II. Adopt Your Constitution Member:
William Few (1748-1828) Georgia Signer of the Constitution
Georgia would become the largest state east of the Mississippi River (which it still is), and the most populous in the South until the invention of air conditioning and Mickey Mouse. In 1787, however, the state was still terra incognita to most Americans. It was the youngest of the North American British colonies and most of the inhabitants had migrated there from the other twelve to the north. William Few was no exception. He was an exceptional man, however, and holds a unique place in the lineup signers of the U.S. Constitution. In some ways, he is the exemplar of an American man.
Unlike most of the other signatories of the Constitution, William Few came from humble beginnings. Born to a Quaker farm family in Maryland he received only two years of formal education before his adult years. His family moved to North Carolina looking for an opportunity to better themselves on more productive land. One can never predict what influence on a young person’s life will become a decisive factor in defining his future. For Few, his second teacher, at the age of twelve, and for only one year, infused into the young farm-boy a love for reading and self-improvement. By the time he was sixteen, Few was reading every book he could get his hands on and spending time at the courthouse listening to cases being argued (as the young Patrick Henry had done). At nineteen his father gave him a plot of land to plow for himself, but he always carried a book with him to the fields. An autodidact of the most diligent sort, William Few educated himself.
William’s family joined the “Regulator” movement in North Carolina, a large number of western “back-country” farmers and tradesmen who protested what they considered unfair taxation and preferential “treatment, conferred by the Royal Governor to eastern colonial merchants and people with political connections.” