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The Most Influential Americans: The Revolutionaries

In their December 2006 edition The Atlantic published a list of the 100 most influential Americans, based on the opinions of ten historians. Influence was defined as “a person’s impact, for good or ill, both on his or her own era and on the way we live now.” Yesterday Ed Gaustad helped us highlight Benjamin Franklin, number 6 on The Atlantic’s list. Today we will look at some of the other revolutionaries who made the list, George Washington (number 2), Thomas Jefferson (number 3) and James Madison (number 13). These excerpts are from the American National Biography Online.

The Atlantic writes, “He made the United States possible- not only by defeating a king, but by declining to become one himself.”

Washington, George (11 Feb. 1732-14 Dec. 1799), first president of the United States, was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the son of Augustine Washington and Mary Ball…

…as Jefferson later recalled, he[Washington] suffered “more than any person I ever yet met with.”

Washington’s Legacy as “Father of His Country”

His farewell address reflected this suffering when he warned his fellow citizens “against the baneful effects” of the party spirit. It “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms,” creates animosities, and foments “riots and insurrection.” In a republican government, indeed in any free government, there was a “constant danger of excess” that must be restrained by the constitutional system of checks and balances and also by “Religion and Morality,” the “firmest foundations of the duties of men and citizens.” Otherwise, his advice to the nation was to “cherish public credit” and use it “as sparingly as possible” and to “observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all,” avoid “excessive partiality” or “excessive dislike” toward any, and “have as little political connection with them as possible.”

Except for an agreement to serve as commander in chief if a war with France should materialize–it did not–Washington had ended his public career. One urgent private matter concerned him deeply. He had long since determined to free his slaves, and he did so in a will drawn during the last year of his life. He was the only Virginia founder to free his slaves, and he made provisions for supporting the young until they reached maturity and the old and infirm for the duration of their lives. The last pension payment from his estate was made in 1833.

In December 1799 Washington contracted some kind of throat infection and died at Mount Vernon after a brief illness. He was survived by his widow–they had no children, and his two stepchildren were long since deceased–and by a grieving but grateful nation. Jefferson bespoke the common attitude when he wrote, “His was the singular destiny and merit of leading the armies of his country successfully through an arduous war for the establishment of its independence, of conducting its councils through the birth of a government, new in its forms and principles, until it settled down into a quiet and orderly train; and of scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example.” And as Henry Lee said in his celebrated eulogy before Congress, Washington had been “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Want to learn more about George Washington? Check out these books. Washington’s Crossing, George Washington’s Mount Vernon: At Home in Revolutionary America, and The Glorious Cause.

The Atlantic writes, “The author of the five most important words in American history: “All men are created equal.”

Jefferson, Thomas (13 Apr. 1743-4 July 1826), philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, and president of the United States, was born at Shadwell, in what became Albemarle County, Virginia, the son of Peter Jefferson, a pioneer farmer and surveyor, and Jane Randolph. He always valued the enterprising example of his father, who set him in the path of education; he became “a hard student,” indeed remained one throughout his life. Peter Jefferson died in 1757, leaving to his son a fair estate–5,000 acres and the slaves to work them. Less than three years later, Jefferson, already a proficient classical scholar, enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg…

The Declaration of Independence

In June 1775 Jefferson assumed a seat in the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia. His reputation had gone before him. He brought into Congress, John Adams said, “a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent for composition” (Malone, vol. 1, p. 204). He was at once set to work drafting revolutionary state papers. In June 1776, as last hopes of reconciliation with Britain faded, Jefferson found himself appointed the head of a five-man committee to draft a united declaration of independence. Although two of the committee members, Benjamin Franklin and Adams, were decidedly senior and better known, the task of drafting the document fell to him for political reasons and because he possessed that “peculiar felicity of expression” wanted in a work of this kind. He showed a preliminary draft to Franklin and Adams, who suggested only minor changes, revised it to his own satisfaction, and reported it to the committee. From there it went unaltered to Congress. After adopting the Virginia resolution for independence on 2 July, Congress debated the proposed declaration line by line for two and one-half days. The author squirmed under this ordeal. The philosophical preamble was speedily approved, but the delegates made many changes in the body of the work, the long indictment of George III. Jefferson thought the declaration lost more than it gained in the process, and some modern interpreters have sharply differentiated “Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence” from the document adopted by Congress.

Be that as it may, the Declaration of Independence bore unmistakably the stamp of Jefferson’s genius. Its language was bold yet elevated, plain and direct yet touched with philosophy, as befitted a solemn appeal to the reason of mankind. Its argument, though founded in English law, suppressed the recondite legalism of tradition to the revolutionary principles born of the Enlightenment. Jefferson encapsulated a cosmology, a political philosophy, and a national creed–for so it would become–in the celebrated second paragraph.

The truths there declared to be “self-evident” were not new; indeed, as Jefferson later said, his purpose was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments . . . , but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject” (Jefferson Writings, p. 1501). For the first time in history these truths were laid at the foundation of a nation. Human equality, the natural rights of man, the sovereignty of the people–these principles endowed the American Revolution with high moral purpose and heralded the democratic future not only in America but in the world. Some years passed before Jefferson’s authorship was generally known, but in due time the Declaration of Independence became his first title to fame.

… Jefferson’s last years were etched with sadness and disappointment. His health began to fail in 1818. At the same time, his personal fortune was doomed… Through all this Jefferson preserved his serene faith in freedom, enlightenment, and the progress of humanity. He died at Monticello on the fiftieth anniversary of American independence. A methodical man to the end, he penned his own epitaph–designed his tombstone as well–in which he chose to be remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and as Father of the University of Virginia. In a celebrated last letter he wrote an inspiring testament to posterity: “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their back, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God” (Jefferson Writings, p. 1547). It almost seemed that he had appointed the hour of his death to embellish his legend. The reported last words of John Adams, who also died on that day of jubilee, were “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” The course of American democracy testified to the truth of the utterance.

Want to learn more? Check out these books, Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase, and Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson.

The Atlantic writes, “He fathered the Constitution and wrote the Bill of Rights.”

Madison, James (5 Mar. 1751-28 June 1836), “the father of the Constitution” and fourth president of the United States, was born in King George County, Virginia, the oldest child of James Madison, Sr., and Nelly Conway, who at the time was visiting her mother’s estate on the Rappahannock River. The senior Madison, a vestryman, a justice of the peace, and Orange County’s leading planter, was the master of 4,000 acres and perhaps 100 slaves. Although without a formal education of his own, he was determined to provide his namesake with the training and accomplishments appropriate for one who was expected to assume a place among the great Virginia gentry. In 1762, at age eleven, the younger Madison (who would subscribe himself “James Madison, Jr.,” until his father’s death in 1801) began five years of study at Donald Robertson’s boarding school in King and Queen County. From there, encouraged by the Reverend Thomas Martin, who gave him two more years of tutoring at home, he traveled north to Princeton, where he passed examinations with the freshman class in September 1769 and completed the next three years in two…

The newly constituted government assembled in New York in April 1789. As everyone expected, Madison immediately assumed a leading role in the First Federal Congress. He drafted Washington’s inaugural address, prepared the reply of the House of Representatives, and helped defeat proposals to address the president as “highness”–important contributions to the early effort to define the protocol between the branches and to set the democratic tone he wanted for the new regime. He introduced the resolutions that resulted in the first federal tariff and took the lead in the creation of executive departments, successfully insisting that the president alone should have the power to remove executive officials. Most importantly of all, he drafted the constitutional amendments that became the Bill of Rights.

Through much of 1788, while the adoption of the Constitution was in doubt, Madison had disapproved of the demand for these amendments. He argued that the powers of the federal government were limited to matters that did not involve the fundamental rights protected by the constitutions of the states. He warned that an insistence on a federal bill of rights might threaten the essential liberties that its proponents wanted to protect; an inadvertent error or omission could become the basis for a claim to powers not intended by the Constitution. At the Virginia state convention, nonetheless, the Federalists were forced to promise that amendments would be added once the Constitution was approved; and Madison repeated this commitment during his campaign for a position in the House. Politics were not his only reason.

Throughout the course of constitutional reform, Madison’s insistence on a stronger federal system had been linked to a commitment to a form of government that would remain responsive to the people. Even as he worried over popular abuses, he reminded correspondents of the dangers that could rise from rulers who were able to escape a due dependence on the people; and even as he argued that the central government would have to be released from its dependence on the states, he recognized that too much power could be placed in federal hands. In The Federalist he described the new regime as neither wholly national nor strictly federal in structure, but as an unexampled compound under which concurrent state and central governments would each be limited to the responsibilities that each was best equipped to meet, while each would check intrusions by the other. These ideas, together with his recognition that a Bill of Rights could reconcile the opposition and become a bulwark for the courts, enabled him to change his mind and persevere in overcoming stout congressional resistance to amendments….

…Madison died at breakfast at Montpelier days before the sixtieth anniversary of independence. He was the last, as he had once been first, among the framers of the Constitution.

Want to learn more? Check out these books, James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights, The Faiths of Founding Fathers, and To Form A More Perfect Union.

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