What turned Adams and Jefferson into Revolutionaries?

John Turnball’s painting Declaration of Independence, Library of Congress

As Founding Fathers, they went together like a hand-thrown, ceramic pitcher and a French porcelain teacup. Neither was afraid to break some China. After all, they were poised to upset the 18th century world order. Their political differences surfaced early on–fierce disagreements about the size and cost of government–but for the sake of the Revolution, they soldiered on. What turned these solid, British subjects trained in the English legal system into firebrand Revolutionaries?

Ambitious men, both Adams and Jefferson benefited from their links to the Crown prior to the Indominable Acts, which taxed and punished the Colonists for failing to be subservient to England. Some would say the Boston Tea Party, when white men dressed up as Native Americans to dump expensive English tea into the harbor, showed the ire of the Colonists.

Mounting Fury and Ambition

Pictured by some as Mutt and Jeff–Adams the pudgy midget straining to reach five foot compared with Jefferson, the ramrod six footer. Adams struggled to show up in a proper powdered wig and tidy attire, while Jefferson made certain his dress mirrored the image of a suive squire entering the drawing room. Adams, the simple New England farmer of moderate means who through the force of character became an outstanding, affluent lawyer who inspired and moved legislative bodies to action with his oration. The younger Jefferson rarely rose to speak in any legislative body, saving his ideas for smaller groups, but he had a wicked, mighty pen–a talent Adams recognized soon enough.

In February 1770, a mob attacked the residence of an informer for the Custom service, who fired on the crowd and killed a young boy. The next week off-duty soldiers and dock workers lost control and a brawl ensured near the water. The Sons of Liberty in London, who supported the Colonists, warned, “America is on the point of bursting into flames.” (1)

The following month the Boston Masacre took place on March 5, 1770. Bostonians were protesting economic restraints outside the Customs House when five people were killed and others injured by British soldiers. Sdams called it the “slaughter in King Street,” others referred to it as the Boston Massacre. (2) King George retreated from all except the tax on tea. Adams thought the protests would recede and never surface again.

Adams Defends British Soldiers in Court

Protesters led by John’s cousin, Samuel, sought to have John defend the soldiers, not wanting the trial appear to be a sham. John accepted, but not for a grand fee, he said he earned around 18 guineas (about the cost of a pair of shoes). (3) Rather he believed the soldiers deserved a fair trial, but he also knew the trial would showcase his ability as a defense attorney, raising his reputation as one of the most distinguished lawyers in the country.

He’d been bitten by the political bug an sought a seat in the Massachusetts Legislature. Political payoff it may not have been, but before the trial ended, one of Boston’s four legislators resigned his assembly seat and Adams was elected as his replacement.” (4) He began by getting the trial postponed, allowing tempers to cool. Adams kept up his end of the argain, according to one in the audience delivering “the finest speech I ever heard in my life–equal to the greatest orator that ever spoke in Rome or Greece.” (5)

Wear and Tear of the Circuit

Like Lincoln in Illinois sixty years later, Adams rode a jusicial circuit prior to the Revolution from Maine to Boston and Cap Cod to the western frontier in Berkshire Count. He called this a “maked, barren journey” of a vagabond that “starved his soul.” (6) During the French and Indian War, Adams became caught up in the spirit of the British Army and wanted to join it in his youth, but followed the law as a career.

In 1761 British customs officials in Boston demanded pament from Americans in the form of “writs of assistance.” Pervasive searches of cargo attempted to discover smuggled goods in violation of imperial trade laws. Adams attended the subsequent trial, saying his concept of American independence came out of those trials. He began to picture Britain as a “haughty, powerful nation who held us in great contempt.” (7)

Adams realized that a collision with Great Britain could be inevitable, but at the time he focused on his practice and his courtship of Abigail. By 1765, Adams feared that his legal reputation would sufer if he openly criticized the mother country. (8) Two years later Britain had won Canada and everything east of the Mississippi River, but struggled mightily to pay for the war, so looked to the Colonies to help reduce the British debt through the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765.

The Sugar Act did not amount to much bu the Stamp Act unleashed the furor lurking below the surface. Stamp distributors were threatened and acts of violence forced several out of office. Economic boycotts began and the Virginia House of Burgesses denounced them. Yet Adams still doubted the staying power of the crisis, seeing the potential to become “an ecormous Engine fabricated. . .for battering down all the Rights and Liberties of America.” (9)

“We are in no Sense represented”

Cousin Samuel named John to a panel to urge Governor Francis Bernard to reoped the provincial courts closed by the stamp Act. Adams told the governor that the tax was unconstitutional because it was enacted “where we are in no Sense represented. . . A Parliament of Great Britain can have no more Right to tax the Colonies than a Parliament of Paris.” Paris.” (10)

Adams, who began life philosophically closer to the British from his stud o the law, said this situation turned him into a revolutionary. (11) In 1766, relieved when the British repealed the Stamp Act, Adams began his climb up the political ladder on Braintree’s Board of Selectment, following in the footsteps of his father, who help the office for nine terms. John achieved this post just seven years into his legal career at thirty.

But the British weren’t done punishing the Colonists and imposted the Townshend Duting on glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea imported into America and created a board of customs to enforce them. In New York the assembly was suspended for falling to house the British army, bu only minor resistance occurred initially. Then the British impounded the ship of patroit John Hancock’s slook, Liberty, and charged him with smuggling. From early on he’d used his wealth to support patriot causes. This action seemed a retaliation by the British. Adams defended Hancock in court and the charges were dropped. Bostonians erupted immediately when Hancock’s ship was seized and the economic boycott of Britain began in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. (12)

Washington stepped up in 1770, now bored with foxhunting (perhaps the 18th century Virginia plantation equivalent of golf) and his daily tours of his plantation on horseback. He invited his neighbor and noted legislator george Mason over to draft a boycott plan. Washington also joined the assembly committee to strengthen enforcement of the boycott.

