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Two wonderful examples of the principle that history is best taught through biography just came across my desk. The first is a collection of 56 short sketches of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. The second (by the same author) has short biographies of the 39 signers of the U.S. Constitution. More details below:
The 56 men who dared to sign their names to this revolutionary document knew they were putting their reputations, their fortunes, and their very lives on the line by boldly and publicly declaring their support for liberty and freedom. As Benjamin Franklin said as he signed his name, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately!”
Many of the names are familiar: John Hancock and John Adams of Massachusetts, and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, for example. But many of the other 53 have been largely forgotten. This book is an excellent example of the principle that all good history is based on biography. Reading the varied stories of these men’s lives communicates more about the character and lives of the colonists than any textbook. They are presented here in an even-handed fashion, with frank acknowledgment of the difficulties faced by some, especially after the War for Independence was concluded. Several made costly financial mistakes which reduced them to poverty and, in one case, debtor’s prison. But many went on to live rich lives with families, most serving in a variety of positions with state and local government.
The biographies are arranged by state, and a brief profile of each state is provided, along with summary statistics on the wives, children, and death dates of each of the signers.
This is an excellent way to study the Declaration of Independence and the War for Independence. The text is easily accessible to upper elementary students and will be an interesting read for students all the way through high school. I learned a number of fascinating details which I had not known before.
The signers were profiled in several biographical collections from the mid-1800’s, including the volume by Benson J. Lossing written in 1848 and reprinted by Wallbuilders in a facsimile edition. That volume is an important one, and worth reading, but written very much in a mid-Victorian style and tone. It has a tendency to baptize as many of the signers as possible and ignore or obscure even their smallest failings.
This 2003 volume probably does not give enough attention to the faith of the Signers, but it never challenges or denigrates it. All in all, this is a very valuable book, well worth reading.
Which signer of the Constitution (from a small state) said (to the large state representatives): “I do not, Gentleman, trust you.”
Starting with the delegates from Delaware, who played a critical role in resolving the impasse between the small states and the large states, this collections of biographies is a tremendous help in understanding the history of the writing of the US Constitution. Like their companion volume on the Signers, Fradin and McCurdy give us clear, sober pictures of the 39 men whose signatures are on the federal charter. This is a very valuable resource.
I can’t resist tempting you with a few provocative questions:
George Washington and Benjamin Franklin both signed, but so did 37 others. Do you know who the last surviving signer of the Constitution was, and when he died?
Who represented Rhode Island at the Constitutional Convention? (answer: no one, they feared being absorbed by the larger states and boycotted the convention. Rhode Island also held out on ratifying the Constitution, becoming the last of the 13 colonies to do so in May of 1790 – which was more than a year after George Washington’s inauguration as the first President!
Once again, a book that proves the value of biography in studying history!
Here’s a fascinating story from The Independent about the Suffolk coastal city of Dunwich, which has disappeared beneath the waves of the North Atlantic. The city of Dunwich had several thousand inhabitants at the time of the Domesday Book (William the Conqueror‘s systematic census of the entire realm of England – conducted for taxation purposes!). It went into decline in the 14th century and was almost completely abandoned by 1750.
The town had been important enough to be granted two members of the House of Commons in 1295. The population was down to 12 by 1800 and on election day the voters got into a boat and rowed out to the spot where the town square used to be! Dunwich is a classic example of a “rotten borough” abolished by the Reform Act of 1832. The political corruption caused by the “rotten boroughs” is one of the reasons why the authors of the US Constitution called for a census and reapportionment of the House of Representatives every ten years.
But I digress. Dunwich as an archeological site promises to yield an interesting picture of medieval life – if the difficulties of diving in the murky waters of the north Atlantic can be overcome.
This British Atlantis – with its eight churches, five houses of religious orders, three chapels and two hospitals – is now about to be exposed to human gaze for the first time since the first of a series of great storms and sea surges hit the East Anglian coast in 1286 and began the process of coastal erosion which led to the city’s disappearance.