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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!


Colonial adventure books for kids. December 9, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Wondering what to give your kids for Christmas? How about a book that brings the Colonial and Revolutionary period to life? Your three Poor Richard’s Almanac bloggers, our friend Ben, Richard Saunders, and yours truly, all share a passion for early American history. And we owe it to a book each of us read as children, Ben and Me. It’s a biography of our hero and blog mentor, Benjamin Franklin, as told by his pet mouse.

To this day, OFB and I plan vacations to places like Williamsburg, Annapolis, Philadelphia, and Charlottesville (where both Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Montpelier, home of James Madison, are located), and Richard is always hopping up to New England to visit his girlfriend Bridget’s family in Boston and take in historic New England sites. OFB and I dream of spending Christmas at Williamsburg, and one day we hope to vacation with Richard and Bridget in the Washington, D.C. area and go to Mount Vernon, which none of us has seen since childhood.

And of course, everybody’s Christmas and birthday lists include the latest publications on the Founding Fathers and the Colonial and Revolutionary periods. We each have a wish list of rare books we’d love to acquire on the period, as well, and sometimes we even get one!

Each of us focuses on particular Founders and aspects of the period, too. Of course, we all love Ben Franklin, but our friend Ben, who’s related to Martha Custis Washington, has a particular fondness for George Washington, as well as the great and overlooked Founder Gouverneur Morris, and he’s made a special study of botany and agriculture of the period. Richard Saunders enjoys the other great thinkers among the Founders, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, as well as another overlooked Founder, George Mason, and being a historian, he’s absorbed by the growth, development, and history of the Colonies. As for me, I like the rowdy boys, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and Thomas Paine. And I love reading about and exploring the everyday life of the time, including, of course, cooking!

To think all of this grew out of a children’s book! (Except in the case of OFB, who loved the book but also grew up in a Colonial-era home with period furnishings, and has ties to a number of Revolutionary War figures, and thus would probably have been obsessed by the era anyway.) I’ve continued to collect children’s books about the era, and I confess, OFB and I really enjoy reading them, even though we ostensibly keep them on hand for when our nieces and nephews visit. Here are some of our favorites, highly recommended for your own kids or grandkids:

Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos (Robert Lawson, Little, Brown, 1988). The book that started it all. Amos takes credit for most of Ben’s discoveries, but the enduring humor of this book makes it easy to forgive him.

John, Paul, George & Ben (Lane Smith, Hyperion, 2006). An adorable look at the four—make that five, Mr. Smith had to add Tom Jefferson—patriots in their imaginary youth. (On John Hancock: “At the start of every school year the students were asked to write their names on the chalkboard, and every year it was the same story. ‘John,’ his teacher would say, ‘you have lovely penmanship. John, your confidence is refreshing. But, John, c’mon… we don’t need to read it from space!'”) Priceless, and as funny for adults as for kids. 

The Amazing Life of Benjamin Franklin (James Cross Giblin, Scholastic, 2000). A marvelous and marvelously illustrated account of the life of Ben Franklin. People who only know Franklin from his grim portrait on the “Benjamin,” the $100 bill, will find this account of the youthful Ben and his adventures a revelation. 

Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution (Jean Fritz, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987). You might think a book about a bunch of guys sitting in a stuffy room writing the Constitution would have little appeal for children, but Jean Fritz weaves lots of fun trivia about the Founders into the narrative to liven it up, as well as providing a highly factual account. And Tomie dePaola’s delightful illustrations will endear the book to adults and kids alike. The complete text of the Constitution is included at the back of the book, for kids who want to know more or adults in need of a refresher.  

Big George: How a Shy Boy Became President Washington (Anne Rockwell, Harcourt, 2009). If you’d like to inspire a diffident child with the story of how a big, gawky, shy, bad-tempered child overcame his flaws to become America’s first and greatest President, this is the book for you.  

Farmer George Plants a Nation (Peggy Thomas, Calkins Creek, 2008). Gardeners, and especially organic gardeners, will want to add this account of the First Composter to their libraries. The author shows how the lessons Washington learned from his passion for farming translated to his experience leading men and ultimately shaping a nation. But those of us who are as fascinated by gardening as by history will find it a riveting account of Washington’s gardening experiments, the benefits of which we still feel to this day.

Hanukkah at Valley Forge (Srephen Krensky, Dutton Children’s Books, 2006). Admittedly, Judaism isn’t something that springs to our minds in conjunction with the Founders and the Revolution, except in the case of Alexander Hamilton, whose mother’s first husband was Jewish. But this book tells the true story of George Washington’s attending a soldier’s Hanukkah celebration during the bitter winter at Valley Forge. And it’s as beautifully illustrated (by Greg Harlin) as any children’s book we’ve ever seen. 

