America Driven by Courage and the Nerve to Do Whatever It Takes

The Empire State Building, an oil on canvas by Glenn O. Coleman (1887-1932) sold for $40,000 at a March 2017 Heritage auction. Mohawk riveting gangs worked on the skyscraper, and other monumental New York buildings.

By Jim O’Neal

The American Revolutionary War effectively ended on Oct. 19, 1781, at Yorktown, Va. That was the day British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army to General George Washington. However, it took two more years until the Treaty of Paris was signed on Sept. 3, 1783, to formalize the negotiated peace terms.

The peace negotiations were led by Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens and John Adams, who were very clever to exclude American allies France and Spain and strike a deal directly with Great Britain to achieve better terms. Despite this ploy, there were still several areas still in contention. In 1794, now Chief Justice John Jay was finally forced to negotiate an additional agreement (Jay’s Treaty) to resolve a number of lingering issues.

Flash forward to 1926 and we find a Mohawk ironworker from Quebec, Canada, Paul Diabo, facing deportation in Philadelphia after being charged as an illegal alien in violation of the Immigration Act of 1924. The court ruled he had every right to enter the United States (at will) by virtue of the Jay Treaty with the Iroquois Confederacy.

By then, the Kahnawake-Mohawk Indians had gained a well-known reputation as world-class high-steel workers. Ironworking requires a rare combination of strength, intelligence and courage. It involves laying the foundations and building the metal skeletons to support skyscrapers. Workers handle the lifting, fixing and welding of heavy steel beams, often while hundreds of feet up in the air. The Mohawks had demonstrated an exceptional skill that was unmatched.

It all started in 1886 when the fledgling Canadian Pacific Railway needed to span the St. Lawrence River and hired the Dominion Bridge Company to build a cantilevered bridge over the water. One significant issue was it would have to be set on land belonging to the Mohawks, who were willing to give their approval, but only with the proviso that they could work on the project. The company quickly agreed, assuming the Mohawks would be able to do all the menial tasks associated with such a big project. They were subsequently astonished when, instead, they showed great agility and a desire to become higher-paid riveters.

Initially, Dominion trained a dozen volunteers in this difficult, dangerous skill that entailed heating red-hot rivets, tossing them 30 to 40 feet where other co-workers caught them and forced them through steel beams with a hammer or pneumatic drill … while high off the ground up in the infrastructure. Soon, there was a cadre of over 70 highly trained iron and steel riveters and they started working on projects throughout Canada.

The Mohawk riveting gangs continued to proliferate and spread out, by the 1910s arriving in New York. As their numbers and reputations continued to grow, they inevitably worked on all the monumental structures in greater New York: the Empire State Building, George Washington Bridge, Chrysler Building, United Nations Assembly, and Triborough Bridge … among many other less well-known skyscrapers.

By the 1930s, a community of 700 Mohawks were living in a Brooklyn suburb and drinking Canadian beer at the Wigwam bar, with its picture of Jim Thorpe on the wall and the sign “The Greatest Iron Workers in the World Pass Through These Doors.” In addition to frequent trips back and forth to Canada, they traveled all over the United States, even arriving in time to help rivet the majestic Golden Gate Bridge.

Today, the demand for “High Steel” riveting has declined, but as a Dominion Bridge official once observed, “Men who want to do it are rare. And men who can do it are even rarer!”

I suppose the same could be said of the Colonial soldiers who followed General Washington in a seemingly impossible task to win our independence. Courage and the nerve to do whatever it takes.

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].

America Remains a Beacon of Democracy for the World

Revolutionary War newspapers, like this July 31, 1776, edition of The Massachusetts Sun, often included reports on speeches by figures such as John Hancock and Patrick Henry.

By Jim O’Neal

During the winter of 1774-75, George Washington helped militia groups in Virginia form independent companies for a possible war with Great Britain. This included choosing officers and arming, equipping and training for a worst-case event. They naturally started clamoring for Washington as their commander and he finally agreed to accept the field command for four independent companies in Virginia counties.

In January, The Virginia Gazette thanked the aspiring hero in a quatrain: “In spite of Gage’s flaming sword/and Carleton’s Canadian troop/Brave Washington shall give the word/and we’ll make them howl and whoop.” The forces for war were gaining momentum.

In March 1775, Washington was summoned to Richmond to attend the Second Virginia Convention. This meeting ratified the resolutions of the Continental Congress and applauded the work of seven delegates from Virginia. Patrick Henry argued that British troops intended to enslave the Colonies and set pulses racing with his flaming response: “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Buoyed by these words, the convention agreed that Virginia should be placed in “a posture of defense.”

In April, it momentarily seemed as if an early chapter of the Revolutionary War would be written in Virginia when the British (Lord Dunmore) had all the gunpowder stored at a Williamsburg arsenal removed and placed in a British man-of-war under the pretext of worrying about a slave uprising. When enraged patriots threatened to invade the governor’s mansion, Washington counseled caution and advised the companies under his command not to march on Williamsburg. A young 24-year-old James Madison condemned Washington for having “discovered a pusillanimity little comporting with their professions or the name of Virginia.”