Jefferson Rises

As a twenty-two year old law student in 1765, Jefferson listened in the hallway to Patrick Henry’s attack on the Stamp Act, he immediately learned of Henry’s capacity to move men to action. Jefferson later spoke of the “torrents of sublime eloquence” that sparked “the dawn of the Revolution.” He signed Washington’s embargo, but obviousl was not totally onboard as he ordered a mahogany piano and windows from England, saying the piano would be stored until the embargo ended. (13)

When Henry spoke at the Second Virginia Convention March 23, 1775, at St. John’s Church in Richmond, he moved Jeffersona nd his countrymen to action, whether they be from Vrginia, Pennsylvanie, New York, or New England.”I am not a Virginian,” he said.”I am an American,” pushing for solidarity that spoke to his countrymen and may be slipping away for some today. Henry motivated the Colonies to law aside their unrealistic visions that the British would come around, but now they prepared to fight. (14)

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” He held his wrists together for his audience, as though they were in chains.”Almighty God! I know not what cause others might takebut as for me, give me liverty,” and he grasped an ivory penknife and thrust it into his chest, “or give me death.” Thereafter Virginians established militia in each county to prepare themselves.Concord and Lexington occurred in Massachusetts less than a month later on April 19, 1775, opening the Revolutionary War. (15)

Stay tuned for more Tales of the Founders in Past Becomes Present next week.

(1) John Ferling, Setting the World on Fire, (New York: Oxford Press, 2000)  p. 77.

(2) (3) Ibid.

(4) L. H. Butterfield, et. al, eds, The Dairy and Autobiography of John Adams, 4 vol. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press, 1961), 3:292-94.

(5) Ferling, p. 57.

(6) Ibid, 58.

(7) Ferling, 69.

(8) Ibid, p. 64.

(9) Ferling, p 70.

(10) John Adams, “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.”

(11) Ferling,p.71.

(12) Ibid., 74.

(13) John Ellis, American Sphinx, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000), p. 28, 32-33.

(14) Ferling, p. 76

(15) Ibid, p. 78.

Leadership: Has it changed since Washington’s day?

General George Washington astride his battle horse, Blueskin, during the Revolution, in a painting made a century after the war. Blueskin became a favored horse for artists but Washington preferred Old Nelson in battle because the horse withstood the challenge of fire better than other horses. You could say he had one horse for show and another for battle.

Leadership traits in the 21st century, have they changed since Washington led rag-tag troops in the American Revolution or are these traits universal? How do the characteristics of a leader serving 327 million Americans (2018) across 50 states compare with those George Washington used to wear down the British and win freedom for the four million souls in the thirteen Colonies?

Here are two examples of George Washington’s leadership during the Revolution:

General Washington waited impatiently for the ice to freeze the channel to Boston between the Continental Army and the British troops to allow his troops to walk or sled across. When it did freeze and he was ready to implement his plan, Washington called a war council with his generals to present a plan for “a bold and resolute assault upon the (British) troops in Boston.” (1)

His generals unanimously voted it down, feeling they lacked gunpowder needed to bombard and soften the British ahead of the assault. They were concerned that Washington overestimated the size of his army and underestimated the strength of the British. Reluctantly Washington accepted the verdict of his generals and admitted possibly his plan might have “miscarried” had he moved forward. (2) Chernow points out that Washington could be sensitive to public opinion (as well as the judgment of his generals), was jealous of his image, and willing to listen to others. (3)

Dorchester Heights Escape

Washington knew how to move men to understand their individual roles in history–“whether Americans will be free or slaves” would be up to them. (4) On March 2 his men began firing diversionary volleys at the British, who returned with eardrum-shattering cannon fire. Two days later the plan began to unfold on a night that was hazy below the heights with a “bright moonlight above the hills,” (5) perfect for the operation that Washington directed from “Old Nelson,” his chestnut unruffled by British fire and surefooted on icy hills.

Often, we tell tales of great successful battles, but great planning, commitment and a little luck went into a nearly impossible maneuver that saved Boston in March 1776. Washington took a day to assess how to overcome his desperate position. He talked with his generals and figured the meager supplies and ammunition available to his army, now holding the high ground at Dorchester Heights south of Boston, but without the firepower to prove dominance and damage the British.

He directed the digging of trenches and placement of fake fortifications and burning hay as a decoy, while awaiting the arrival of the Ticonderoga guns being dragged up the slippery ridge. All must be done in a single night to surprise the British and prevent the full force of British wrath from raining on the patriots. Covered by General Henry Knox’s artillery, three thousand soldiers, led by General John Thomas, coaxed oxen-led wagons up the ridge covered with ice two feet thick. Wheels were covered by hay to deaden the sound of huge cannons lumbering up the hill. When British General William Howe awoke and viewed the Dorchester Ridge on March 5, he saw a fortified position with the Ticonderoga guns pointed down onto his troops.

General Howe realized he could no longer defend Boston and in less than two weeks moved his base to Halifax, Canada, for the next five months. Before he left, Howe remarked: “He (Washington) got more work out of his men in one night than I could make my men do in three months.” On March 17, 1776, nine-thousand British redcoats boarded 120 ships, stretched nine miles out to the Atlantic, only to return in August to continue the battle for New York City. (6)

Washington’s Nautical Surprise

If they weren’t careful, the American troops would be destroyed before the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence. When Brooklynites or commuters into Manhattan look down on the East River today, few think of August 30, 1776, when Washington had his force of 9,500 troops stuck on Brooklyn Heights. Liable to be crushed between the wings of an overwhelming number of British soldiers on Long Island (estimated at 22,000 divided along three paths). The size of the British force surprised Washington, who overlooked several dozen British ships docked or arriving in New York. He pulled troops from Manhattan, when he realized the enemy could easily overwhelm his existing troops.

