he recently left for Europe to promote his new iron bridge.

Henry Knox is in New York serving as Secretary of War. John Jay was overlooked by New York’s Governor George Clinton because their opinions differ about amending the Articles.  Although these and other revered patriots - veterans of the Revolutionary War and leaders in their home States - will not attend the convention, most assuredly their opinions and influence will be felt.

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