As a military man, Washington knew how indomitable the British military machine was and how quixotic a full-scale revolution would be. As he later said of America’s chances in the spring of 1775, “It is known that the expense in comparison with our circumstances as colonists must be enormous, the struggle protracted, dubious and severe. The resources of Britain were, in a manner, inexhaustible, that her fleets cover the ocean and that her troops had harvested laurels in every quarter of the globe … money the nerve of war, was wanting.”

But these colonists had something much more precious, as Washington would later say: “The unconquerable resolution of our citizens, the conscious rectitude of our cause and a confident trust that we should not be forsaken by heaven.”

The role of heaven is unknowable, but the importance of leaders, especially George Washington, is still a remarkable miracle that we should never forget.

We are still a beacon of democracy for the world to follow.

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].

Principles Articulated by Founders Transcend Time and Technology

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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].

Who Has Stronger Claim to ‘Father of the American Navy’?

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A signature of John Paul Jones removed from a letter sold for $4,600 at an April 2005 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

John Barry was a naval officer during the Revolutionary War and was issued commission No. 1 by President George Washington. This resulted in him becoming a commodore.

John Hancock – president of the Continental Congress – gave him a captain’s commission in 1776 and many consider Barry “the Father of the American Navy,” despite his relative anonymity today.

Another naval commander of the Revolutionary War, John Paul (he later added “Jones” to elude authorities after a duel), was born in Scotland in 1747 and became a sailor at age 13.

John Paul Jones joined the American Navy and made his fame in 1779. He was commanding an old French merchant ship refitted and renamed the USS Bonhomme Richard (in honor of Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard”) when he engaged a British warship in the North Sea.

During the ensuing battle with the HMS Serapis, 300 of 375 American seamen were killed or wounded. Jones’ ship sustained such heavy damage that it sank the following day.

At some point in the battle, the British asked if the Americans were ready to surrender. It was in this situation when JPJ famously replied:

“I have not yet begun to fight!”

Perhaps this legendary quote is why he shares the title with John Barry as “Father of the American Navy.”

You decide.

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].

Rights Granted to Barons in Medieval England are Bedrocks of Modern Society

charter-of-liberties-cardinal-langton-archbishop-of-canterbury
A painting by William Martin (1753-1836) shows Cardinal Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, producing to the barons the Charter of Liberties, issued in 1100. It’s considered a landmark document in English history and forerunner of the Magna Carta.

By Jim O’Neal

During the heated debates between our Founding Fathers while formulating the Constitution and Bill of Rights, many invoked the principles of the Magna Carta to bolster their arguments. For almost 600 years, the Great Charter had stood as a beacon whenever men discussed their inherent rights.

The truth is somewhat more complicated.

On June 15, 1215, King John of England signed a charter at Runnymede, a meadow beside the Thames River near Windsor fortress. The Archbishop of Canterbury had proposed the charter as a means to make peace between the king and a group of rebel barons. The document – which eventually became the Magna Carta – promised access to swift justice, no illegal imprisonment and limitations on feudal payments.

When John was enthroned as king in 1199, England was a feudal society, a land-based hierarchy where the king owned all the land. The tenants-in-chief (i.e. barons) received land from the king in exchange for loyalty and military service. They, in turn, leased the land to their own retainers, who leased to peasants. However, English monarchs had been levying ever-increasing higher taxes and financial burdens on the barons.

Starting with Henry I (1100-1135), the Crown established a series of Royal Courts that also raised revenue through fines and taxes. Discontent intensified under King John, who had lost a series of expensive campaigns against the French from 1200-1204 and had also lost the land in Normandy, which put the squeeze on the entire system. In addition to being inept at war, King John broke his commitments to the barons and both sides then disavowed any promises made.

One significant irony was that the Magna Carta originally only included the king and the barons. Ordinary citizens were totally ignored.

A new Magna Carta was issued in 1216 by Henry III and revised again in 1226 to raise taxes once again. Finally, in 1297, Edward I agreed to rights that evolved into English statute law, with a broad array of rights granted to all citizens.

The Magna Carta has acquired almost mythical status as the constitutional bedrock of citizen rights. It contributed to the development of parliament from the 13th century and was used by 17th century rebels to argue against the divine right of kings. Several American colonies’ charters contained clauses modeled on it, while the design of the Massachusetts seal chosen at the start of the Revolutionary War depicts a militiaman with sword in one hand and the Magna Carta in the other.

Americans believed the Crown had breached the fundamental law enjoyed by all English citizens, which led to the U.S. Constitution enacted in 1789 and the Bill of Rights adopted two years later. We are fortunate to live in a country governed by the rule of law and limitations on the arbitrary power of a government against its citizens.

Much blood has been spilled by many in defense of these beliefs.

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].