Artists Recognized James Monroe as a True American Hero

A charcoal sketch of George Washington aide Lt. Col. Robert Hanson Harrison that artist John Trumbull did for his epic painting The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton sold for $8,962 at a May 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

John Trumbull (1756-1843) deservedly earned the sobriquet as the “Painter of the Revolution.” He actually started out as an aide to General George Washington, but ended up in London, where he developed into a highly respected artist. One of his paintings, which illustrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, graces the $2 bill that features Thomas Jefferson. The bill was issued in 1976 to observe the bicentennial of that historic event.

Another of his numerous works is the The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton on Dec. 26, 1776. This one naturally features General Washington again, but there is also a depiction of future president, Lieutenant James Monroe, being treated for a near-fatal damaged artery.

An even more famous painting of the times is an 1851 oil on canvas that also features Washington – Washington Crossing the Delaware on Dec. 25-26, 1776. It was painted by Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), a German-American immigrant. Once again, we find James Monroe holding the American flag – the Stars and Stripes – which critics are always quick to remind was a flag not adopted until the following year, 1777. Some nitpickers also harp that the time of day is wrong, the ship is incorrect, and (sigh) even the chunks of ice in the river aren’t right.

But the role of James Monroe as a true hero is beyond any doubt.

Often called the “Last of the Founding Fathers,” he was the fifth president of the United States and like Washington, Jefferson and Madison, the son of a Virginia planter. It is sometimes overlooked that in the first 36 years of the American presidency, the Oval Office was occupied almost exclusively by men from Virginia. Somehow, John Adams (Massachusetts) managed to squeeze in a quick four years as president (1797-1801) before sneaking out of Washington, D.C., when Thomas Jefferson ousted him.

James Monroe entered politics after his service in the Revolutionary War and systemically worked his way up after serving in the Virginia legislature. He was a U.S. senator, a minister to France, and then governor of Virginia. After helping negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, he served as minister to Britain, followed by another stint as Virginia’s governor. But after only four months, President Madison offered him an appointment as secretary of state to help draft the recommendation to Congress that led to the declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812.

When the war got off to a poor start, Madison wisely appointed him secretary of war and Monroe held both of these critical Cabinet positions until the war ended. After the war, the prosperity of the country improved dramatically and with Madison’s strong support, Monroe easily was elected president in 1816.

Taking office when the country finally had no unusual problems, the 58-year-old Monroe was bold enough to declare during his inaugural address: “Never did a government commence under auspices so favorable, nor ever was success so complete. If we look to the history of other nations, ancient or modern, we find no example of a growth so rapid, so gigantic, of a people so prosperous and happy … the heart of every citizen must expand with joy … how near our government has approached to perfection…”

It was truly the “Era of Good Feelings!”

Things change … and they will again.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ Stated Simply the Reasons for Independence

A 1776 edition of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold for $56,762 at a June 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, it was thought that most colonists were true patriots who favored full separation from England. It was not true then – 15 percent to 20 percent were still loyal to the Crown (Loyalists) and a like number were still undecided – and it was absolutely unresolved as little as six months earlier.

It was true that there had been skirmishes with British soldiers and a series of complaints diplomatically lodged by colonial leaders, however, the Continental Congress had been silent on the issue of indignation. There was still a sense that Parliament in London could resolve disputes. If anything, the colonies vibrated with unarticulated emotions – poised for someone to bring the scattered opinions into focus.

Clarity finally arrived in Philadelphia on Jan. 10, 1776, when an English corset-maker, who had only been in America a little over a year, published a pamphlet titled “Common Sense.” It was originally titled “Plain Truth” (Benjamin Rush suggested the change) and signed anonymously “By an Englishman.” In stunningly clear and moving prose, Thomas Paine gathered up the random, unspoken thoughts of the average smithy or farmer and crystallized the rebellious demand for independence, giving them the courage to accept a radical idea.

Thomas Paine

He wrote, “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. … ’Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest … Now is the seed time of continental union, faith and honor.” History would be made now or never. Paine wrote. “The present winter is worth an age if rightly employed, but if lost or neglected, the whole continent will partake of the misfortune.”

Then came the words from which there would be no turning back: “Every thing that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ’TIS TIME TO PART!”

“Common Sense” was an immediate success; 100,000 copies circulated in three months to the 2.5 million white residents in the 13 colonies. For the first time, the notion of independence was on the lips of every yeoman in the colonies and a new idea of separate nationality was in their heads.

Paine was the first man to string together the five words we now cherish: the United States of America.