As luck would have it, the direction of the wind shifted, which stalled the arrival of several ships filled with British soldiers destined to attack the patriots. Using the cover of darkness, British Generals Howe, Clinton and Cornwallis led 10,000 men in a column two miles along through a gaping hole in the patriot’s defenses leading up to the Battle of Brooklyn (Battle of Long Island). Patriot outcome: 300 killed and 1,000 taken prisoner. John Adams remarked: “In general our generals have been out-generaled.” (7)

Washington spent a few days considering the options before he made a decisive decision and spent much of the next 48 hours astride Old Nelson planning, executing, and presiding at the departure landing spot to oversee the operation. He had 9,500 men and determined from spies and campfires the British outnumbered them by 2 or 3 to 1. Washington estimated the number of boats and the number of trips needed to deliver his soldiers before dawn.

On August 29, he again held a war council at Four Chimneys, a Brooklyn Heights house with a panoramic view of New York Harbor, where the general gave him unanimous support for the plan. That night they would evacuate their entire force across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The men were told they were changing positions. High winds initially threatened the mission, reducing them initially to use smaller, steadier row boats. Cloths were tied to the oars to muffle the sound as the men rowed across the river. Washington kept campfires burning on the heights to conceal the evacuation. At times the overloaded boats were mere inches from the water, but the Massachusetts mariner, Colonel (and Ship Captain) John Glover, and his seamen exhibited their skill in ferrying the soldiers to the Manhattan shore. Before the mission concluded, the sun began to rise, but luck again brought in a swift, dense fog across the Brooklyn shoreline, covering the last few boats. Desperate men clamored across the bow to get into one of the later boats and refused to budge. Washington grabbed a huge rock and threatened to “sink (the boat) to hell.” Men rushed for shore and regular operations continued. (8)

As Washington’s boots climbed into the last boat crossing the East River, shots could be heard from the British. He signaled the success of the evacuation and they rowed unharmed to the opposite shore.

Washington’s Leadership

Balancing the ledger, while Washington did not boast of the evacuation, neither did he accept blame for the earlier lost battle. He argued the difficulty of predicting where the British would land, making it harder to defend a wide swath of territory. He criticized the militia as unprofessional for deserting in droves. (Granted he faced overwhelming odds, but that would have been a better excuse than to undervalue his troops as unprofessional.)

In the next campaign, Washington considered burning New York to hamper the British, but realized it would do more harm than good, since the city contained more than just Loyalists and Tories. He determined to fight a defensive war that dragged on. (9) The Treaty of Paris, ending the war, was not signed until 1783.

Compare Washington’s leadership skills to a 21st century list of the Top 10 Leadership Qualities that Make Good Leaders.(10) You can judge how modern leaders stack up to George. Make a scorecard for yourself or for the leaders of your choice.

John Maxwell, author of the more extensive 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, provides a definition: “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” (11)

(1) Character (Integrity and Honesty) On most every leadership list these qualities rise to the top. Selecting the path of character is like exercising a muscle–by choosing the positive course a person strengthens their ability. Nobel prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent years in a Soviet prison camp, finds character at the heart of personal development.”The meaning of earthly existing lies, not as we have grown used to thinking in prospering, but in the development of the soul.” (12)

This points to a key element of leadership–fulfilling one’s obligations–doing what you said you would do–even when it’s excruciatingly difficult. Followers may lose faith in their leader if promises are broken.

Inspired leaders stay positive about the mission and calm under pressure. At one time leaders, even managers, who yelled at their staff were considered successful, no longer. Yelling repeatedly at staff or followers harms a leader’s reputation by identifying someone who has lost control of their own emotions–not the makings of a calm, controlled leader.

Just as Washington led the Colonies in the Revolution, President Dwight Eisenhower led the Allied Forces (US and Britain) to victory in the Second World War. He had never led a massive military operation before and had to overcome generals who doubted his ability. Initially he relied on his personal character. Eisenhower said: “The supreme quality of leadership is unquestionably integrity.” (13)

Respected broadcast journalist of the ’60s and ’70s, David Brinkley, didn’t pull punches and defined a successful man as “one who can lay a foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.” Overcoming obstacles, be they bricks or poverty or lack of education, builds strength that can last throughout a lifetime.” (14)

Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant, but morally complicated man who wrote “all men are created equal,” who kept slaves on his plantation, nonetheless gave a stronger endorsement for truth-telling, showing how he compartmentalized his thoughts: “There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time ’til at length it becomes habitual, he tells lies without attending to it and goes without the world believing him(self). This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good disposition.” (15)

It’s easy enough for someone to say they have integrity, but if the words and the actions don’t match, then character is the missing link.

Personal Bedrock

Leaders, who lay a granite-solid foundation as a platform for life, make it easier to maintain a strong character. Followers are attracted to these people. Without this foundation beneath them, even the most charismatic leaders can fall into what psychologist Steven Berglas, author of The Success Syndrome, calls the four A’s: arrogance, painful feelings of aloneness, destructive adventure-seeking, and adultery. (16)

2) Courage and Resiliance apply to leaders who march out every day to pit themselves against an opponent, a machine or a problem. Certainly Winston Churchill qualifies. The British Prime Minister during World War II noted: “One person with courage is a majority.” He finds courage to be “the quality that guarantees all the others” but like many of us, he had to overcome his internal struggles and defeats to succeed on the world stage and pull others to stand with him. (17)

Leaders learn to believe in themselves and stay the course. Thomas Edison is remembered primarily for the light bulb (though he held 1,093 other patents). The discovery didn’t happen overnight, but required testing of 10,000 combinations to develop the exact right one that created an incandescent lightbulb–an example of the resilience and determination to succeed. (18)

