George Read: An Influential But Forgotten Founder


Portrait of George Read, Chief Justice of Delaware (Courtesy of the Wikipedia website)

George Read had many political strengths and used them in his quest to rise and become a leader in the development of the United States.  However, his name is not recognized by most. In fact, only his contemporaries and Delaware residents recalled his significant contributions to the founding of the United States. At the Delaware Constitutional Convention in 1776, he was “the most influential delegate in the state constitutional convention” (Munroe). He rose to political standing as a self-made man, using all the resources in his path to success.

Read was born in Cecil County, Maryland on September 18, 1733. He was the son of the Irish immigrant John Read, a planter from Dublin, Ireland, and Mary Howell, an immigrant from Wales. His parents were not well-educated and his family-name was not recognized. Read was determined to bring pride to his family name. Unlike his parents, he received a classical education at the Reverend Francis Allison’s academy in New London and at age fifteen studied law in Philadelphia (Monroe). The education would not have been possible without the support of Reverend Allison, his caretaker while in New London. His law education was a major asset that aided his knowledge of the judiciary. In 1780, he served as a judge in Delaware. Not only did he read over legal documents carefully, but he also saw the practical applications of them: how they directly impacted the people. Those abilities made people recall him as a “deep-read lawyer and versed in special pleading, the logic of law” (Read, 15). In 1797, he compiled the two-volume collection of the Laws of Delaware. 

He was called a Founding Father because he was one of the state delegates who signed the

Colonial Delaware (Courtesy of

Colonial Delaware (Courtesy of

Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the US Constitution; thus he assisted large-scale government decisions. However, the majority of his political occupations focused on issues at the state-level, small-scale government decisions, rather than at the national-level. For example, the main reason he supported the Alexander Hamilton’s notion of a strong central government was that the government would regulate the power of larger states. Delaware was a small state; hence if the states gained control of the government,  larger states would most likely receive the upper-hand in establishing legislative measures.

Read started out as a man who was concerned with the public impact of government decisions. During the Revolutionary Period, he was the “leader of the moderate party in Delaware” (Monroe) and “member of the Delaware Committee of Correspondence” (Read, 330). He was a key individual involved in the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1765 and “secured compliance with Philadelphia nonimportation agreements in 1768” (Monroe). He was said to be “active in patriotism” (, but he did not want to fight off the British. Similarly to his colleague, John Dickinson, he did not have a desire to break free from the Royal Crown. The British structure provided a platform for stability in 18th century America while the country

Stamp Act 1765 logo (Courtesy of

Stamp Act 1765 logo (Courtesy of

learned to govern itself. Additionally, he respected the Royal Crown, since he thought Britain was a well-established nation and was treating the American colonies properly. The British knew Read was a loyal supporter to their political policies. They even offered him an office position under British government in which they promised him a share in the financial benefits (Read, 21).  However, this position came at a time when Read was beginning to realize that the disturbances between the colonies and the Royal Crown were problematic. The British began to repress the rights of the American people and pass taxes without the consent of the people. As a result, Read refused the British offer. His patriotism and integrity overpowered the potential economic rewards from the job offer. Although patriotism was not the main reason he made his decision, it was due to protecting his reputation and character.

According to historian Gordon Wood, 18th century character was a concern of the Founders, which meant they were “preoccupied with their honor or their reputation, or, in other words, the way they were presented and viewed by others” (Wood, 23). Read’s actions do not follow Wood’s definition of character, since Read’s actions were private. It can be debated that Read fits the mold of a modern character, since he seems to have “inner personality that contains hidden contradictions and flaws” (Wood, 23). Read does not have any memorable speeches or public announcements throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Even as a representative at the Annapolis Convention (1786) and Philadelphia Convention (1787),  he did not make any noteworthy remarks. In order to understand his position on political topics, the information was gained through letter exchanges. These letters revealed Read’s perception of the government’s direction. During the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention (1787), Read wrote a Letter to John Dickinson that focused on smaller state’s rights. He proposed that larger states should be watched over carefully or else they will potentially suppress the rights of the smaller states. It can be argued that his character was achieved in the state of Delaware, but would not be identified by everyone.

