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Happy Constitution Day! September 17, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to wish you all a happy Constitution Day! In honor of the occasion, I’ve whipped up a little quiz so you can test your knowledge of the Constitution. Try it and see how you fare! As always, I’ll reveal the answers at the end of the quiz. But no cheating, now!

1. The U.S. Constitution was signed on this day, September 17, in:

a) 1776

b) 1787

c) 1791

d) 1803

2. Who was President when the Constitution was signed?

a) James Madison

b) Thomas Jefferson

c) George Washington

d) Benjamin Franklin

3. Who is called The Father of the Constitution?

a) Thomas Jefferson

b) George Washington

c) James Madison

d) Gouverneur Morris

4. The Constitution was based on:

a) The Magna Carta

b) The Articles of Confederation

c) The Virginia Plan

d) The New Jersey Plan

5. Where is the Constitution housed?

a) The White House

b) The Library of Congress

c) The National Archives

d) The Smithsonian Museum

6. How many states were there when the Constitution was signed?

a) 13

b) 15

c) 17

d) 21

7. What document did the Constitution replace?

a) The Declaration of Independence

b) The Bill of Rights

c) The Articles of Confederation

d) The Colonial Charter

8. How does the Constitution begin?

a) “It is hereby declared…”

b) “We, the duly elected representatives of the various States of the Union…”

c) “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”

d) “We the People…”

9) Which state refused to send representatives to the Constitutional Convention?

a) New York

b) Rhode Island

c) Massachusetts

d) Virginia

10) Who gave the closing speech after the Constitution was signed?

a) George Washington

b) Benjamin Franklin

c) James Madison

d) Thomas Jefferson

Now it’s time for some answers. Ready? Here you go:

1. The answer is b), 1787. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in 1791, and the Louisiana Purchase Treaty was signed in 1803.

2. This is a trick question; the answer is “none of the above.” There was no office of the President when the Constitution was signed in 1787; the Constitution itself established the office. Our first President, George Washington, wasn’t elected until 1789.

3. The answer is c), James Madison, whose passionate support of the Constitution and Bill of Rights helped bring them into being. The Constitution is also partially based on the Virginia Plan that Madison drafted, and he coauthored The Federalist Papers to win public support for the Constitution. But the title could have also been bestowed on Gouverneur Morris, the most undervalued of the Founders, who actually wrote the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson is The Father of the Declaration of Independence and George Washington is, of course, The Father of Our Country.

4. Another trick question; the correct answer is “all of the above,” with quite a few other ingredients tossed into the stew for good measure.

5. The answer is c), the National Archives in Washington, D.C., which also houses the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Articles of Confederation, the Treaty of Paris, an early copy of the Magna Carta, and many other important documents. It’s well worth a visit next time you’re in D.C.

6. The answer is a). There were still just the original former Thirteen Colonies (now states) in 1787 when the Constitution was signed. The next state admitted to the Union was Vermont, in 1791.

7. The answer is c), the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, drafted in 1777 and ratified in 1781. The Articles of Confederation gave more power to the individual states at the expense of a strong central government. It lacked provisions for an executive or judiciary branch, a bicameral legislature (i.e., separate Senate and House of Representatives), or means of raising Federal taxes. The Constitution rectified these omissions, creating the strong central government we have today and paving the way for the Federal Income Tax. Thanks, guys!

8. The answer is d), “We the People.” If it were written today, it would probably be more along the lines of “In accordance with Provision 746-B of the…” Sigh.

9. The answer is b), Rhode Island. Like many States’ Rights advocates, Rhode Islanders opposed a strong central government, fearing that it would be dominated by larger, more powerful states and by urban rather than rural interests. This same states-versus-feds conflict fueled the Civil War, and you can still see it in action in today’s Libertarian Party and “tea parties.” The most famous patriot who championed States’ Rights was Virginia’s Patrick Henry, who refused to attend the Constitutional Convention, saying he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia [where the Convention was held], tending toward the monarchy.”