A more contemporary leader, Billy Graham, said, “Courage is contagious. When a brave man (or woman) stands up, the spines of others are stiffened.” It’s possible to just stand up, but leadership is the expression of courage that compels people to do the right thing. (19)

The opposite feeling, fear, can paralyze some people, but we must look it in the face, not retreat from it. Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady and philanthropist, saw the country at what was then its most vulnerable time. “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face. I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along,” she said. “You must do the thing that you cannot do.” (20)

3) Vision and Passion grow from one’s experience. Walt Disney went to a dilapidated amusement park as a child and determined to make the best environment to entertain children and their families. His movies and entertainment world grew from this vision and his passion drew others to help fulfill his dream and continue to build it long after his death. (21)

4) Confidence and Intelligent Risk-Taking go together. If you’re good at what you do and know it, confidence comes easily. The trick is to keep from tipping over into arrogance or risky decision-making, which will ruin strong ties with followers and sully one’s reputation. People like Founder and Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin’s search for ways to keep learning, growing, and improving every day. As Maxwell points out–“the man who knows how will always have a job, a man (or woman) who knows why will always be the boss.” (22)

5) Listening and Inspiring Others increases loyalty and offers the leader essential information about the work of others in the field. Persuading others to follow the leader may be the most difficult job. When the going gets tough, followers look to the leader to see their reaction to the situation. A leader’s positive approach should be visible through their actions. Staying calm under pressure will draw followers to you. Sixth President John Quincy Adams, after an initial career as a diplomat following in his father’s footsteps, defined leadership: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” (23)

6) Skilled Communication Taking a complicated idea, or a vision, and reducing it to common terms helps a leader define the plan. Words motivate a team and/or the public. The key here is boiling the message down into language that is easy to understand and difficult to scramble. Conviction makes the sale undeniable. “The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire,” explained Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, a French general who served as Supreme Commander in World War I. (24)

7) Accountable Decisions A key trait of excellent leaders is the ability to make reasonable judgments that are right more than they are wrong. Because of the impact a decision will have on followers, it is essential that it not be made in haste but reviewed with a few well-chosen advisors. When leaders investigate the options with experienced advisors before they act, and don’t become captive to the process, the chances for a successful decision rise. (25) Being accountable for the decision’s outcome is equally important. A leader gains respect from their followers when they take responsibility for the results, good and bad. When there is no accountability, it is easier to repeat the mistake or become stuck in a quagmire of failure.

8) Creativity and Innovation What separates a leader from a follower? Steve Jobs, one of America’s greatest visionaries, answered this way: “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” (26) Today’s leaders need to be both creative and innovative in order to stand out from the crowd. Fast behind these two traits come goal setting to develop the steps making ideas real.

9) Empathy and Generosity Tragedies occur with regularity, a leader must be prepared to address these situations and show an open heart to those suffering and to their own followers and staff in time of need. Showing a human side does more than enhance the leader’s public relations’ score, it provides a moment of unity in crisis. London banker and philanthropist Richard Foster of the 19th century advises: “Just the very act of letting go of money, or some other treasure, does something within us. It destroys the demon greed.” (26)

10) Delegation and Empowerment A leader needs to focus on the key issues that keep the organization, army, or the country on track. If the leader is caught up in the minutia of the organization (and for example knows how many rolls of toilet paper are needed annually in the company’s bathrooms), then the higher level issues that need the leader’s attention will get short shift or no attention at all. So much better the empowered organization, where each person knows their role, the importance of their role, and strives to fulfill it to the best of their ability, knowing who to seek assistance from when needed.

So how did Washington do according to a modern yardstick? It’s difficult to make a precise judgment 230 years later. Yet it appears he did well across the board, except a slight fumble in Accountability, not accepting blame after the Brooklyn Heights battle. He gets points for not bragging about getting 9,500 soldiers safely across the East River in one night. Empathy generally did not appear in Washington’s wheelhouse, but that can often be true of military leaders focused on the mission.

Create a scorecard for yourself or the leaders in your life. Maybe you will select other areas to evaluate. Get back to me in the reply section to this blog.

(1) Papers of George Washington, Letter to John Hancock, February 18, 1776.

(2) Ibid. 3:370

(3) Ron Chernow, Washington, (New York: Penguin Press, 2010) p, 224.

(4) Ibid, p. 235. The issue of slavery had been considered in the Colonies, particularly Virginia– the colony with the greatest number of slaves–ever since the first ship came from Africa to Jamestown in the 16th century. Despite the fact that the words “All men are created equal” appear in the Constitution leaving little question about inclusion, the nation has struggled with those words. In North America from 1501-1867 (yes after the Civil War) a total of 12.5 million slaves were brought from Africa. First landing in Jamestown(e) in 1619.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Chernow, ,p. 224, 227.

(7) Dave Richard Palmer, George Washington and Benedict Arnold, (Washington, DC,: Regnery Press, 2006), p. 186.

(8) Chernow, pp. 249-251.

(9) Ibid.

(10) John Maxwell, 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nash Publishers, 1999), p.xi.

(11) https://blog. taskque.com/characteristics-good-leaders

(12) Maxwell, p. 5.

(13) Ibid, p. 88

(14) Gordon Leidner, The Leadership Secrets of Hamilton and the Founding Fathers, (Naperville, IL: Simple Truth Sourcebook Publishers, 2017), p. 25.

(15) Maxwell, p. 25.

(16) Ibid, p. 5

(17) Maxwell, p. 37

(18) Ibid, p. 89.

(19) Maxwell, p. 41.

(20) Ibid. p. 41

(21) Maxwell, p. 44

(22) Ibid. p. 149.

(23) Maxwell, p. 31

(24) Sarmad Hansan, Leadership Qualities that Make Good Leaders, online download May 18, 2019, p. 3.