His lack of character explained how he shifted from public to private regarding government decisions. First, he never verbally expressed that he was against the new independence resolution devised by the other delegates on July 2, 1776. He essentially “Thought it (Declaration) premature, the people, and especially many of his own constituents, not being ripe for it” (Read, 334). Congress was not giving the citizens enough of an advanced notice about the changes that would happen in the government. He even criticized in a published 1871 newspaper article that the document “did not have a Table of Contents nor an Index” (Life and Correspondence of George Read Signer of the Declaration of Independence). Despite his inward objection, at the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, he along with fifty five other delegates approved the document (Monroe). He concluded he did not want to risk his reputation on account of political disagreement. He would lose all his supporters and followers that have been by his side. His intentions were to maintain good character, yet his actions did not match those intentions. He kept his opinions hidden and made his political decisions on behalf of Delaware. John Dickinson voiced his disagreement of the new independent resolution; he did not even sign the Declaration of Independence. Dickinson showed adequate character, since he had an image publicly known. Colonel Bedford questioned Read’s character.

Even though Read did not demonstrate good character he did possess the other qualities of the Founders including disinterestedness, republicanism, and virtue. Read was a follower of moral code and classicism. He was a man of honor, he would never break a rule. Additionally, he was know for his understanding in human nature similar to Benjamin Franklin. Other Founders knew of his high honor and sought him out for advice on their own policies. Dickinson asked him in a letter for advice on a land ownership issue (Dickinson Archives). He became disinterested, since in 1779 he temporarily retired from politics, but in 1780 he was appointed to be the “Judge in the Court of Appeals” in Delaware ( He helped create Delaware legislative policies. His focus on state politics rather than federal politics caused him to not build up his reputation. He was an important founding father, but not remembered.


Dickinson, John. Letter to George Read. Wilmington, VA: 16 December 1785. Dickinson College Archives.

Munroe, John. “Read, George“;; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Web. 7. November 2014. 

Munroe, John. Nonresident Representation in the Continental Congress: The Delaware Delegation of 1782. The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 9, No. 2  (1952): pp. 160-190. Web. 1. November 2014.

“Life and Correspondence of George Read a Signer of the Declaration of Independence” with notices of some of his contemporaries. Historical Magazine Post Jan 1871: Print.

Read, William. Life and Correspondence of George Read A Signer of the Declaration of Independence. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott and Company, 1870. Print

Read, George. Letter to John Dickinson. Philadelphia: 21 May 1787.

Wood, Gordon. Revolutionary Character What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. Print

Elizabeth Willing Powel: The Real First Lady

Elizabeth Willing Powel painted by Matthew Pratt: Courtesy of Google Pictures

By Jake Phillips

Elizabeth Willing Powel is a name that has been omitted from history books for far too long. She is in fact the epitome of the unsung hero. Her unusual correspondence, and friendship with those considered the founding fathers, particularly with George Washington himself, placed her at the heart of the politics of Revolutionary America and the early republic, and allowed her to influence the development of the new country in ways for which she should be remembered.

Elizabeth Willing Powel was by no means a typical woman of the late eighteenth century. She had, in the words of David Maxey, “a thorough command not just of spelling and grammar, which alone would have distinguished [her] from many of [her] contemporaries of similar background, but also of style and expressiveness in [her] writing” (Maxey, 17). According to Maxey, Powel’s outstanding ability in writing translated into her overall having a strong education. In addition to her superb education, Elizabeth came from a family of wealth, and was destined from an early age to associate with the great men of the early republic. In the late 1760s it was rumored that she would marry the famous John Dickinson, but she ended up wedded to the wealthy Samuel Powel, who would later become the last mayor of colonial Philadelphia, and speaker of the Pennsylvania Senate. Samuel Powel was also the owner of great real estate including a mansion on Third Street in Philadelphia. This estate would prove the greatest acquisition of Elizabeth’s marriage to Mr. Powel.