10. The answer is b), our very own hero and blog mentor here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, the great Benjamin Franklin. We find this entirely fitting, since there wouldn’t have been a Constitution—or an America, for that matter—if it hadn’t been for old Ben’s diplomatic skills in persuading King Louis XVI to act against his own interests (as subsequent events conclusively proved) and support the Revolutionaries against a fellow monarch. Ben Franklin was also the only Founder to sign all three of America’s seminal documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris (which established peace between Britain and America after the war), and the Constitution. Go Ben go!!!

Do you feel smarter now? For more Constitutional fun, head over to the National Constitution Center’s website (http://constitutioncenter.org/FoundersQuiz/) and take their “Which Founder Are You?” quiz! I’m James Madison. No big surprise, our friend Ben is Ben Franklin. And can you guess who Silence Dogood is? Turns out, she’s James Madison too, even though when we compared notes she answered a lot of the 11 questions differently than I did. (Silence was a bit—well, a lot—disgruntled by this. She says she wanted to be Alexander Hamilton or George Washington or Gouverneur Morris. Sorry, Silence.) Let us know who you are!

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Ben’s catheter. March 29, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were stunned to see that not one but two people had come onto our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, searching for “Ben’s catheter.” In fact, poor OFB was practically apoplectic. What on earth were they thinking?! Then we had a collective rush of brains to the head (in the immortal words of a friend’s mother) and recalled that our blog mentor and hero, Benjamin Franklin, had invented the catheter. We thought there was a certain irony here, so we checked in with our friend, fellow blog contributor, and historian-in-chief Richard Saunders.

Sure enough. The irony is that old Ben’s invention could have saved his friend and fellow patriot Gouverneur Morris’s life. So many of the Founding Fathers—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, just to name four—were extraordinary people. But Dr. Franklin and Gouverneur Morris may have topped the list in the extraordinary category.

A number of the Founders also suffered premature and unnecessary deaths, from bad medicine or bad judgment. (Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr and George Washington’s death from complications from a cold and treatment for same spring to mind.) But no death was as unnecessary and as embarrassing as Morris’s.

[Warning: Graphic, explicit content from here on out. Feel free to stop reading now. We totally understand.]

Let’s talk about cats for a minute first. If you’re a cat owner, you probably know that one of the potential hazards for male cats is urinary tract blockage. They can’t get the urine out, so it backs up and becomes a breeding ground for bacteria and the resulting infection, which can be fatal if untreated and is horrifically painful besides. Today’s vets have all kinds of treatments for this condition, from diet to surgery. Apparently, male humans can suffer from this problem as well, and Morris was one of the sufferers.

Now, Gouverneur Morris was a physically brave man. When he was sixteen, a precocious young man bound for college, a servant at his family home inadvertently poured a vat of boiling water on his arm. As you probably know, few things in life are as painful as burns, and imagine a horrific burn in an era where there wasn’t even pain medication, much less skin grafts and all the other treatments we have now. The teenaged Morris endured the burn, which apparently took off pretty much everything on his arm, leaving him with little more than bone and scar tissue. Then, as a young man, he was caught in the wheel of a carriage and lost a leg as a result. Not only did this not slow him down in his career as a patriot and diplomat—it was Morris, not Madison, who actually wrote our Constitution—but he was well known for his enjoyment of dancing on his wooden peg as well as participating in physical activities of all kinds.

Perhaps it was his physical intrepidity that caused him to take matters into his own hands when, in middle age, he began to experience urinary tract blockage. Or perhaps it was his already extensive knowledge of the ineptitude—or worse—of the doctors of his day, whose primary treatment was bleeding their patients to death (as in Washington’s case) in an attempt to release “vile humours.”

Whatever the case, when Morris began experiencing the symptoms of urinary tract blockage, he basically took the equivalent of an awl and attempted to reopen his urinary passage on his own. We can’t imagine the courage this took or the pain it caused, but incredibly, it apparently worked, at least the first time. Unfortunately, as is also the case with cats, the condition tends to recur, and it did in Morris’s case too. This time, when he tried the awl trick, he developed a fatal infection and died as a result. Of course, if he hadn’t attempted some form of treatment, he would have died from the infection caused by the blockage. And if he’d called in medical help, they’d probably have killed him off even faster.