(25) Maxwell, p. 27

(26) Hansan, p. 4.

Gerry’s Irony: Insists on Bill of Rights; Father of Gerrymandering

This political cartoon, which appeared in the Boston Gazette on March 26, 1812, carried the term “gerrymander” for the first time. Then Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry’s Democratic-Republican party drew this outline of a “safe” voting district for their political party. The newspaper rediculed Getty for the shape of the state senate district in Essex County, painting it as a salamander with claws, wings and a dragon-shaped head, satirizing its shape.

A man without a political party until the last 14 years of his life, this Massachusetts merchant began his support for the American Revolution by raising troops and delivering essential goods, medical supplies, and munitions to Boston after the British closed the port in 1774. Two years later Elbridge Gerry signed the Declaration of Independence and later the 1775 Articles of Confederation to draw the states together to respond to British threats. (1)

Gerry’s political career got a kick start from patriot Samuel Adams, in Massachusetts as they jointly opposed Parliamentary colonial policies, like the Stamp Act, in May 1772. When elected to the First Continental Congress, he joined Britain’s “Most Wanted” list. Three years later, as chair of the state’s Council of Safety, Gerry narrowly escaped capture by British soldiers, who were marching between Cambridge and Lexington, as the Revolution began.

His mother’s family gave him the name “Elbridge” and he went on to change the course of history repeatedly during a critical 40-year period. Gerry became one of the least remembered U.S. Vice Presidents, now dragged into modern political arguments. (Where do you think the term “gerrymandering” came from? Stay tuned.

Getty’s attendnce at the Continental Congress guaranteed that negotiations would be long and sometimes excruciating. He attended regularly, rarely withholding his judgement. In the end, Getty agreed with much of their work, yet refused to sign the final draft because it did not include a Bill of Rights. His reasoning:

“. . . there is no adequate provision for a representation of the people, . . .no security for the right of election’ some of the powers of the legislature are ambiguous, and others indefinite and dangerous; . . . the executive is bended with, and will have an undue influence over, the legislature . . . the judicial department will be oppressive; . . . treaties of the highest importance may be formed by the President, with the advice of two-thirds of a quarum of the Senate; and (most important to Gerry) the system is without the security of a bill of rights.” (2)

Alexander Hamilton did not endorse Gerry’s idea. “Bills of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between a king and his subjects,” he wrote in the Federalist Paper Number 84, a year after the convention. Since America was run by the people and not a king, such guarantees were not necessary. He believed a bill of rights to be ‘dangerous.’ (3) The checks and balances, separation of powers, and representative government took care of the problem in Hamilton’s mind. At the time, the Constitutional Convention agreed with him.

Arbitrary Man, Critical Convention

Well spoken, Gerry rose 153 times during the Constitutional Convention, so colleagues grew tired of the sound of his voice. (4) He could be arbitrary, but understood the supreme importance of the convention’s work:

“Never, perhaps, were a people called on to decide a question of greater magnitude. Should the citizens of America adopt the plan as it now stands, their liberties may be lost; or should they reject it altogether, anarchy may arise,”(5) Getty said. He believed “that the fate of the Union will be decided in this Convention” and grew prophetic in his fear that the divisions would “lay the foundation of a civil war.” (6)

Sent to Harvard at 14, Gerry graduated with two degrees by 1765. He wrote his thesis on whether “faithful subjects” could avoid the ‘prohibitive duties’ passed by the Crown–the Stamp Act in particular–and argued that they could indeed. (3)

He married well to Ann Thompson, the daughter of a wealthy and politically active merchant-shipper, who he met in New York while representing Massachusetts. She gave birth to eleven children, many times while he was away. Gerry’s vision grew international in scope through the family business–exporting dried codfish to Barbados and Spain.

Gerry re-entered politics after the Boston Port Act closed the city in 1774. Living in neighboring Marblehead, he insured the port town provided relief supplies to Boston after the British retaliated for the Boston Tea Party (dumping a British shipment of expensive tea into the harbor).

President John Adams, who became a friend during the Revolution, praised Gerry for signing the Declaration of Independence, for convincing other colleagues to do likewise. “If every Man here was a Getty, the Liberties of American would be safe against the Gates of Hell.” (7) Gerry assumed a seat in the First House of Representatives in 1789 (as the French Revolution commenced) and lobbied for freedom of assembly, which appeared in the First Amendment to the Constitution, and protection against search of personal possessions and seizure of property in the Fourth, supported civilian control of the military, and opposed the President’s ability to fire cabinet officers. (8) Civilian control of the military began with Washington.

Gerry’s first defeat for Massachusetts Governmor came in 1788, when incumbent John Hancock beat him. As both men signed the Declaration twenty years earlier, Hancock turned to Gerry and acknowledged their danger as signatories: “I shall have a great advantage over you when we are all hung for what we are doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” (9)

President Adams nearly destoryed Gerry’s reputation when he sent him and on a diplomatic mission to Paris to prevent war with France. Since becoming an elector for Adams in 1796, the men had become even better friends, but Gerry managed also to be on good terms with Jefferson, a tricky proposition, because Gerry thought a divided executive might lead to less friction.

XYZ Affair

Gerry fell into the reputation nightmare by agreeing to serve in a diplomatic post in France. Fallout from the Jay Treaty with Britain, which addressed trade, war debts, and military issues after the American Revolution, ruffled French feathers. Once France’s own revolution ended, Americans saw tensions rise. The new nation wanted to maintain neutrality with both European powers. Gerry, along with Charles C. Pinckney and John Marshall arrived in October 1797 to meet cunning French Foreign Minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. He demanded a $50,000 bribe and a large loan before he would begin negotiations with the Americans. Talleyrand believed Gerry the most approachable of the three–he was not a federalist, so not tied to the British, so in April Talleyrand sent Pinckney and Marshall home. Gerry wanted to leave with them, but Talleyrand threatened war if he did. (10)

Then Talleyrand withheld President Adams’s messages from Getty, thinking he could pull him to the French perspective.

