Spotlight on Forgotten Founders: John Dickinson

You’ve been drilled on the names of the men who signed that famous piece of parchment in 1776. Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and Hancock are cemented in the American canon but there were sixty four men who fought and argued and begged for John Adams to shut up during that hot American summer. It would be impossible for schools to devote time in the already packed curriculum, so that’s why you have me. Dying to know about the men who weren’t  American superheros but still made impacts that we still feel today? Buckle in, kids, this could take a while.

Meet John Dickinson.

“Hey, Ladies.”

Dickinson was born November 13, 1732 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in Talbot County.  Like most members of the future Congress, he was born well-off, and studied law at the Middle Temple in London for three years.  After his father died, he inherited one his Delaware plantations, known at Poplar Hall. (It’s open for tours!) Seems pretty average for a man of his time so far, right?

If he sounds familiar, you probably remember him as the guy who got into the wicked cane fight with John Adams in 1776.

“Fight! Fight! Fight!”

The 1770s hit America kicking and screaming. And it also hit Dickinson’s social life. In July 1770, Dickinson married Mary Norris, whom he affectionately called Polly. Mary was well educated, owned a 1500 volume library, and ran her own property in Philadelphia. Dickinson was smitten. The two moved to Mary’s Philadelphia property, called Fairhill, and with their combined income, the couple was stupidly wealthy.

Poplar Hall, one of the Dickinson’s many residences

Dickinson was a member of both the First and Second Continental Congress starting in 1774 and 1775, respectively, as a representative from Pennsylvania. Oh yeah, and he was adamantly against declaring independence from Great Britain.

Wait, how could a Founding Father be against independence? No wonder we’ve forgotten him!

First of all, rude. And second, chill out and hang on.

Dickinson was far from a Loyalist. (Hell, he wrote a song called “The Liberty Song“) He repeatedly fought for an Olive Branch Petition to be sent to King George, which passed and obviously failed. On July 1, 1776, Jefferson presented his Declaration of Independence while Dickinson continued to rally that it wasn’t quite time. And when you think about it, he wasn’t stupid to think so. Great Britain had the largest, strongest Navy in the world and, at the time, were squatting right outside the Island of Manhattan, poised to attack. America had no navies and no foreign alliances. If we declared independence, we would be declaring war and would be left defenseless on the seas.

On July 2, he was either not present, or abstained, from voting for or against the Declaration. He also refused to sign the document.

One of the dramatic, yet touching, moments in 1776 is when Dickinson refuses to sign. He stands and says:

“I’m sorry, Mr. President, I cannot, in good conscience, sign such a document. I will never stop hoping for our eventual reconciliation with England. But because–in my own way–I regard America no less than Mr. Adams, I will join the army and fight in her defense–even though I believe that fight to be hopeless. Goodbye, Gentlemen.”

And Adams starts a slow clap and everyone cries and it’s great.

But actually, Dickinson did just that. Though we have no way of knowing what his exact words were (except for his Speech Against Independence, delivered July 1, 1776) he did join the Pennsylvania militia at the rank of a brigadier general, and lead 10,000 to defend Staten Island from the British.

But his story doesn’t end there. He resigned from service in December 1776 and by 1777, he was Delaware’s wealthiest farmer and largest slaveholder. And during this time, he freed each and every one of his slaves. He was the only Founder to do so prior to 1786. However the process was not done overnight and took until 1787 until his slaves were legally free.  Many continued to work for him for pay.

So he’s more than funny quips in a  (fantastic) musical.

dickinsonBut Dickinson’s fabulous life didn’t end there. He prepared the first draft of the Articles of Confederation way back in 1776. donated his library to John and Mary’s College (now known as Dickinson College), represented Delaware at the Annapolis Convention, and served as President of Delaware from 1781-1785.

John Dickinson died on Valentine’s Day, 1808 and is buried in a modest Quaker grave.

Who’s your favorite forgotten Founder? Leave a comment below!

“…all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.”