But old Ben and his catheter could probably have saved him. True to form, Morris remained calm and collected to the last, giving us all a moving example of how to bear suffering and death with dignity and grace. But we wish he’d known about Ben’s catheter. After everything he’d been through, we’d have loved it if he could have enjoyed a ripe old age.

            ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

The other Roosevelt. July 17, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk a bit about one of my favorite presidents: Teddy Roosevelt. The name “Roosevelt” usually brings Franklin D. and Eleanor, Teddy’s cousins, to mind, while Teddy himself is usually dismissed as a lightweight, a cartoon, the big-game hunter who gave his name to the teddy bear and said “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” But in his own day, TR, as he was known, was not just idolized by the American public, he was adored—the best-loved president since Lincoln.

As a child, I wondered why on earth they had carved Teddy Roosevelt of all people on Mount Rushmore alongside those titans, Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. To me, they might as well have stuck Calvin Coolidge or Chester A. Arthur on there instead. But in his own time, including the “old lion” with the three greatest presidents made sense, and for more than one reason, as we’ll see. Now that Teddy is once again making headlines, it’s time to give him another look.

‘Til recently, if I thought of Teddy Roosevelt at all, it was as a caricature—a walrus of a man with that oversized mustache, the gold pince-nez specs, and his omnipresent top hat, sort of like the little guy on the Monopoly box. Or perhaps in his alternate guise as the Great White Hunter, attired in buckskins or pith helmet and safari garb and blasting away at buffalo, bears, and every other creature that came within reach of his gun. It was only when I was researching one of my favorite Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris, that my views on Teddy began to change. I discovered that one of the biographies of Morris was written by none other than Teddy Roosevelt. Huh? Teddy Roosevelt wrote books?!

Turns out that TR not only wrote books, 18 of them, including a naval history of the War of 1812 that was considered the definitive work on the subject, but he also read books. Lots of books. He apparently read several books a day, in several languages, despite having a few other things to do, including running the country. In all, he read tens of thousands of books, and ranks with Jefferson as the two best-read American politicians. Huh? Teddy Roosevelt was smart?!

Damned smart. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and studied a wide range of challenging topics while there, acing his studies despite spending most of his college years socializing and enjoying a variety of sports. He wrote and illustrated his first natural history monograph, “The Natural History of Insects,” at age nine. (And even as a child he was an excellent artist, sketching birds and other natural subjects from life.) He had a photographic memory, and could recall every word not just of his books but of the huge stack of newspapers he read each morning at lightning speed and scattered all over the floor around him, despite carrying on a lively conversation and/or dictating memoranda at the same time.

Hmmm. Looks like I’d been selling TR short, especially since I already knew two admirable things about him: First, that we pretty much owe our National Parks system to him—during his presidency, he set aside 194 million acres for national parks, wildlife refuges, and nature preserves, including the Grand Canyon. And second, that it’s thanks to him that we have the most beautiful and evocative coinage ever created in America. As a coin collector, I’m grateful to Teddy for insisting that our coinage be updated. He not only gave us the Lincoln cent and buffalo nickel, but also the loveliest of all our coins, the St. Gaudens $20 and $10 gold pieces. And he opened the door for the other great coins of the century, the walking liberty half dollar and the Mercury dime. I know there’s been a lot of agitation in recent years to take FDR off the dime. If it happens, it would be far more fitting to replace him with the Father of the Golden Age of American Coinage, his cousin Teddy, than with any other president.

Anyway, not long ago I came upon a book called Mornings on Horseback by the historian David McCullough, chronicling Teddy Roosevelt’s life from birth through his twenties. Since I wanted to learn more about Teddy and it was a very interesting period in American life, covering as it did the period from the end of the Civil War (the child Teddy actually saw Lincoln’s funeral cortege) through the Gay Nineties and into the new century, I snapped it up and have been reading steadily ever since.