Congress Battles President Adams for French Report

As negotiations slowly continued in France, Congress became anxious and demanded a report from Adams regarding relations in France–where he had been a diplomat prior to the Presidency. The situation bears some resemblance to the showdown today. (Congress in 2019 desires a nonredacted copy of the Mueller Report given to the Attorney General about an investigation into Russian connections during the 2016 Presidential Campaign).

Eventually Adams sent a report to Congress with the names of the three French agents involved in the negotiations redacted and replaced with the letters X, Y, Z, thus the name of the affair.

Returning to the U.S. in August 1788, Getty may not have prevented the U.S from declaring open war on France, since the undeclared naval Quasi-War (1798-1803) happened regardless. By staying behind the others in France for months, Gerry summoned questions about his loyalty when he returned in 1799. Adams and Jefferson supported Gerry, but Federalists, like Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, blammed him for siding with the French. Disgusted with the Federalists’ response to the XYZ Affair and criticism of him, Gerry joined the Democratic Republicans in 1810 and ran for governor of Massachusetts.


He finally won the governorship after four attempts–two against his “buddy” incumbent John Hancock. Gerry sought to strengthen his party, the Democratic-Republicans (small government people, like Jefferson, as opposed to the Federalists, like Washington and Madison), after being sent to the political wilderness by the Federalists.

Two years later the legislature is controlled by the Democratic-Republicans, who are eager to create district boundaries to enhance (if not guarantee) their party’s control over state and national offices. The result? Oddly shaped Congressional voting districts that were said to resemble a salamander (like the one pictured above). This redistricting spurred a Federalist cartoon to coin the phrase “Gerry-mandering.” It remains the term for wrangling a Congressional district’s composition of voters to insure victory for one’s party while destroying or badly weakening the chances for the other party. (11)

As he saw his life coming to an end, Gerry feared that the Constitution might not provide enough protection either for the people or the executive. The power to redistrict could “be used to run roughshod over the very people or whose rights they were designed to protect.” (12) Indeed 209 years later this fear has translated into Congressional districts drawn in similar “salamander: shapes–gerrymandered to create safe seats, nearly impossible for an opposing party to win in states like Michigan, North Carolina, and Texas.

Forgotten Vice President

In the 1812 presidential election Gerry received the nod for the Vice Presidency (after John Langdon turned the nomination down) in support of Madison, who easily won re-election. Political powers preferred Gerry because he poised no threat to James Monroe, heir apparent to the Presidency. They didn’t want to darken his horizons with the mind-numbing VP position. The job entailed keeping Congress in line, a thankless task laid upon all the VPs. In the 1800s, the second in line got the onerous job of dolling out patronage jobs to their region, New England. Ironically Gerry also leaned heavily against Federalist job holders and even arrested printers of the opposing party. (13) Not the hoped for breath of fresh air.


2) Ibid.

(3) The Federalist Papers, Number 84, Avalon Project, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/frd84.asp.

(4) Subjects for Masters Degree,” Harvard Crimson, March 26, 1884, www.thecrimsom.com/article/1884/3/26/subjects-for-masters-degree-we-have

(5) Mike Lee, Written Out of History, (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017) p. 105

(6) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/30/learning/lesson-plans/investigating-gerrymandering-and-the-math-behind-partisan-maps.html

(7) Lee, 105.

(8) Lee, 99.

(9) George Billias (1976) Elbridge Gerry, Founding Father and Republican Statesman , p. 232, 46, 48.

(10) Documented in John Ferling’s John Adams: A Life (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992), 345.

(11) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elbridge_Getty[ME4] 

(12) Lee p. 114.

(13) Samuel Eliot Morison (2006) {1913}  The Life and Letters of Harrison Gray Otis https://www.worldcat.org/ocla/1804192  2:57.




Standing Up for a People Becoming a Nation

Mercy Otis Warren, prolific Revolutionary-era writer, fondly known by her spouse, the Speaker of the Massachusetts House, as the “scribbler.” She penned “Observations on the new Constitution and on the Federal and State Constitutions,” pointing out the need for a Bill of Rights to support personal freedoms lost under King George.

One prolific writer you probably never heard about: Mercy Otis Warren, who urged the Constitution not be approved in 1787. Her pamphlet Observation on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Constitutions expressed serious concerns about the lack of a Bill of Rights. Mercy wanted the new nation to avoid trannical rule like the colonies experienced under King George.

By September 1787 she reported to her friend British historian Catharine Macaulay (Graham): “Our situation is truly delicate & critical. On the one hand we stand in need of a strong Federal Government founded on principles that will support the prosperity & union of the colonies. On the other we have struggled for liberty & made lofty sacrifices at her shrine and there are still many among us who revere her name too much to relinquish (beyond a certain medium) the rights of man for the Dignity of Government. (1)

While news broadsheets were available, Colonists frequented places like Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern to learn the latest. Customers read pamphlets like Mercy’s “Observations on the New Constitution” while downing coffee, tea and stronger spirits. She called the new Constitution a “triple-headed monster” because it lacked limits on Judiciary Powers, that left “a boundless ocean that has broken over the chart of the Supreme Lawgiver, (saying) thus far (thou) shalt though go no further.” Next, the Executive and the Legislative are so “dangerously blended as to give just cause of alarm. . .in such vague and indefinite expression . . .that the authors dare not hazard to a clear investigation.” (2)

She saw “no protection for a rotation, nor anything to prevent the perpetuity of office in the same hands for life, which by a little well-timed bribery, will probably done, to the exclusion of men (before women had the vote or held office) of the best abilities from their share in the offices of government,” Mercy wrote lamenting the lack of checks and connections with “the feelings of the governed, and better qualifies him to govern in his turn.” (3)

Finally, Mercy attacked “warrants unsupported by evidence–the daring experiment of granting writs of assistance (arbitrary power to enter and arrest without a search warrant). . . to subject ourselves to the insolence of any petty revenue officer to enter our houses, search, insult, and seize at pleasure.” Her appeal to the Massachusetts representatives did not roll back the Constitution, but her state legislators voted to include a Bill of Rights as a companion to it, as did New York after having ample distribution of her pamphlet. Three other states supported what came to be called the Massachusetts Compromise, based on Mercy’s writing and helped guarantee our civil liberties today. (4)

If Mercy were with us now, would she take pen in hand to address an overreaching judiciary, executive orders, open-ended Congressional terms of office as legislators roll into their 80th year still sitting in seats where more agile men and women could have an opportunity to consider new ideas, instead of wading through perpetual gridlock? Using the counsel of elders, who would relinquish their chairmanships and voting powers, a new crop of legislators could learn the meaning of compromise. Today her concerns with a permanent governing class and the lack of protection against unlawful searches and seizures have not disappeared.

She wrote under the pseudonym “A Columbian Patriot” to protect her identity as a female writer, since there were so few and they were not taken seriously. Writing freely in opposition to the British Crown could be dangerous. Her readers thought the quality and substance of Warren’s work must be that of a man, particularly lawyer and Massachusetts legislator Elbridge Gerry. Both he and George Mason refused to sign the new Constitution as drafted. Gerry said it was “full of vices.” (5)(His story, which entails much more than the Constitutional Convention will appear next week). It wasn’t until Warren’s descendant, Charles Warren unearthed a reference to Mercy Warren’s work in a letter to British Historian Macaulay that Marcy received credit for her work. (6)

In her pamphlet “Observations on the New Constitution,” Mercy called the document a “many-headed monster” because of its weak definition of limits on the Judiciary powers, and the executive and legislative body, plus the lack of time limits for Congressional members, and allowing broad-brush searches and seizures to curtail individual rights. Judicial powers, incorporated into the original document she saw as a “boundless ocean that has broken over the Supreme Lawgiver” and the language in which they are written, “would be an Herculean labour to attempt to describe the dangers with which they are replete. . .” Concerning lack of protection from search and seizure, she wrote: “nor can we be so ungreatful to the memory of the patriots who counteracted their operation, as soon after their manly exertions to save us from such a detestable instrument of arbitrary power, to subject ourselves to the insolence of ant petty revenue officer to enter our houses, insult, and seize at pleasure.(7)

When the Constitution received approval by 18 states in Philadelphia in 1788, Mercy continued her quest for a Bill of Rights. Her writing shines through with her passion:

Animated with the firmest zeal for the interest of this country, the peace and union of the American States, and the freedom and happiness of a people who have made the most costly sacrifices in the case of liberty, who have braved the power of Britain, weathered the convulsions of war, and waded thro’ the blood of friends and foes to extablish their indepndence and to support the freedom of the human mind; I cannon silently witness this degradation without calling on them, before they are compelled to blush at their own servitude. . .” (8)

Mercy failed to prevent Massachusetts from ratifying the Constitution, but the state’s legislature did add an amendment requiring a Bill of Rights be attached to it, which became known as the Massachusetts Compromise. New York’s legislature, where her pamphlet was widely distributed, also voted for this compromise. That and the support of several important leaders, including Virginian Richard Henry Lee, former speaker of the U.S. House during the Revolution returned as his state’s first senator to assure passage of an American Bill of Rights.

How Mercy Gained Her Pen

At a time in the early 18th century when most women were occupied managing a home and raising children (though she had five children of her own), and were illiterate or could identify only a few passages in the Bible, Mercy’s desire for learning took her into the study of history and language. The men in her life supported her curiosity–starting with her father, Col. James Otis–farmer, attorney, and an outspoken opponent against British rule in the Massachusetts House. He saw his daughter’s promise and included her in tutoring sessions for his sons. She studied Latin and Greek along side her brothers as they prepared to enter Harvard, although women were not admitted then. Mercy received her father’s full support in her academic and literary efforts–treating her as an intellectual equal and confidante. (8)

Her personal writing ability and opposition to Britain’s sins against the Colonies blossomed and grew between the encouragement of her father and her husband, James Warren, who fought at Bunker Hill (he survived, unlike a Dr. James Warren). He became speaker of the Massachusetts House and served as paymaster to George Washington’s army for a time. Her brother, Samuel Otis, served as quartermaster during the Revolution and as a Massachusetts member of the Second Continental Congress. (9)

Warren fondly referred to his wife as a “scribbler” and expressed his pride at her “mind possessed of a Masculine Genius well stocked by philosophy & religion.” But she proved masculinity would not be required for her genius. (10)

With the assistance of their friend, Samuel Adams, the meetings at their home in Plymouth helped lay the foundation for the essential Committees of Correspondence–“no single step contributed so much to cement the union of the colonies” by sharing information about the British. (11)

What makes Mercy’s role particularly striking are the people with whom she corresponded: In addition to Samuel, Abigail and John Adams, Martha Washington, (probably raising money for the troops in the Ladies Associations around the country–raising $300,000–huge back then and now 240 years later) (11) , John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Hannah Winthrop (second wife of John Winthrop, advisor to George Washington during the Revolution, Harvard mathematics department chair and astronomy wizard–worth a blog of his own).

Mercy stayed close to her quill from 1765–the heart of political events related to the Stamp Act–to 1789 and the founding of the federal republic, six years after the Revolution ended. Former warriors/now legislators sat down to hammer out how they were going to live together now that the British were gone.