If you’re a fan of Thomas Jefferson or just American History in general, put Monticello on your next-to-visit list. The gorgeous plantation was built on top of a 850 foot high mountain in Charlottesville, Virginia, about an hour outside Richmond, starting in 1769. It wasn’t finished until 1809, though Jefferson continued to work on it until his death in 1826.

I was lucky enough to visit Monticello this past Saturday and was completely in awe of this amazing home.

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Jefferson went to William and Mary to study natural philosophy, but in his downtime he learned law, languages, and architecture.  And yes, Monticello’s design came out of the brain of a man who was untrained but not uneducated. Jefferson was obsessed with architecture and Monticello (which is Italian for ‘little mountain’) was heavily influenced by neoclassical design.

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The house itself is a sight to behold, a beautiful 43 room structure, but the grounds are equally as magnificent.  Unlike any other plantations, Jefferson built long L-shaped terraces jutting from each wing and placed the necessary servant rooms (kitchen, smokehouse, wine and beer cellars, etc.) underneath each terrace.

South Terrace

South Terrace from below

North Terrace from above

North Terrace from above

Jefferson first moved to Monticello in 1770. The house was far from being completed and Jefferson lived in a one room building, called the South Pavilion.

South Pavilion

South Pavilion

When Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772, he brought his new bride to Monticello’s South Pavilion. Their first child, Patsy, was born there in late 1772.

South Pavilion interior

South Pavilion interior

After Martha died, Jefferson left for France in 1984 as America’s Ambassador. While living abroad, Jefferson fell in love with European architecture and rebuilt Monticello to fit this new obsession. Monticello’s most noticeable addition was a dome that capped the top floor. A beautiful apartment, the dome was rarely used because it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

Inside, Monticello boasts thirteen skylights (the first house in America to do so), 18 foot high ceilings in various rooms, eight fireplaces, and a dumbwaiter which brought wine from the cellar to the parlor, to name a few attributes. Today, about 1/3 of the glass in the houses windows and doors is original.

Jefferson's greenhouse off his private wing.

Jefferson’s greenhouse off his private wing.

Monticello started its life as a tobacco plantation, but due to the damaging effects of the plants on the soil, Jefferson later switched to wheat.  He also grew over 300 different types of vegetables, various herbs, and ran an orchard and a vineyard.

Vineyard

Vineyard

Vegetable garden and Garden Pavilion

Vegetable garden and Garden Pavilion

View from the Garden Pavilion

View from the Garden Pavilion

Monticello was also home to at least 200 slaves during Jefferson’s life. They lived on Mullberry Row, named for the Mullberry trees planted along the path. More than 20 structures were built along this small stretch of land. Unfortunately, all that stands today are stone foundations and the fireplace from the joiner’s shop.

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Jefferson died in his bedroom at Monticello on July 4, 1826. He had been slipping in and out of consciousness for days and it’s believed he held on only to die on the 50th anniversary of our country’s independence. Jefferson requested to be buried at Monticello and even wrote his own epitaph. He is buried alongside his children and wife.

Jefferson's grave marker

Jefferson’s grave marker

Jefferson’s presence is felt throughout the house and the grounds, whether or not that presence is actually him or not is up to the visitor to decide. In a few pictures I took, though it was a clear and beautiful day out, orbs and hazy blobs show up in the photographs. Could it be Jefferson himself coming back to check on the house he loved so dearly? Take a visit to Monticello and decide for yourself!

Further reading:
Monticello website
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello by William L. Beiswanger
Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

The Man America Forgot: Marquis de La Fayette

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You’ve likely driven down a road bearing his name. Perhaps you’ve spent some time in the park across the street from the White House. (Hint: It’s named after him) Statues of him are littered across the world. But chances are, your childhood social studies classes passed him right by. Meet Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, known simply as Lafayette.  And you can thank him for your freedom.

You think that today’s conservative Republicans are America’s biggest fanboy? Wrong. Lafayette loved America so much, he sent himself Stateside to fight alongside George Washington.

Nicknamed Le Héros des Deux Mondes, or The Hero of Two Worlds, is no small feat. Born September 6, 1757 into French aristocracy, Lafayette was orphaned by the age of 13 and inherited 145,000 livres, approximately 22 million dollars today.