McCullough stressed one element of TR’s character and public life that I hadn’t known about—his strong moral character and lifelong fight against corruption. As Commissioner of Police, he reformed the corrupt New York Police Department, and as Mayor of New York, he trashed Tammany Hall and broke the power of the aldermen and their legendary bribe system. Throughout his career, he was known as a trust-buster, bringing 44 lawsuits against trusts while president and doing his utmost to bring the Robber Barons down. (Hmmm, maybe that resemblance to the Monopoly guy is no coincidence. Perhaps the inventor of Monopoly gave TR an ironic tip of the top hat, since Roosevelt spent his life trying to break up monopolies.)

Roosevelt also proposed the “square deal” and was responsible for both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Between preserving places of natural beauty for Americans to enjoy, safeguarding their food, and fighting Big Money and the corruption it spawned, no wonder the people loved him.

What else did Teddy Roosevelt do? He created Panama as an independent nation and was responsible for the completion of the Panama Canal. He created a volunteer corps, the Rough Riders, and led them on the famous charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, posthumously receiving America’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, for his bravery and service to his country, the only president to do so. (Geez, how about a posthumous award for George Washington, folks?!) He negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War, becoming the first American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize as a result. He remains the only person ever to have won both a Nobel Prize and the Medal of Honor.

Teddy Roosevelt was also the first modern president. He was the first president to ride in an automobile and in a submarine; he was the first to travel abroad as president. His insistence on making safe food and green spaces available to all citizens is also very modern.

TR wasn’t perfect; he had flaws of judgment like any man, smart and educated or otherwise. But he was incorruptible, and his strong moral character is legendary. His desire to do what was right at all times, his personal fearlessness while pursuing what was right (alone among politicians, he never even paused when taking on the wealthiest and most influential, and incidentally corrupt, men of his day, such as the great Robber Baron Jay Gould), and his unique gift for getting things done set him apart. No wonder historians consistently rank him as one of the five—and often one of the three—greatest presidents. No wonder he was honored at Mount Rushmore.

The historian Henry Adams said of Theodore Roosevelt, “Roosevelt, more than any other living man… showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter—the quality that mediaeval theology assigned to God—he was pure act.” But that thought, impressive as it is, doesn’t really do TR justice. For he obviously absorbed huge amounts of knowledge and combined thought with action. But more than that, he was that rarest thing, pure of heart. It’s time we gave Teddy Roosevelt a “square deal,” took him out of the toy box, and restored him to the honored place in our history that he deserves.

A most confusing name. May 28, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, back today to talk about one of our favorite Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris. (No one can touch the incomparable Dr. Franklin, of course, but Gouverneur Morris is definitely up there with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton in our top four.) I just saw with interest that someone had come onto our blog looking for help in pronouncing Gouverneur Morris’s name. Easy, right? It’s GOO-ver-NUR. Wrong! Uh, “governor”? Wrong. Appearances and common sense to the contrary, I have it on good authority that Morris’s contemporaries pronounced his name “gover-NEER.” Sheesh.  

And who’d saddle an infant with a name like “Gouverneur,” anyway?!! (Our friend Ben, whose progenitor in the Colonies was Marmaduke Semmes, points out that perhaps we shouldn’t throw stones here.) More than one of us grew up assuming that Morris was a governor and Gouverneur was his title, with some leeway for the elastic spelling of the time. But we were as wrong about that as about his name’s pronunciation.

Actually, the explanation is quite simple: Morris was named to honor his mother, whose maiden name was Sarah Gouverneur. This practice is still common in the South, where many of us, male and female, bear our mother’s family name as a middle name, and many go by it as their given name. Thus, Mary Jamison Roberts becomes Jamison, or just Jamie; Charles Colston Burrell is called Colston or Cole.

But still, “Gouverneur” is quite a mouthful. Wonder if he had any nicknames?

In a group of extraordinary people, in an extraordinary time, Gouverneur Morris led a life that was perhaps more amazing than any. Someday, I promise, I’ll tell you his larger-than-life story. I’d be willing to bet that he’ll become one of your favorite Founders, too!