Unadorned and plain, the American voice of simple declarative sentences, set off by vivid imagery, is the pioneering literary achievement of “Common Sense.” John Adams neatly summed up its importance when he said, “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of George Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Sounds right to me.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

It’s Hard to Overestimate the Role of Washington in our Independence

A 1776 $1 Continental Dollar, the first representation of the basic unit of the U.S. coinage system, sold for nearly $1.53 million at a January 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

From Sept. 4 to Oct. 26, 1774, a group of delegates from every colony except Georgia met in Philadelphia in response to the British imposition of the Intolerable Acts. Although declaring independence was not the purpose of the meeting – sympathies ranged from loyalty to rebellion – they did pass 10 resolutions enumerating their rights and agreed to meet again if their grievances were not addressed by the Crown.

They met again in May 1775 and in June they appointed George Washington commander of a newly founded Continental Army. On July 4, 1776, the Congress issued a Declaration of Independence.

This upset King George III, who was an insecure man of average intelligence, but bewildered by the rash of constitutional arguments the Americans were asserting. He was the third of the Hanoverian Kings (his father had died and his grandfather still spoke with a deep German accent) and was firmly convinced the welfare of Great Britain was heavily reliant on the American Colonies.

The Colonies had become a major importer of British goods, surpassing even the West Indies, and his greatest nightmare was any interruption of this trade. “If we lose the American Colonies, we shall sink back into obscurity and be just a small, insignificant island once again.” He was adamant about not letting this occur.

George Washington by Joseph Christian Leyendecker.

By then, the population in America was 2.5 million (500,000 slaves, of which 200,000 were in Virginia), living in 13 Colonies and uniting for independence, despite the government being in total disarray. Some had colonial governments in place, but in colony after colony, revolutionary leaders had supplanted official British rule.

The Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775 in Philadelphia right after the Battles of Lexington and Concord and soon evolved into a national entity. After the formal Declaration of Independence, all that was left to do was defeat a vastly superior British Army, which was supremely confident its 5,000 soldiers could march the entire length, quashing any resistance as they went. We all know how this ended, but the tribulations of an underfunded, out-manned army are still inspiring.

It would be hard to overestimate the personal contributions and leadership that George Washington provided, and to call him “indispensable” is an understatement. Absent his presence, a very different outcome was highly likely. The “Father of Our Country” is one individual who will not be lost in the sands of history.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Jefferson Stretched Constitution to its Limit

thomas-jefferson
Thomas Jefferson proved to the world the strength of the American republic and its democratic system.

By Jim O’Neal

Thomas Jefferson was 57 years old when he was sworn in as president on March 4, 1801, in a simple ceremony in Washington, D.C. He was the first president to take office in the new capital, then a city of 6,000, but without representation in Congress. In 1961, the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution granted the district one non-voting, at-large delegate to the House of Representatives and three electoral votes in presidential elections, but no representation in the U.S. Senate. In 1973, they were granted limited self-government, which includes a mayor and a city council with 13 elected members.

Since the passage of the amendment, the district’s three electoral votes have been cast for the Democratic Party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates in every election. They are bound by law to never have more electoral votes than a state (in this case Wyoming, which has three).

Denounced as a radical and atheist by his political opponents, Jefferson became the first leader of an opposition political party to wrest control of the national government from the party in power. Despite grim prophecies by the outgoing Federalists that the Constitution would be overthrown, he proved to the world the strength of the American republic and its democratic system. Jefferson believed the United States should remain an agrarian country of small farms and a national government that offered little interference in the lives of its citizens. He warned of the evils of large cities – with disease, poverty and centralized power that fostered corruption.

However, as president, in his own words, he “stretched the Constitution till it cracked” by using presidential powers to double the size of the country, presumably to give people room to spread out and avoid dense urbanization (the Louisiana Purchase), and discharge major political appointees of his predecessor. Chief Justice John Marshall restrained him from applying the same principle to federal judges.

After suffering through the embarrassment of the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton affair, he chose the elderly George Clinton for vice president in his second term, with the obvious intent to ensure a VP that was too old to succeed him. He then orchestrated the election of his old Virginia friend and Secretary of State James Madison to become the fourth president.

Refusing all pleas for a third term, he more than welcomed his pending retirement, writing “Never did a prisoner released from his chains feel such relief I shall in shaking off the shackles of power … I thank God for the opportunity of retiring from them without censure and carrying with me the most consoling proofs of public approbation.”