It wasn’t until 1790 that her (18) political poems and two of her plays were published under her name. The plays “The Sack of Rome” and “The Ladies of Castille,” dealt with liberty and social and moral values that she saw as necessary to the success of the new republic. (12)

Not without humor, Mercy wrote “Blockhead,” a counterpoint to a play by former British General Johnny Burgoyne’s “The Blockade of Boston,” one of several including several popular on the London stage. But Mercy was dead serious when she completed her literary career by writing the history of the Revolution, published in 1805. Both Washington and Jefferson wished some author would take on this task to relay their stories to future generations. President Jefferson ordered a subscription for himself and his entire cabinet to the three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. Jefferson noted his “anticipation of her truthful account of the last thirty years that will furnish a more instructive lesson to mankind than any equal period known in history.” (13)

When John Adams, retired in his seventies read this work on his farm, Peacefield, two years after publication, he had an entirely different response. As early as 1789, Mercy distrusted strong central government, though admitted a federal system would be necessary in order to unify the country. Her relationship with Adams, then vice president under Washington began to suffer as Mercy believed that Adams had spent too much time among Europe’s monarchy as ambassador to Britain and the Netherlands. Elbridge Gerry shared concerns about “as complete an aristocracy as ever was framed.” (14)

In the first presidential election only five states (Delaware, Maryland,New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) chose electors purely by popular vote. (15) In Massachusetts the people voted for just two of the ten electors. Women, free men without land, slaves, and indentured servants were blocked from voting. In the first presidential election, in which voting continued from December 1788 to January 1789, only 43,782 individuals in a nation of 4 million souls cast presidential ballots. (16)

Greatest Hurt to Adams: Calling him a Monarchist

Mercy expressed concern that Adams failed the country in supporting Britain and falling on the side of the monarchs in Europe as violence broke out in France. She wrote: “Mr. Adams was undoubtedly a statesman of penetration and ability, but his prejudices and his passions were sometimes too strong for his sagacity and judgment.. .(17)

. . . After Mr. Adams’s return from England, he was implicated (i.e. regarded) by a large portion of his country men, as having relinquished the republican system, and forgotten the principles of the American revolution, which he had advocated for near twenty years. . . (18) Mr. Adams’s former opinions were beclauded by a partiality for monarchy.” (19) As if to soften this strategic blow, she went on to explain that inspite of these “mistakes or changes in political opinion, or errors in public conduct, Mr. Adams supported an unimpeachable character; his habits of morality, decency, and religion, rendered him amiable in his family, and beloved by his neighbors.” (20)

These words cut deeply. The subsequent exchange of letters between Adams and Warren grew acrimonious. Adams wrote: “Mrs. Warren, it is my opinion, and that of all others of any long experience that I have conversed with, that our History has been written to the taste of the nineteenth century and accommodated to grantify the passions, prejudices, and feelings of the party who are now predominant. (21) The pair did reconcile a decade later in 1812 with the mediation of Abigail Adams, who prepared a locket for Mercy with locks of the Adams’s hair (wonder that she could find any of John’s), a custom of the time to signify their friendship. Mercy died two years later.

The lawn of Barnstable’s Greek Revival courthouse holds two seven-foot-high statues. One of James Otis Jr., remembered for “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” And next to it, Mercy Otis Owen in her fine Colonial fashion, holding a quill pen in her left hand and a small book in her right, representing her many works supporting liberty.

Stayed tuned next week for a man whose writing resembled Mercy Warren’s and he was one of three at the Constitutional Convention who refused to sign the final document. He went on to be the fifth Vice President of the U.S. when the office was mostly ceremonial. Today his name is remembered in connection with a method of rigging Congressional Districts for the benefit of one political party or the other–Gerrymandering. Next up: Elbridge Gerry

(1) Jean Fritz, Cast for a Revolution: Some American Friends and Enemies, 1728-1814. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1972), 14. Kate Davies, Catherine Macaulay and Mercy Otis Warren: The Revolutionary Atlantic and the Politics of Gender (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 290.

(2) Whipp, Koren (2014) “Mercy Otis Warren”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercy_Otis_Warren

(3) Mike Lee, “Written Out of History,”(New York: Penguin Random House, 2017) pp. 50-51.

(4) “Mercy Otis Warren, conscience of the American Revolution,” (http://www.selterbooks.com/warren/generalintroduction.html
(4) Lee, p. 59

(5) Ibid. p. 51

(6) “American Treasures of the Library of Congress” (https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/tm089.html) Historian of the American Revolution. Retrieved April 29, 2019

(7) Observations, 1788 (Boston: Richard Selzer, 1972), www,samizdat.com/warren/observations.html

(8) (9) Lee. p. 49.

(10) “The Women of American Revolution” (Mercy Warren) by Elizabeth F. Ellet http://threerivershms.amwomenmwarr.htm

(11) “American History for 21st Century Citizens: (https://web. archive.org/web/20080924113620/http://streamer3.lacoe.edu/American history/enactments/Walters/Wa;ters_biography.htm

(12) See “Spunky Martha Washington” blog.

(13) (14) “Mercy Otis Warren, conscience of the American Revolution,” Ibid. (http://www.selterbooks.com/warren/generalintroduction.html

(15) (16) Lee p. 61

(17) “The Electoral Count of the Presidential Election if 1789,” Internet Archives: The Papers of George Washington, November 12, 2016, https://web.archive.org/20130914141726/http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents/presidential/electoral.html

(18) Mercy Warren, History of the Rise, (Boston: E. Larkin, 1805), 304.

(19) Ibid. 392. (20) Ibid. 394. (21) Ibid. 395.

(22) Correspondence between John Adams and Mercy Warren Relating to Her “History of the American Revolution,” July-August, 1807 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1878), 218. 422.