In 1775, Lafayette first heard of the rumblings of war across the Atlantic. He was so moved by the American plight and passionate about the freedom the American’s sought, Lafayette acquired his own ship and sailed to America disguised as a woman to keep British spies at bay.

"Nothing to see here..."

“Nothing to see here…”

In America, Benjamin Franklin heard all about the Parisian wunderkind and wrote to George Washington advising him to choose Lafayette as his aide-de-camp. Washington accepted and at age 19, Lafayette was the top aide to the future POTUS. (What were you doing at age 19? Complaining about that 5 page book review you had to write for your college elective class? That’s what I thought.)  Lafayette saw Washington as the father he never had, and Washington saw Lafayette as the son he’d always wanted.

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“Uhhhh, Monsieur Washington, take zis big cloth as a token of my amour. Oui, Oui.”

Lafayette was a badass in battle. In the Battle of Brandywine, he was shot in the leg and rallied the troops to a safe retreat before accepting treatment. Keep in mind, this was the first time he was experiencing American warfare. Battle after battle, Lafayette was noted for his valor and skill.

In February 1779, Lafayette returned to France. When he arrived, he was given two weeks house arrest for disobeying the King by going to America. Regardless, he was showered by gifts from the adoring public. While he was in France, his wife, Adrienne, gave birth to Lafayette’s first son, Georges Washington Lafayette. Lafayette continued to push for more French support to aid the Americans. Before returning to America in March 1780, he had secured 5,500 men and 5 warships to help the Continental Army.

In the fall of 1781, Lafayette and his men took Yorktown redoubt 9 from the British, while Alexander Hamilton and his men charged redoubt 10 in hand-to-hand combat. Cornwallis surrendered on October 19. The Americans had won. Lafayette returned to France and was greeted as a hero.

Suck it, Cornwallis.

Suck it, Cornwallis.

While in France, Lafayette was granted commander-in-chief of the French National Guard.  The French Revolution was brewing and Lafayette sought to maintain order. When an angry mob came to Versailles, Lafayette saved the Royal Family from danger. In 1792, France declared war with Austria and took command of the army. As the Jacobin influence gained power, Lafayette was replaced and fled to Belgium. The Austrians captured him and he was jailed until 1797. He returned to France in 1800 and found that his fortune was gone.  Feeling betrayed by the country he called home, he declined many social and political offers for nearly a quarter of a century.

In 1824, President James Madison invited Lafayette to tour America. Lafayette accepted and was greeted like a rockstar  during his two month trip. During that time, he visited every state, visited Mount Vernon and the tomb of Washington, met with his old friend, Thomas Jefferson, and attended public banquets in his honor. The frenzy that met him at each stop rivaled the celebrity frenzy of today. While visiting Jefferson in Monticello, one of Jefferson’s slaves noted 50 years later that, “Lafayette remarked that he thought that the slaves ought to be free; that no man could rightly hold ownership of his brother man; that he gave his best services to and spent his money on behalf of the Americans freely because he felt that they were fighting for a great and noble principle – the freedom of mankind; that instead of all being free a portion were held in bondage (which seemed to grieve his noble heart); that it would be mutually beneficial to masters and slaves if the latter were educated, and so on. …This conversation was very gratifying to me, and I treasured it up in my heart.”

Up until his death, Lafayette kept fighting for the rights of people, slaves, poor, and religion. Lafayette died on May 20, 1834 of pneumonia. He was buried at Picpus Cemetery with dirt from Bunker Hill, joined forever by the two countries he loved.

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“Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country.”

Further Reading on Lafayette:

Make Gentle the Life of This World: Robert F. Kennedy

45 years ago today, Presidential Hopeful Robert Kennedy’s life was tragically cut short in a way that eerily paralleled his older brother’s  just five years before. I’m sure more than a few news outlets will give RFK a blip in their reels tonight, but instead of focusing on that June night, it’s probably best to celebrate this fantastic man’s life.