Elizabeth Willing Powel in old age: Courtesy of Google Pictures

With the First Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, the Powel estate quickly became a common gathering place for large parties, hosting many of the delegates. Elizabeth was a spectacular hostess, and quickly earned a reputation as one of the great salonieres of the time. This ensured that the Powel mansion would serve as the salon in Philadelphia most frequented by the founding fathers, especially during the Constitutional Convention. As a salon many of the young country’s leading men visited the residence to “discuss current political and social issues” (Donocoff). This placed Elizabeth Willing Powel at the center of the political debates leading to the writing of the Constitution, and, unlike most women of her time, she was known to involve herself in the debates, and was always eager to offer her opinion. In fact, her close friend Anne Francis lamented to Powel’s sister, Mary Byrd, in a letter a fear that Elizabeth would be “ridiculed by the other Sex” due to her outspokenness about politics (Donocoff). Although her family and friends could not see it at the time, Elizabeth’s opinions were welcomed, or at least tolerated, by the founding fathers, and in the case of George Washington, were sometimes sought out. Her special relationship with the first president as his confidante more than qualifies Elizabeth Willing Powel as a founding mother of the United States. The collection of letters found at the Elizabeth Willing Powel Manuscripts Collection, along with countless others show that Mrs. Powel had a very strong friendship with the Washington family; she even wrote letters to their nephew Bushrod Washington and included him in her will. However,  in regards to George Washington, the relationship was more involved than a simple friendship. As the first President of the United States George Washington sought the advice of many people, especially that of Elizabeth. On one occasion, towards the end of his first term, Washington expressed to Elizabeth, in a private meeting at the presidential residence (the White House did not exist at this time), that he was contemplating giving up the presidency after only one term. In response to this Mrs. Powel wrote to General Washington explaining that to do so would be to bring about the demise of the republic. Clearly Washington took this opinion into serious consideration, as he decided to retain the presidency for a second term, telling Thomas Jefferson that the reason behind his decision was his “receiving ‘strong solicitations’ in Philadelphia” (Maxey, 35). This statement was no-doubt an allusion to this letter from Powel, showing that not only did George Washington seek her counsel, but that it weighed heavily on his decisions, which ultimately shaped the presidency of the young United States.

The fact that Elizabeth Willing Powel essentially saved the developing United States by convincing George Washington to take on a second term as president is enough for me to declare her a founding mother. Unfortunately for her, this one mere act, although great, would not be enough for historian Gordon S. Wood to classify her as a founding mother. In the introduction to his book, Revolutionary Characters, Wood discusses the various qualities that distinguish the founders from the rest of the American population. Among these defining characteristics are being a “product of specific circumstances,” part of a “self-created aristocracy largely based on merit and talent,” and the idea of the disinterested gentleman (Wood, 11). I believe, and Gordon Wood would have to agree, that Elizabeth Willing Powel exhibited all of these attributes, which would make her, even in his eyes, an important founder of the United States.

First, Elizabeth Willing Powel’s ability to influence the founding of the republic of the United States was based solely upon the circumstantial course of her life. The fact that she married Samuel Powel, a man of large wealth, and moved into a home located on Third Street in the center of Philadelphia, placed her in the perfect position to play saloniere to the intellectual and political leaders of the time. Her upbringing, which included an exceptional education, also provided her with the means to write letters and voice her opinions in a manner that was respected even by the male founders. This education also allowed Elizabeth to enter into the meritocracy to which Wood refers, and be accepted by her male acquaintances. Both of these qualities, as argued by Wood in his introduction, contribute to the idea of the gentleman; the defining quality of the founders. Disinterestedness – defined by Wood as exhibiting “virtue and self-sacrifice” (Wood, 16) – paired with this quality of gentlemanliness, was the key characteristic of the founders. Based on the testimony of Deborah Logan who said of Elizabeth Willing Powel that she was “just and honorable in her dealings and often generous to others,” Powel was, undeniably, every bit a disinterested gentleman, or should I say gentlewoman, as the other founders (Maxey, 4).


Donocoff, Alana. “Elizabeth Willing Powel.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon. George  Washington University, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2014.

Elizabeth Willing Powel Manuscripts Collection. CONTENTdm, n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

Maxey, David W. “A Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743-1830).” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 96.4 (2006): n. pag. JSTOR. Web. 02 Nov. 2014.

Wood, Gordon S. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. Print.




Abigail Adams: The Colonial Lady Liberty

By Carolyn Goode


Abigail Adams, Courtesy of Wikipedia

I know the voice of Fame to be mere weathercock, unstable as Water and fleeting as a Shadow. Yet I have Pride, I know I have a large portion of it.  –Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams was unlike most everyday colonial women, even before she married John Adams and became the First Lady of the United States. She was born on November 11, 1744, in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Her family was well-off, but because she was a female,  she was not allowed to have any formal schooling. This did not stop her, though. Her family had a large library which enjoyed scouring, and she enjoyed being around her intelligent relatives, including her grandmother, who taught her valuable lessons. She was determined to find ways to become a learned young woman.

