I’ve always been someone who likes to see it for myself, to make up my own mind. I made my mother laugh endlessly when I was little and she told me not to touch the stove because it was hot – my immediate reaction was to touch it myself to see what I thought about it. She loved this about me and gave me inspired nicknames with great humor.
That’s why, when I read a biography, and I love good biographies, I also immerse myself into what’s called “source documents”, which are the letters and writings by the person I’m reading about.
Biographies tell you what other people think about this person, their interpretations of their thoughts, emotions, motives and actions.
On the other hand, a person’s letters tell you exactly what they were thinking.
Two biographers can interpret the same letter completely differently. Exactly the way two people can hear what you’re saying and come out with totally different meanings of what you just said.
Have you ever noticed when you talk to two totally different people they hear you differently? Imagine you say something to someone who likes you, and then say the exact same thing to someone who doesn’t like you. If each one of them wrote a book, you’d end up with two completely different books about you.
Wouldn’t you want someone to know exactly what you said if they were hearing about it years later?
I’ve always been interested in how this country created a political system on a foundation of freedom and rights.
Political systems are created by people, so this has been a study of people, their thoughts, philosophies and actions.
I’ve read numerous books and biographies, but what I love most is their letters.
The letters tell me what they were really thinking.
George Washington has 87 volumes of published correspondence. (He spent most of the Revolutionary War writing letters.)
Thomas Jefferson wrote 20,000 letters.
James Madison wrote 12,000 letters and over 72,000 pages of his writings have been published.
John Adams wrote 1,160 letters to his wife alone, the most intimate conversation imaginable, pouring out his heart without restraint.
Benjamin Franklin corresponded with an astonishing range of men and women internationally, writing over 8,000 letters.
These are all available to read yourself.
You really get to know them reading their letters.
Biographers read these letters and put a story together.
I’m interested in some of the stories that are told, but what I really like is to read the letters themselves because they tell a much more complete and vivid story than any biography. I create a fabulous movie in my head while reading – I can see them so clearly. Their words are powerful, passionate, direct. It’s like they’re talking to me. I don’t need someone in between telling me what they said or what they meant – I get it straight from them.
Lately I’ve developed a passionate interest in the US Constitution.
It’s impossible to fully understand this document without also reading the 85 essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay called the Federalist Papers. The Constitution is the equivalent of an org chart and job description. The Federalist Papers, written immediately after the Constitutional Convention, explain what each part means, the philosophy, the reasoning, the why. These essays are a beautiful piece of writing about human rights, liberty, political philosophy – profound and timeless words about humankind.
What I’m into right now is making me laugh harder than any book I’ve read in ages. It really illuminates the wide difference between how history actually happened and what we were taught in school.
In school, this was no more than a paragraph in my history book: Delegates from the 13 colonies got together in 1787 and created the US Constitution.
It sounds so simple. They met, they wrote it down, they went home. If you’re from Philadelphia like I am, you know they also went to City Tavern (still in operation, true to its history, totally fabulous) and put down some beers together. And there you go, we have this thing called the US Constitution.
Let me just say this. These were 55 people from completely different parts of the country who wanted completely different things. Imagine for a moment, bringing 55 people you know together and asking them to all decide on something simple, like where to go for dinner. You know very well that, even with a simple topic for discussion, 55 people will get entangled in an elaborate debate. I’ve seen groups with way fewer people take 20 minutes to decide what pizza topping to get.
These were 55 VERY OPINIONATED people.
So what I’m LOVING reading right now is James Madison‘s notes of what happened each day during the Constitutional Convention. Day by day for 4 months. May into September, 1787.
Madison wrote down word for word the key points that were made, what many of the delegates actually said. It’s a very, “Pinckney said this. Then Randolph said this. And Colonel Mason said this. Wilson disagreed by saying this. Morris wouldn’t agree unless we inserted these words.”
Madison doesn’t interpret their words – he’s faithful to what they actually said, the words they used.
The day’s notes end with, “And then we voted and this is how each of us voted.”
I’m understanding the US Constitution so much more deeply.
Reading these notes makes the whole process much more REAL. I have watched many groups make big decisions and there’s a tremendous amount of back-and-forth.
When it comes to the US Constitution, it’s the back-and-forth that’s fascinating.
For example, on day three of the Constitutional Convention, Thursday, May 31, 1787, they spent the ENTIRE day debating whether people were smart enough to govern themselves.
I thought that going into the Convention they were already all in agreement about this. Not so! This was a controversial issue. A MAJOR controversial issue. A number of delegates seriously doubted that the people themselves could be trusted to elect members of Congress.
Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts, who “did not like the election by the people,” said, “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.” WHAT????????
Gerry believed average people were “dupes of pretended patriots” and wanted people of “honor and character” to lead. He did not have confidence that a sufficient number of average Americans possessed these qualities.
He was far from alone in this viewpoint.
And then there was Pierce Butler from South Carolina who very simply thought “election by the people was impractical.”
It was a HOT debate. Could we the people be trusted to govern ourselves? Were we smart enough?
The alternative would be to pick smart people, people smarter than us, or smarter than most of the people, who would basically tell everyone what to do.
In other words, the choice was to have a government that says: “You’re not smart enough to know what to do, you’re going to make bad decisions, I know more than you do, so we will make the rules for you and tell you what to do.“
Or: Do we tell the government what we want and say to the government, “We’re smart and we know what we want. You’re going to do what WE want you to do. Not the other way around.”
I look at what’s happening today, and this question, 233 years later, is once again on the table.
Are we smart enough for self-government, to govern ourselves? Or do we require others who are “smarter than us” to lead us, to lead our country? Does the government tell us what to do? Or do we tell the government what to do?
I sat drinking my tea this morning, watching the sun rise, and imagined the beautiful room in Philadelphia I’ve visited many times (photo above), filled with 55 extremely smart, well-read, eloquent men, fiercely passionate men, men with intense convictions, impelled by a powerful sense of duty sufficient to get on their horses and ride for days to be there, to leave their families for four months, knowing they would create a national philosophy and system represented by a document that would create a nation and impact generations to come.
And here they were. Day 3. A hot summer day and a hot debate on whether we were smart enough to govern ourselves. I pictured, almost like a movie, 10 hours of fierce debate on this one topic alone.
Have you ever passionately debated anything in a large group for 10 hours?
These men understood the art of debate, the art of real deliberation that is lost today. Their deliberations are beautiful. They’re not angry. They’re listening. They’re carefully and eloquently examining the pro’s and con’s of each point of view.
So, how did it turn out?
James Madison considered self-government, trusting the people, as essential to free government and a free country. His argument to the other 54 delegates was, “The great fabric to be raised would be more stable and durable if it should rest on the solid foundation of the people themselves.”
Later, in Federalist Essay #49 explaining the rationale behind the US Constitution, Madison would write: “The people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived.”
I don’t know how many times he wrote or said this throughout his lifetime. Too many to count.
Finally, at the end of this passionate day, they voted. Six states voted the people would elect their Congressional Representatives. Two states voted against and two states were divided. So 6 to 4 it passed.
Far from unanimous. Almost a tie. Close call.
But ultimately they decided. We are smart enough to govern ourselves.
I’m glad they did. I think so too. I would have voted for it. I think we are.