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Bobby was born on November 20, 1925, the seventh of nine Kennedy children. Though he was the third boy, his father heavily favored his older brothers Joe Jr. and John. Bobby was small and his mother’s favorite (his father called him “runty”). After Joe Jr. was killed in World War II, the family duty to hold public office fell to John and Bobby remained by his side for the next twenty years.

With the family attention not focused on him, Bobby grew up without the Kennedy pressure. While his brother ran for Congress, Bobby settled down and married Ethel Skakel. He was a devoted family man, spending as much time as possible with his family, even holding meetings in the backyard of their McLean, Virginia home while the children played nearby. Together, Bobby and Ethel had 11 children, the last born six months after his death.

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When John took office in 1960, he appointed his loyal little brother and campaign manager as Attorney General. Though it was blatant nepotism, Bobby fought to prove himself and became notorious as being ruthless. Though as a child, Bobby was known for being quiet, and even as an adult he was said to be incredibly warm and caring to those he loved, he was incredibly passionate about his work and fighting for what he believed in.

“People say I am ruthless. I am not ruthless. And if I find the man who is calling me ruthless, I shall destroy him.”

One of the many enemies Bobby made during the JFK administration was none other than then-VP, Lyndon Johnson. When JFK chose Johnson as his running mate in 1960, Bobby phoned him to ask him to refuse. After JFK’s death, Bobby  fell into a deep depression. He felt incredibly guilty for John’s death, thinking one of the enemies he had made killed his brother because of him. (The series caught a ton of flack from the Kennedy family, but Barry Pepper’s performance as Bobby in “The Kennedys” is brilliant when it comes to this.)

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The 1968 Presidential election was approaching and the public wanted another Kennedy on the ticket. Bobby refused to campaign. In 1964, he won the New York Senate seat, beating out incumbent Kenneth Keating. During his time as Senator, Kennedy supported desegregation, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and anti-poverty programs, making him wildly popular with minority voters, but not so much with students, who felt he didn’t pay enough attention to the Vietnam War.

On March 16, 1968, Kennedy officially announced his candidacy for President.

“I do not run for the Presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I’m obliged to do all I can.”

On March 31, Johnson shocked the nation by announcing he would not seek, nor would he accept, his party’s nomination for another term. The road ahead seemed practically clear for Kennedy.

The support that Bobby reached astronomical heights. Even today’s politicians have come nowhere close to the frenzy that followed Bobby Kennedy. Wherever he went, he was greeted like rockstar. Women screamed. People shoved for the chance to shake his hand. His cuff links were torn off, his shirt sleeves unrolled in the mad frenzy. He was adored. Perhaps it was because Bobby related to the people in ways his brother didn’t.  He was free from the strict upbringing his older brothers experienced. He had none of the severe health problems  that John did. Both were charming and handsome, but Bobby was boyish and approachable.  Even today, John is painted like a God, while Bobby seems much more human. While John was our leader, Bobby was like our little brother.

When Bobby Kennedy learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. during a campaign stop in Indianapolis, his impromptu speech was considered the reason that riots did not break out in Indianapolis that night. (The speech can be read or watched HERE.)

After winning the much needed California primary on June 5, 1968, it seemed as though Bobby would head straight to the White House. The Kennedy supporters went wild, blocking the exits in the Ambassador Hotel, forcing Kennedy to exit through the kitchen. As he was shaking the hands of the hotel employees, he was shot at point-blank range by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian Arab Christian who loathed Kennedy’s support of Israel. He died the next day.

It’s impossible to say if Kennedy would have actually become President provided he lived. What is clear is that he is still making an impact, 45 years after his death. Bobby Kennedy paved the way for many outspoken politicians today, as he was one of the first to strongly campaign for civil rights. He was one of the first to turn politicians into celebrities, as he and his brother were the first to mingle with Hollywood’s elite. And while it’s incredibly easy to focus on his death today, it’s far more important to remember the man he was.

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“When he shall die, take him and cut him out into little stars and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”– Romeo & Juliet; Act 3, Scene 2