Abigail was a dutiful mother and wife, taking care of her  children and, though it meant living apart from John Adams for about ten years, stayed with her children in Massachusetts while he moved to Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. During this time, and in the time before this, Abigail grew fond of writing letters. She once wrote to John that “I hope in time to have the reputation of being as good a farmeress as my partner has of being a good Statesman.” (American National Biography.)


Abigail and John Adams, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Abigail was usually very supportive of her husband and his politics. She grew fond of politics herself, and had strong opinions on issues such as slavery and women’s rights. In another letter to John she wrote “the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly strong in the Breasts of those have been accustomed to deprive their fellow creatures of theirs.” (American National Biography.)

In the same letter, Abigail wrote her famous “Remember the Ladies” message, and she was serious about it. She was not shy about advocating for women, even to the most powerful men in the country. She wrote ” be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” (American National Biography.) One might look at Abigail and George Washington as similar in the way they both were public about their thoughts, especially about slavery. Gordon Wood noted in his chapter about Washington that “in the political world, he knew how to make a dramatic move. One of his most impressive acts was his freeing of his slaves in his will.” (pg.37.) This is not to say that Washington was a strong abolitionist, because he wasn’t. But he came to the conclusion that slavery was morally wrong, and like Abigail, didn’t shy away from letting the world know in the end of his life.


Catherine Sawbridge Macaulay, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Abigail’s work to create liberty for women was what she focused on most in her life. She was interested in female historians such as Catherine Sawbridge Macaulay, especially because it was so uncommon for a woman to be esteemed in any regard during that time. It made her curious about meeting these kinds of women. Abigail was also fascinated by the writings of notable women, but also by works by men on the subject of women. She wrote to her husband that “Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of our Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in imitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.” (My Dearest Friend pg. 111.) She wanted women to be appreciated for the things they could do that men always denied they could do,  and for men to turn to them for educational, political and knowledgable guidance. She wanted women to be in control of themselves rather than all men be in control of women, especially husbands making their wive’s decisions and owning all of their wive’s possessions.

Abigail took politics very seriously. Though she was very busy with taking care of her three young children,  she always followed the political events that were taking place and made sure to obtain information from John when he came home. She was worried about the country heading into war, and made the difficult move to England to be with John. There she was interested in learning about the good and the bad of their politics. She thought that “power corrupted” and was very persistent with this message. She thought that “unfortunately, highly placed officials showed a natural tendency to try to assume more and more power. Only the eternal vigilance of a virtuous people could prevent such an accumulation of power.” (Dearest Friend: A life of Abigail Adams pg. 47.) She thought that only moral people who looked out for the betterment of all could prevent all the power and leading men from growing in numbers and from continuously leading an oppressing life for women.


Abigail Adams, Courtesy Of Wikipedia

Abigail was a witty, smart and courageous woman, especially in her day. She was interested in what most women back then were afraid of and shied away from. She took action about things she thought were wrong for society and the country. She took advantage of John Adams’ political standing and made her voice heard instead of being flippant. She was a strong face and figure for women and inspired women to take charge of their lives.




American National Biography Online- Abigail Adams.

My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams. London: The Belknap Press:2007. 

Levin, Phyllis L. Abigail Adams: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press:1987.

Withey, Lynne. Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams. New York: The Free Press:1981.


Wood, Grodon S. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin Books: 2006.


Roger Sherman: A Founder From the Beginning to the End

Roger Sherman: Photo courtesy of Wikepedia

Roger Sherman: Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

By Jordan Forry

Roger Sherman represents one of the most underappreciated founding fathers of the United States. This fact is lamentable, given Sherman’s immense contributions to the founding of this country.  In addition to holding the distinction of being the only founder to participate in authoring and signing all four significant founding documents (The Articles of Association, The Declaration of Independence, The Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution), he also deserves credit for enshrining federalism in the US Constitution and for suggesting many of the key compromises that led to the formation of a broad coalition of interests that could support the Constitution (Hall, 1-3).

