by Lois Harda
by James C. Humes
On July 4, 1988, I was invited to represent President Reagan and to speak at Independence Hall. The Fourth of July festivities were sponsored by the Pennsylvania Society, Sons of the Revolution. I spoke atop the steps that lead down from the double doors outside the one-time State House chamber. Benjamin Franklin, after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, had stood in the same spot telling the anticipatory crowd outside the results of the deliberations inside.
I began by telling my listeners of the first Fourth of July I really remember. It was in 1942 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. My father, a Judge of Lycoming County, had taken his seven-year-old son with him to pay a call on a woman who had just celebrated her 100th birthday. In many cities a judge is expected to perform such rituals as part of his life as a leader of the community.
The new centenarian was named Mrs. Knight, and on this sweltering summer day she was fanning herself to whip up some breeze while rocking in her chair on her daughter’s front porch.
“James”—my father always used my Christian name instead of my family nickname, Jamie, when he wanted to make a serious point—“shake hands with Mrs. Knight.” I took her outstretched, bony hand. “Mrs. Knight’s father fought in our War of Independence. The Declaration of Independence is what we are celebrating today.”
“Yes,” the aged woman replied vigorously, and in a voice that was almost a triumphant cackle told a story that she had related countless times before.
“Pappy wanted to fight. But Grandpappy said, ‘You’re only 15, Johnny. You’re too young.’ But Pappy said, ‘But a lot of drummer boys are only 15.’ ”
So her father, John Gregg, became a drummer boy in 1781 and that service is duly noted in military records. Anna Gregg Knight was a daughter of her widowed father’s second marriage in 1839. Afterwards, as we drove off in Daddy’s Lincoln, my father said, “James, I want you to always remember this day, when you shook the hand of someone whose father fought in the American Revolution. And, by the way, James, a drummer boy’s job was very dangerous. He was in the front line drumming the signals for the company to advance and shoot their muskets.”
I paused and told my Philadelphia audience, “We claim to be the oldest continuing democratic republic in the world, but think of this, your speaker today shook hands with someone whose father fought to make our country a free government. Doesn’t that bring home how young a government we have?” Then I told my listeners, “That document we honor today states”: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that we are endowed by our creator with certain…..”
And I paused. “What’s the next word?” I asked the audience. “Speak up.” “Inalienable,” said most, but a few said “unalienable.”
“Well, in a sense, you are both right. Thomas Jefferson wrote ‘inalienable’ and that’s the word on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. But over there,” and I pointed to my left, “there is the Declaration encased in glass and guarded, and it says ‘unalienable.’” Franklin, on the Revision Committee, had altered some phrases. For “sacred and undeniable” he had substituted “self-evident,” and, more importantly, “unalienable” for “inalienable.” You might ask, what difference does it make except to a nit-picking Philadelphia lawyer. Well, in Black’s Legal Dictionary “inalienable” describes property rights that cannot be taken from you without your permission, like the pen in your pocket or the purse on your arm. But you can sell them to me or give them to me. However, “unalienable” is an obsolete 18th-century word that describes rights given by God which you cannot sell or give away, but must preserve for your children and children’s children.
And isn’t that the message we should take away today? Our Republic does not work on being a spectator sport. You cannot be a dropout from democracy—you cannot cede away your citizenship. You cannot hire a substitute for jury service. And when you do not bother to vote, you are betraying your civic duty. It was ancient Greece that invented democracy and it disintegrated under autocracy, which was allowed to take over through apathy and indifference. The Greeks had a word to describe a citizen—be he a merchant, craftsman or manual worker—who did not involve himself in political affairs or civic life. The word was “idiot.” He was derided as a “half citizen.” One of the first times I visited the White House was when President Eisenhower was President. As I waited outside the Oval Office, I noted a peculiar painting. It was a portrait of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But it was not completed—only half done. There were some figures in the forefront, but a lot of it was raw gray canvas with a few figures penciled in.
I asked the guard the story behind this painting. It seems the artist, commissioned by the Continental Congress, died before he could complete the canvas. It was found in the sub-sub- basement of the White House and General Eisenhower had it put out here as a lesson for Americans. The pledge those signers affirmed with their names is taken by all of us. That blank part of the portrait is for the rest of us. We should all be part of that picture. All of us —not just the signers—are pledged to work to fulfill those ideals of equality of opportunity and justice for all.
In the bi-centennial address delivered by President Ford at Independence Hall in 1976, I was privileged to help draft his words: “Perhaps we have not always lived up to our ideals, but then no country ever wrote higher ideals to live up to.”
I will end this piece as I began it—with Benjamin Franklin. The oldest delegate, at 81, was also the wiliest. Behind the scenes he did as much as any, including Madison, to shape our federal charter. He worked to make the executive branch stronger through the chief executive called the president, and he strengthened his power. He supported the compromise of a bicameral legislature of House and Senate which broke a constitutional deadlock between the big states like Pennsylvania and small states like Delaware. When the deliberations were finished, Franklin cleverly persuaded the delegates to vote “present.” He did not want the sizable dissents on the three articles to be revealed to the public. The delegates acceded to his request, then allowed him to be the first to sign.
After signing his name, he slipped to the back of the chamber to be the first in this secret and closed session to open the door and face the assembling crowd outside, eager to hear the news of what happened. Franklin, anticipating the mood, had planted a question with an old friend, Elizabeth Powell, wife of the Philadelphia mayor. Franklin wanted to put his spin to what his listeners would take away. The idea of a king was the crowd’s biggest fear and, although it never had a chance of succeeding, he wanted the audience to first know that there would be no king and not to be dragged into other issues. So he had Mrs. Powell ask, “What type of government did you give us, Dr. Franklin, a monarchy or a republic?” “A republic.” He paused, then yelled: ”If you can keep it!”
Mr. and Mrs. James C Humes (Dianne Stuart)
James C Humes is a Visiting Historian at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
He has written over 40 books including most recently Churchill: Prophetic Statesman.
Regnery Hostory, 2012, 300 pp.