George Washington’s Socks: A Time Travel Adventure (Elvira Woodruff, Scholastic, 1993). Four modern-day friends and one’s younger sister, Katie, are transported to the banks of the Delaware just in time for General Washington’s famous crossing.

George Washington’s Spy: A Time Travel Adventure (Elvira Woodruff, Scholastic, 2010). This sequel to George Washington’s Socks stands just fine on its own. When a bunch of ten-year-old friends are transported back to 1776-era Boston, they learn that the Revolutionary War was a bit more complicated than they’d been taught in school.

18th Century Clothing (Bobbie Halman, Crabtree Publishing Company, 1993). Bobbie Halman has created a wonderful series of books on the Colonial period, including this one and Colonial Home, Colonial Life, Colonial Crafts, A Colonial Town: Williamsburg, and many others. I’m listing this one only because I’ve already passed all the others along to children in OFB’s and my extended families. They are marvelous, with wonderfully detailed (but short and easy-to-understand) descriptions and photos of real people wearing the clothes, living the life, etc. 

“1776.” This is a movie of a musical about the writing of the Declaration of Independence, not a book (the book 1776 by David McCullough is wonderful, but is a serious history for adults). Will kids love the fiesty John and Abigail Adams, the sentimental Tom and Martha Jefferson, and the bawdy Ben Franklin depicted in this movie, or will they simply be bored to tears? Frankly, OFB and I have no idea. We have many adult friends, including Richard and Bridget and Cole and Bruce, who simply love the movie, but we think kids might love it more. In any case, it certainly won’t hurt them! We suggest that you watch it together as a family and let us know what you think.

Please, please, if you know of other books about this period that you love, share them with us. We’re all happy to expand our collections!

           ‘Til next time,


Constitution Day September 17, 2009

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 to remind you that today, September 17, is Constitution Day. On September 17, 1787, eleven years after the Declaration of Independence, George Washington and other patriots such as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, James Madison, and Robert Morris signed the Constitution into law. It begins:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and to our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The Constitution goes on to delineate the powers of the Congress, the President, the judicial branch, and the states. It’s a comparatively concise document, and you can read it in its entirety in about five minutes online at websites such as http://www.usconstitution.net/. And on the same website, you can read the amendments that make up the Bill of Rights, those individual rights championed by James Madison and others that insure our individual liberty and safety as U.S. citizens.

Though certain amendments, such as the right to bear arms, freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, not to mention the passage and repeal of Prohibition, have gained considerably more attention than other amendments, I’d like to bring two to your attention:

Amendment 9, ratified 12/15/1791: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment 10, also ratified 12/15/1791: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

What these amendments collectively make clear is that the Constitution was not designed to delineate the rights of the people, but the function of the branches of government and the role of the individual states versus the central government. As they clearly state, just because an individual right is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution or Bill of Rights does not invalidate it; rather, unless it is specifically invalidated in one of these documents, it is presumed to be in effect.

Talk about empowering! These days, we too often look to the government as a sort of super-nanny, telling us when we have permission to breathe or speak or cross the road unsupervised. But these amendments tell us the Founders had very different ideas, that we Americans were free to live our own lives and make our own way unless we violated a comparatively few overarching laws. That we were being viewed as adults agreeing to a collective government by consent, not children being told what we could and couldn’t do.

Really? Absolutely. Go to the website, read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and see for yourself. It is not, ultimately, our tripartate government, but the guaranteed rights of the individual, that sets America apart and makes us great.

Happy Constitution Day!


An encounter with history May 12, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have just returned from a whirlwind weekend in Washington, D.C. visiting family and friends. We had a great time, and would like nothing better than to hibernate for about a week now just to process everything we saw, but the garden and (gulp) deadlines make that a non-option. Before we plunge back into daily life, though, I want to share with you two of the amazing things we saw.

Our friend Ben is a Smithsonian junkie. I’ll be the first to admit it. The National Galleries, the Museum of Natural History, the Hirshhorn, the Sackler, the Freer—ah, yes, our friend Ben is ready to settle in and enjoy a lengthy season of exploration, much to the dismay of, well, pretty much everyone. Silence and our good friend Susan had agreed to indulge our friend Ben yet again this weekend, and Susan dutifully drove us all over toward the Mall (as the two long rows of museum buildings and the broad strip of ground that runs between them is called, ironically indeed in this age of strip malls with their tedious low-end chain stores). But as always, parking proved to be an issue, and by the time Susan captured an empty space, we found ourselves in front of the National Archives building.