Historian Gordon Wood summarizes most of the founding fathers as gentlemanly figures.  By a gentleman, Wood means, “All those who have received a liberal education,” and who are not, “Themselves husbandmen, mechanics, or laborers” (Wood, 15). These gentleman could afford to avoid labor and instead pursue academic study or public service.  By these standards, Sherman only became a gentleman  later in life and perhaps best mirrors Benjamin Franklin’s transformation from a print apprentice to a respected statesman and scientist (Wood, 67-90).

Massachusetts and Connecticut Colonies: Photo Courtesy of

Massachusetts and Connecticut Colonies: Photo Courtesy of

Born the son of a small Massachusetts farmer on April 19, 1721,  Sherman spent the first twenty years of his life in Canton, Massachusetts as a farm hand.   During this period, Sherman was able to attend primary and secondary education; however, he did not attend college. In response to his father’s death in 1742, Sherman moved to New Milford Connecticut to open a store with his brother.  In addition to shopkeeping, Sherman took up surveying and advanced in the profession to become New Haven County Surveyor.  From this position, Sherman gained access into Connecticut political circles, and in 1753, he was elected to the Connecticut General Assembly and was admitted to the Litchfield bar. From this point onward, Sherman  remained a political figure, with his only other employment being law and occasional business ventures (Collier, np).  Therefore, 1753 represents the transition in Sherman’s life from yeoman farmer/merchant to gentleman.

Like other founders, Sherman was deeply influenced by the Enlightenment ideals of  liberty, republicanism, and representative government. The roots of these ideals in Sherman’s ideology extend back before the outbreak of the Revolution. In 1752, Sherman published an article entitled “A Caveat Against Injustice,” in which he argued against the prevalence of cheap paper money being issued by the New England Colonies, especially Rhode Island (Hall, 43). In this essay, he argues that governments are limited in what actions they can take when infringing on personal liberty by stating, “And I think it is a Principle that must be granted that no Government has Right to impose on its Subjects any foreign Currency to be received in Payments as Money which is not of intrinsick Value” (“A Caveat,” sec 11). For the Connecticut government to force its residents to accept Rhode Island’s inflated currency as payments for debt would violate Connecticut debt holders’ rights to their private property and would be an unjustifiable government intrusion into the economic sphere. Sherman’s views on Connecticut’s monetary policies demonstrate that he  recognized that limits to government power exist and the importance of safeguarding personal liberty and rights.

This belief in a government limited by the natural rights of the people again surfaced in Sherman’s response to the passage of the Stamp Act of 1765 by the British Parliament. Sherman opposed the Act, which taxed colonial paper products, on the grounds that Parliament lacked the authority to tax the colonies without the colonies first having representation in Parliament.  In fact, Sherman went farther than even many of his contemporaries by saying that Parliament also lacked the authority to regulate the colonies. In response, Sherman led a committee of men selected from the Connecticut Assembly in drafting a list of grievances that the colony of Connecticut had with the British Crown. In a letter to Thomas Cushing, Sherman expressed his view by stating that, “No Laws bind the people but such as they consent to be governed by.” (Hall, 49-50).

Roger Sherman and the Committee of Five presenting the Declaration of Independence to the Continental.  Congress. Photo Credits: Wikipedia

Roger Sherman and the Committee of Five presenting the Declaration of Independence to the Continental. Congress. Photo Credits: Wikipedia

As the colonial crisis worsened, Connecticut appointed Sherman in 1774 to serve in the Continental Congress.  In June of 1776, Sherman was selected to serve on the Committee of Five that would draft and present the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress (Hall, 53-56). While Jefferson often receives all of the credit for the inspiration and ideas that went into the Declaration, perhaps Sherman deserves more credit given his role in drafting Connecticut’s List of Grievances eleven years earlier.

Federalism: Picture Courtesy of Wikipedia

Federalism: Picture Courtesy of Wikipedia

In addition to Sherman’s previous accomplishments, his greatest contribution to the founding of the country was his ability to shape the Constitution into a document that promotes federalism, the sharing of power between the state and federal governments. In the years leading up to 1787, Sherman believed that a new Constitution would be unnecessary, and he only wanted to amend the Articles of Confederation. However, once at the Constitutional Convention, he realized the necessity of complete reform and worked diligently to craft a perfect document. Sherman wished to ensure that states did not lose too much power under the new Constitution. When delegates from the large and small states could not agree on the way to allocate representatives in the legislative branch, Sherman proposed a compromise that would allocate representatives in one house of Congress by population and in the other, the Senate, equally among the states (Hall, 92-96). Sherman was also able to convince the delegates to require the state legislatures to appoint the Senators, instead of the people. The desired results of these two proposals would be increased power for the states in the federal government and the ability of the Senate to remain disinterested by making Senators accountable to the states, not the popular whims of the people (Fiske, 282-284).