For his epitaph, he asked for “not a word more” about his time as vice president or president. After 17 years in retirement, his wish was granted and his cherished University of Virginia (which he founded) and the Declaration of Independence seem fitting memorials for this remarkably versatile man to which we all owe an eternal debt of gratitude.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Insidious Practice of Slavery Violated Every Principle that Men of Goodwill Supported

thomas-hart-benton-slave-master-with-slaves-study-for-the-american-historical-epic
This crayon with pencil and ink on paper by American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), titled Slave Master with Slaves (Study for The American Historical Epic), circa 1926, realized $35,000 at a December 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Slavery was the great exception to the rule of liberty proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and established in the U.S. Constitution. The first African slaves (about 40 in all) were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Va., in 1619 to aid in the production of lucrative crops like tobacco.

By the time of America’s founding, the number had grown to 500,000, mostly in the five southernmost states. Slavery was never widespread in the North, but many profited indirectly by the practice. Between 1774 and 1804, all of the northern states had abolished slavery, but the “peculiar institution” remained absolutely vital to the South.

Even as the U.S. Congress outlawed the African slave trade in 1808, domestic trade flourished, and the slave population more than tripled over the next 50 years. By 1860, it was up to 4 million, primarily in cotton-production areas of the South.

One naive hope had been that slavery would slowly die as a simple matter of business economics. In 1776, Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) argued that the plantation system was uneconomic since slave labor cost more to maintain than laborers paid a competitive wage. But, in 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, making slave-based production lower in cost. The insatiable demand for cotton from Europe was irresistible to the southern agrarian-based economy.

Overlooked in all of this was a brilliant insight by Smith. He noted that slavery ended in the Middle Ages in Europe only after the state and church became separate and strongly independent. His insight was that it is nearly impossible to end slavery in free, democratic forms of government, primarily because many of the legislators would also be slave owners and unlikely to act in ways that were not in their best interest.

Similar arguments later appear in the works of French philosopher Auguste Comte, known for his ideas regarding the “separation of the spiritual and the temporal.”

That was exactly the situation in the United States since many of the founders – most notably George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – owned slaves and the South had always been dominated by self-interest. The obvious implication is that war was not only probable, but inevitable and unavoidable.

So the inexorable forces of profit versus human rights continued to accelerate, with only pauses, as the deeply conflicted country tried to find compromises (e.g. 1820) that simply delayed the inevitability of war. Kick-the-can strategies never achieve anything except temporary lulls.

Quite predictably, ours required a bloody civil war to (finally) reconcile the Constitution and an insidious practice of slavery that violated every principle that men of goodwill supported.

Both Smith and Comte tried to warn us, but their theories did not include any useful solutions, except perhaps to implement a kingdom … the very thing we were fleeing.

Even after 620,000 lives were lost in the Civil War, a number that exceeds all our other conflicts combined … and with the passage of 150 years … we are still struggling with race and inequality as our legislators try to find compromises.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Principles Articulated by Founders Transcend Time and Technology

the-federalist
An edition of The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, as Agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787, in two volumes, by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, sold for $175,000 at a September 2016 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1776, while Thomas Jefferson was putting the finishing touches on the Declaration of Independence, a committee headed by John Dickerson began meeting to draft the Articles of Confederation, a document designed to specify how this new government would work. Due to lots of internal debates (and the Revolutionary War), the Articles were not ratified until 1781, two years before the war ended.

Then a formal constitutional convention met in Independence Hall in May 1787. They abandoned the Articles and wrote a new document, “The Constitution of the United States of America.” Fifty-five delegates attended, but Vermont was not part of the Union and Rhode Island was absent since it was anti-federal, anti-union and didn’t bother to send a delegation to Philadelphia. Ten amendments were then ratified on Dec. 15, 1791, and we call them the Bill of Rights.

James Madison, “The Father of the Constitution,” played a crucial role at each stage in the entire process … calling the convention, framing the Constitution and carefully deciding how the Bill of Rights would work in a practical sense. To an extraordinary degree, we rely on Madison for our basic insight into the original theories and the ambitions of the Constitution, per se.

Madison had come to the convention totally prepared to control the agenda in a very characteristic way – carefully and deeply. He had studied the fundamental problems of the Articles, the state constitutions and the lessons of history, including his personal experience in the Continental Congress and in Virginia.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution combine to address mankind’s most basic political questions and the principles of organization for a government. Thus, they were meant to serve not simply the 18th century, but succeeding generations, whatever their circumstances or the state of their social progress. Because the principles the Founders articulated transcend both time and technology, they will serve us well through the 21st century, but only if we understand them correctly and apply them consistently.

Government officials must respect their oaths to uphold the Constitution and we the people must be vigilant in seeing that they do. The Constitution will live only if it is alive in the hearts and minds of the American people. That perhaps is the most enduring lesson of our experiment in ordered liberty.

It doesn’t seem like too much to expect.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].