By Andrew Trees
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Today we celebrate the greatest day in our national history. Sound ridiculous? Not to John Adams, who in 1776 wrote to his wife, Abigail: "The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfire and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."
At least he got the pomp and parade part right.
We can't fault Adams for failing to realize that the legislative act creating independence would be supplanted by the Declaration of Independence (though when we read those soaring phrases about self-evident truths, we can be glad that it did).
So, I propose we make July 2 a national holiday to celebrate the Founders for some of their greatest but least appreciated attributes -- their mistakes.
Consider the Declaration of Independence itself. As the recent HBO docudrama "John Adams" amusingly captured, Thomas Jefferson squirmed in his chair as his draft was read, debated and, ultimately, edited. The Virginian thought that the revisions, including the deletion of a passage blaming King George III for the evil of American slavery, were a mutilation. He was, of course, wrong.
Less well known is that Jefferson disliked the idea of a permanent constitution, thinking it would become a "dead hand of the past" weighing on future generations. He proposed that the Constitution expire every 19 years so that a new one, more attuned to current issues, could be written. Fortunately, James Madison persuaded him not to pursue the idea.
Yet Madison himself, the father of the Constitution, was not always right. Dismissing bills of rights as mere "parchment barriers," he argued against their inclusion at the Constitutional Convention, although he later changed his mind and, as a member of the House, proposed amending the Constitution to include a bill of rights.
The Bill of Rights as we know it also is not what was initially proposed. The original first two amendments, one of which concerned the number of constituents each member of Congress had and one regarding congressmen's salaries, were never ratified by the states. What we think of today as our First Amendment freedoms were actually third on the list.
John Adams also offered up the occasional harebrained idea. Believing that government officials needed titles to preserve their dignity, he proposed that America's first president be known as "His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of Their Liberties." (Thankfully, the House of Representatives rejected the proposal, though an unofficial title, "His Rotundity," was bestowed on Adams.)
A truism during the early years of the Revolution was that "where annual elections end, tyranny begins." At this point in our quadrennial spectacle of electing a president, though, I suspect few in this country would support making the campaign an annual process. Fortunately for us, experience convinced many of our forefathers that longer terms might yield greater stability.
Then again, some founders cared too much for stability. The first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, proposed that Senate and presidential terms be for life. He often complained that the Constitution did not create a powerful enough national government, calling the document "frail and worthless fabric." He was hardly alone in failing to recognize its value: Historians estimate that more than half the country opposed ratifying the Constitution.
Luckily for us, the Founders knew that they were still figuring things out. "Experiment" was the word they frequently used to describe their handiwork, with all that it implies about wrong paths and false starts. As we honor our nation's birth and those who worked to bring it about, we should include some veneration for their willingness to experiment and, just occasionally, get things wrong.
Andrew Trees is the author of "The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character."