Gordon Wood considers disinterestedness, or “Rising above…and being unselfish or impartial where an interest may be present,” to be a defining characteristic of the founders (Wood, 16). From George Washington to Benjamin Franklin, all of Wood’s characters exhibit this quality, and Sherman is no exception. In a letter to John Adams in 1789, Sherman understates his expectation that the Senate will be disinterested by stating, “Senators will doubtless be in general some of the most respectable citizens in the states for wisdom and probity… they will consider that a fair and upright conduct will have the best tendency to preserve the confidence of the people and of the states” (Sherman, 1789). Going even further, Sherman later in life stated that legislators should act according to their own judgements and not according to public opinion, and if the two are contrary, “He must be bound by every principle of justice to disregard them (the people)…” (Boyd, 231).

In conclusion, Roger Sherman represents one of the most influential founders.   Like most founders, Sherman received inspiration from the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, republicanism, and  individual rights. Resembling his peers, he can best be described as a gentleman performing his duty as a disinterested statesman. However, Roger Sherman deserves to stand apart from other founders due to his substantial impact on the founding from the Declaration through the Constitution.  No other founder can boast such great influence on so much of the founding of the United States.

Works Referenced:

Boyd, Julian. “Roger Sherman: Portrait of a Cordwainer Statesman.” New England          Quarterly 5, no. 2 (Apr. 1932): 221-236.

Collier, Christopher. “Roger Sherman.” In American National Biography Online.

Fiske, John. The Critical Period of American History: 1783-1789. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916.

Hall, Mark. Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Sherman, Roger. “A Caveat Against Injustice.” Original publication, 1752.Republished in 2003,

Sherman, Roger. Letter to John Adams. July 1789. Online Source: University of Chicago. Last updated 2014.

Wood, Gordon. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different.London: Penguin Books, 2006.



American Independence

Tom Paine

Tom Paine

Who declared American Independence?  The answer is not quite as simple as it appears.  Gordon Wood relates how some observers remarked later that Sam Adams of Boston had at least decided on independence as early as 1768, following enactment of the Townshend Duties.  One thing is clear in Wood’s account of the movement from resistance to rebellion –there was a real sense of American Independence readily apparent by 1774.  That was the year of the Coercive Acts and what Wood characterizes as “open rebellion in America.”  Students in History 117 should be able to identify a variety of ways that the authority of the British imperial system quite literally fell apart in the American colonies during the period from 1774 to 1775.  Yet still, there was no “declared” independence until the summer of 1776.  Nonetheless, it is not enough to simply reward the credit for American Independence to the decision-making of the Second Continental Congress and  the prose of Thomas Jefferson.  According to Wood, it was Tom Paine, more than any other figure, who most fully expressed “the accumulated American rage against George III.”  Students might benefit from studying this rage in Paine’s sensational pamphlet, Common Sense (1776) or by analyzing its influence on the “long train of abuses” which dominate the second half of the Declaration of Independence.  Yet regardless of how exactly independence got declared, or how to explain the ideology which lay behind it, one Founder who was noticeably reluctant about embracing this revolutionary step was John Dickinson, the famous pamphleteer.  Dickinson warned his colleagues on July 1, 1776 that with their declaration that they would be attempting to “brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.”  Dickinson soon came around to the cause, but his fears remained a recurring concern for many.  Securing independence proved even far more challenging than declaring it.

