Friday, July 3, 2015
Celebrating Independence Day in 1787 While Drafting the Constitution
Following is an excerpt from Tempest at Dawn describing the Independence Day celebration held during the Constitutional Convention. The events and Reverend Campbell’s words are accurate to the historic record.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
The cannon fire hurt James Madison’s ears and teared his eyes as concussions pounded his body. Sulfuric mephitis scratched his throat, and the rotten egg odor made him queasy. The thirteen reports ended, but before Madison could draw a grateful and tranquil breath, the artillery brigade started another round.
After three consecutive resounding salutes of thirteen cannon shots, Madison felt exhausted. He had been jostling for a position from which to see the Independence Day celebration when the cannon fire assaulted his senses. The State House Commons throbbed with people keyed up with rum and excitement. The crowd churned on the periphery of the Commons, while the Society of the Cincinnati, the City Calvary, the Light Infantry, and a battalion of militia vied for attention in the center of the swirling people. Each military formation, spruced up in their finest regalia, stood eager to demonstrate their parade skills. The units waited, as did Madison, for the artillery to finish their noisy salute.
Philadelphia, as the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, took pride in holding the rowdiest Fourth of July gala in the nation. Festivities would go from dawn until deep into the night. The city echoed with public celebrations, ringing bells, and martial music. Every church would conduct special devotionals, and all 117 taverns would compete for revelers with loud entertainment. The formal celebrations had started early in the morning, with city officials, aspiring orators, and preachers making the customary thirteen toasts.
The city had distributed kegs of grog at each corner of the Commons and, despite the early hour, many toasts had already made the crowd boisterous. A loud cheer erupted, and those experienced enough to bring their own tankards threw down another swallow of the watered-down rum.
As Madison approached James Wilson, he watched the pudgy man peer with disapproval over the top of his reading glasses.
“Mr. Wilson, how are you on this fine anniversary of our independence?”
Wilson directed his scowl toward Madison. “Good morning, Mr. Madison. I take it from your greeting that you believe declaring something makes it true. What a simple view of life.”
“Nothing in life seems simple to me anymore, but your reference escapes me.”
“We declared our independence on July 4, 1776.” Wilson turned his condescending gaze on Madison. “If memory serves me right, we fought seven bloody years and spent our progeny’s birth right to actually become independent. Saying it was so did not make it so.”
“The people need their celebrations and their symbols,” Madison said. “What raised your ire?”
“What raised my ire?” Wilson parroted. “What tiny annoyances have fouled my normally cheery mood? Let’s see. Drunken imbeciles cheering banalities espoused by minor functionaries. An ignorant citizenry oblivious to our imminent demise. A convention eager to propose a sham republic. Yes, it’s possible these things have soured my mood.” Wilson turned back to the window. “If not those things, then perhaps a pompous military strutting around the Commons makes me fear rule by the sword.”
“I believe our army and militia have earned this day in the sun.”
“Our soldiers, yes, but I fear the Society of the Cincinnati.”
“Washington can control them.”
Wilson didn’t respond, so Madison looked through the window. He saw the Light Infantry prepare to execute a feu de joie, Madison’s favorite parade maneuver. The soldiers stood in a dressed line and readied their rifles. The first man on the right snapped the rifle tight into his shoulder and fired into the air. Each man, from right to left, quickly copied the movement and fired so fast, it sounded like one continuous shot instead of twenty. Madison loved the symmetry of the rifle reports and the practiced precision of the movements. Today, the Light Infantry executed the difficult maneuver flawlessly.
Without turning, Wilson said, “At the conclusion of these ceremonies, the Cincinnati will march us to the Reformed Calvinist Church for a special sermon. As president of the society, Washington will lead the procession.” Wilson shook his head. “The radicals want to put unrestrained power into the hands of one of their own. Can the great general resist the siren song?”
“I’ve no doubt that he can and will,” Madison said.