National Archives, what’s that? Another of the many government buildings crowded thickly in the District’s downtown? How nice. Can we move on now? Our friend Ben had climbed out of the car and was basically waiting for Susan and Silence to assemble themselves when my eye fell on a large banner on the Archives building, announcing that you could see the original documents of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights inside. Our friend Ben’s head started swimming. I faintly heard a voice, belonging, I belatedly realized, to Silence (always at least one step ahead of our friend Ben), asking Susan if in fact the famous documents were in the National Archives building and, if so, could we see them?

Now, our friend Ben is admittedly not the brightest bulb on the string, but I’d never heard of the National Archives. If you had asked me, I’d have said that the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights, if they were on display at all, would have been under glass in our nation’s Capitol building, where our illustrious Senators and Representatives could view them daily to remind themselves of what the bleep they were doing there to begin with. Not so, my friends, my fellow citizens, my colleagues worldwide.

If you have a hankering, like Silence and our friend Ben, to see the originals of the famous documents that shaped the nascent United States out of a bunch of disparate British colonies, they’re on display in the National Archives building and are free for all to see. Who’d’a thunk?!! We rushed across the street and lined up to see the very foundations of America.

And yes, there they were. The thrill of seeing the signatures of George Washington, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock, and others was beyond description for a Colonial- and Federal-era enthusiast like our friend Ben. Knowing as I do that another of my favorite Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris, actually composed and wrote the Constitution (despite a publicity grab by Madison enthusiasts to designate him “Father of the Constitution”), and seeing the actual writing on the document, which was his, sent chills down my spine. Yes! Yes!!! Go Gouverneur!!!!!

Believe it or not, there were thrills and shocks aplenty in the short time our friend Ben, Silence, and Susan had to check out the National Archives before they closed. On the plus side, they had one of the four copies of the British Magna Carta, dating to 1295, on display. The Magna Carta is crucial to the British, of course, but it’s also of vital significance to Americans, since without it, our country could never have become what it was and is. To look at the near-microscopic but unbelievably, elegantly precise writing of the Magna Carta was to almost experience a time-warp: How could anyone create such minute, perfect, exquisite writing at all, much less with a quill pen? Ah, ah, impossible!

Other thrills included the many documents beside the “big three” that shaped American history: the Articles of Confederation, our first stab at a constitution; the Emancipation Proclamation; JFK’s inaugural address; and thousands more. The National Archives is truly a national treasure. 

And the shock? Oh, dear, it was the condition of the Declaration of Independence, the foundation of our freedom. The document those brave men, John Hancock and the others, signed so brazenly, had become almost invisible in time. Men who risked their very lives to sign the document (as our hero, Ben Franklin, so wonderfully pointed out to laggards, “We must hang together, gentlemen…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately”) would not be able to decipher it today, so faint has the ink become. Oh, no, no, our great document! Can no one save it?!

Mercifully, offsetting the horror of the almost-invisible Declaration of Independence was the fine, decisive script of Gouverneur Morris on the Constitution. It was marvellous! Our friend Ben will doubtless post on Gouverneur Morris at some point—he, with Franklin, Hamilton, and (of course) Washington—are the Revolutionaries who capture both my imagination and my admiration. And here’s a tidbit for you Thomas Jefferson fans—unlike the ornate script of other Founders, the writing of Jefferson in his notebooks detailing the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition struck our friend Ben as astonishingly modern. Hmmm. Our friend Ben leaves each of you to make of that what you will.

At any rate, seeing these seminal documents of my country, seeing them unexpectedly as I did, was an incredible experience for our friend Ben (and for Silence, too). If you enjoy American history, please don’t wait like our friend Ben to see the National Archives display. Go as soon as you can! Make it a vacation destination. You’ll be so glad you did!

As if that weren’t enough of a historical high, our friend Ben and Silence had to drive past Gettysburg to return from Washington to our Pennsylvania home. So of course we stopped at the Gettysburg Battlefield to look out over the decisive battlefield of the Civil War. (Who on earth decided to call that bloody horror “civil,” anyway?!) We even got to see some reenactors firing off a cannon (ouch!!! cover your ears), and of course we went to the visitors’ center to check out the displays. The whole thing was pretty awesome, and Silence managed to snag a cookbook containing Robert E. Lee family recipes. (Our friend Ben is related to both Abe Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, and would have preferred a Lincoln family cookbook, but no luck.) Anyway, I’m sure you’ll hear from Silence if she decides to try any of the Lee family recipes.

For now, we’re wiped out from our exciting weekend, but we enthusiastically enourage you to see the treasures at the National Archives building if you’re in Washington, and of course to stop in Gettysburg if you’re in that part of Pennsylvania. Talk about an encounter with history! Our friend Ben is still reeling.