British Empire in North America

Franklin's "retirement" portrait (Feke, c. 1748)

Franklin’s “retirement” portrait (Feke, c. 1746)

In his short book on The American Revolution, historian Gordon Wood offers a series of powerful insights about the nature of the British Empire in the eighteenth century.  First, it was about much more than the so-called thirteen colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America.  To begin, Wood points out that there were 22 British colonies in the Western Hemisphere by 1760, and the eighteenth-century empire, which he terms “the greatest and richest empire since the fall of Rome,” quite literally “straddled the world” (4).   Yet by the middle of the eighteenth century, it was also a wildly troubled empire.  If there was one colonist in British North America who seemed to embody both the perils and promises of the British imperial system, it might have been Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).  Today, we consider Ben Franklin as the ultimate symbol for the American spirit and yet during his own lifetime, Franklin was often regarded as more British than American, and even after the War for Independence began, the diplomat and renowned scientist Franklin was a uniquely cosmopolitan figure.

Colonial EthnicityStudents should consider how Wood describes the state of the British Empire in North America by the mid-eighteenth century.  Then they might consult Franklin’s famous Autobiography which was written in several stages between the early 1770s and late 1780s.  How does Franklin’s story, from his boyhood in Boston to his rise to prominence in Philadelphia and London, help illustrate key aspects of the sprawling British imperial system?  Franklin’s autobiography was ostensibly written for his adult son (then royal governor of New Jersey) but was not completed and published until after father and son had a irreparable break over their differing views on the American Revolution.  Franklin’s autobiography was first published as a book in French, rather than English, after his death in 1790.  Only later, during the nineteenth century, did Franklin’s memorable life story come to be considered an American treasure.  You can read more about the complicated history of the Autobiography from a helpful online exhibit at the Library of Congress.

Colonial TradeMaps like the representation to the left, or the one above right, offer shorthand ways to contextualize Franklin’s life in that eighteenth imperial system.  He was a by-product of the forces outlined here, even as he worked at first to reform, and then ultimately to revolutionize them.  Gordon Wood explains how to visualize Franklin at the center of this story in the one-hour lecture embedded below.

Gordon Wood: The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.


Taking on Thanksgiving

pilgrims-and-indians-and-turkeyThanksgiving myths?  Say it ain’t so!  Yet in History 117, students are reading a handful of short, insightful essays by Edward O’Donnell and Charles Mann that help situate the traditional story of Thanksgiving into a more complicated narrative borne in the shadows of the Columbian Exchange.  Those with a particular interest in the Pilgrims might also appreciate this longer article by John Humins (available via JSTOR) on the  complicated political and diplomatic intrigue behind the scenes of the first Thanksgiving in 1621.  When Pilgrim separatists arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, they thought they were settling in Northern Virginia.  In some ways, they found a similar dynamic with Wampanoag Indians as John Smith and the Jamestown settlers had discovered several years earlier with the Powhatan Indians.  In other words, as foreigners they were originally sized up as pawns in the political and imperial battles of the indigenous populations.  Humins focuses his attention on the tensions between two Indians:  Squanto and Massasoit.

New England coloniesIn class, we also discussed ways to use the Thanksgiving story as an illustration of the evolving Puritan worldview.  At first, Puritans held many days of prayer, fasting and thanksgiving, but they avoided celebrations of Christmas and Easter.  Puritan settlements in New England expanded rapidly throughout much of the seventeenth century, offering the world a “city upon a hill,” as John Winthrop famously called it, but also soon demonstrated the tensions in applying the dictates of covenant theology to the realities of everyday life.  The civil wars in England, as well as pressures from the Indians and mercantile trade, eventually conspired to shift the strict Calvinist dogma of the Puritan faithful into a more secular “Yankee” culture.  Religious faith still mattered in Puritan (now Congregational) New England, but so did other values.

Continental Army

1772 Washington portrait by Charles W. Peale

George Washington famously appeared at the Second Continental Congress in his old Virginia militia uniform from the French & Indian War.  His appearance sent a radical message –Washington was ready for a fight by the spring of 1775.  Washington’s feisty sentiments and his Virginia birth explain a great deal about why he was selected to lead the new Continental Army and why he became such a revered figure during the Revolutionary War.  Washington was not, as Gordon Wood observes, a distinguished battlefield tactician.  However, he was an extraordinary organizer and leader of men.   Students in History 117 should be able to explain how Washington transformed the Continental Army and why his strategy for victory proved to be so prescient.  In class, we will discussion Washington’s 1778 letter to the committee of Congress, which another historian, Jack Rakove describes as a “virtual state paper,” and try to assess its significance.  We will also review the experiences of the Continental Army in the field, during the various campaigns of the Revolutionary War.

Revolutionary War