“Every signer of the Declaration of Independence had no elected office experience.”
— Dr. Ben Carson, in a Facebook post, Nov. 4, 2015
Carson, a political novice running for the GOP presidential nomination, made this observation in a late-night Facebook post defending his lack of political experience. As he put it:
“You are absolutely right — I have no political experience. The current Members of Congress have a combined 8,700 years of political experience. Are we sure political experience is what we need. Every signer of the Declaration of Independence had no elected office experience. What they had was a deep belief that freedom is a gift from God. They had a determination to rise up against a tyrannical King.”
Of course, the Declaration of Independence was crafted by a committee charged by the Continental Congress, which was made up of delegates who had been elected by the Colonial assemblies. But we’ll assume that Carson knew that, and instead meant that prior to being elected to Congress, the delegates had had no elected office experience. Is that correct?
Let’s start with Thomas Jefferson, the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence. Years earlier, he had been a student at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg. As luck would have it, the House of Burgesses met there, and so Jefferson as a student was able to witness legislative debates.
The House of Burgesses evolved from the first European-style legislative assembly in the Americas, the General Assembly that was formed in 1619. And in 1769, seven years before penning the Declaration, Jefferson was elected to the House of Burgesses. As an online biography of the signers said: “It was there that his involvement in revolutionary politics began. He was never a very vocal member, but his writing, his quiet work in committee, and his ability to distill large volumes of information to essence, made him an invaluable member in any deliberative body.”
Now let’s look at the other members of the drafting committee: John Adams (Mass.) was elected to the Massachusetts Assembly in 1770, Benjamin Franklin (Pa.) had been elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1751 and served as speaker in 1764, and Roger Sherman (Conn.) had been elected to the Connecticut General Assembly in 1755. Only Robert R. Livingston (N.Y.) had minimal political experience.
Of the other 51 signers of the Declaration, we count at least 27 as having at least some elected office experience, primarily in Colonial assemblies.
John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, had been elected to the Boston Assembly and had participated in the Stamp Act Congress, a gathering of elected representatives (from Colonial assemblies) to craft a response to new British tax laws. Some states sent delegations with little political experience, but every member of the seven-person delegation from Virginia had been elected to the Houses of Burgesses.
Carson spokesman Doug Watts responded: “Touche. Four Pinnochios? Or do you give credit for intent?”
The Pinocchio Test
Carson needs to hit the history books, or at least do a Google search. More than half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had elected office experience.
Indeed, one reason why the American Revolution was successful is because it was led by men with many years in politics, political action and protest, often honed in the debates held in Colonial legislatures. In many ways, the background of the Founding Fathers undercuts the very argument Carson was trying to make.
(Update: After this fact check appeared, Carson’s Facebook post was edited to read “no federal elected office experience.” There was, of course, no “federal” government at the time.)
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