Looking away from the window, Wilson asked, “How can you be sure?”
“He’s working hard to put together a government through the auspices of this convention. He wants the proposal for a new government to come from us, not the Cincinnati. I don’t agree with the course he’s charted, but his intent is honorable. He’ll not succumb to the Cincinnati.”
“Even if you’re right, other dangers lurk.”
The delegates in the Long Gallery started to migrate downstairs. Madison gestured in their direction. “It looks like we’re preparing to march.”
“I understand we’ll hear a sermon by James Campbell, some aspiring young reverend.” Wilson started to move in the direction of the stairs. “It’d be a shame not to be blessed by his untainted wisdom.”
On June 28, Franklin had made a motion for a special sermon on the Fourth of July. A simple sermon had exploded into an orchestrated procession from the State House to the Sassafras Street church, led in grand martial style by the Society of the Cincinnati.
When Madison and Wilson emerged from the State House, the Cincinnati had formed in the street, with Washington in the lead. Madison felt the rat-tat-tat beat of the fife and drum unit that stood immediately behind Washington. Looking behind the ramrod columns of military officers of the Revolution, Madison saw the delegates looking ill at ease and disorganized.
“Shall we join the jumbled mess?” Madison asked lightly. “It appears our fellow delegates have brought the disorder of the chamber into the street.”
They joined the throng and soon found themselves unconsciously walking somewhat to the beat of the drums. When they arrived at the church front pews. Madison turned in his seat and watched the officers take the remaining seats or find standing room in the back. Every available space had been filled. Settling forward, Madison was startled to see a very young man climb the circular steps to the elevated pulpit. The immature reverend looked relaxed and at ease, as if he preached to a packed house of illustrious dignitaries every Sunday.
The man gazed over the congregation until everyone grew silent. When he spoke, his surprisingly robust voice easily carried his words to the far corners of the meetinghouse.
“Gentlemen of the Federal Convention, welcome. I’m gratified that you’ve come to seek God’s guidance in your unprecedented and formidable commission.”
Then with a self-deprecating smile, he added in a light tone, “We all need a little help now and then. Shall we pray?”
After a brief, eloquent prayer, the Reverend James Campbell looked over his congregation and spoke in a commanding voice.
“Gentlemen, your country looks to you with anxious expectations on your decisions. She rests confident that the men who cut the cords of foreign tyranny are also capable of framing a government that will embrace all of our interests. This is our chance for a new beginning. The illustrious Federal Convention should not rely upon the state constitutions, for they were made on the spur of the occasion, with a bayonet at our breast, and cannot reflect a perfect republic.”
Madison sat upright. He couldn’t have agreed more with the reverend’s first words. The state constitutions were a poor model for a general government, and the expediency of war had caused many states to forego many of the principles of a true republic.
“A plan acceptable to the people must remain faithful to the principles of our present government and the American character.”
These words deflated Madison’s hopes. Was the reverend suggesting that the convention must remain faithful to the Articles of Confederation?
“Any proposition to add kingly power to our federal system should be regarded as treason.”
This sharp statement might be a warning against a strong central government or, more literally, against enthroning an emperor.
“Is the science of government so difficult that we don’t have men among us capable of unfolding its mysteries and binding the states together by mutual interests and obligations? No! God will not abandon us after shepherding us to freedom. I already see the fabric of a free and vigorous government rising out of the wisdom of the Federal Convention.”
Madison decided that the reverend had no particular form of government in mind, only a heartfelt desire to preserve liberty. His reference to the science of government appealed to Madison. He believed that government was something that could be deciphered by analyzing ancient and modern systems. Madison knew he had designed a republic that could protect liberty and endure for generations, but now powerful forces threatened to gut his plan. This was wrong. The national government must represent freemen, not the self-righteous states.
If the young reverend’s intent was to inspire the delegates to rise to the occasion and hold fast to their principles, he had succeeded with at least one in the congregation.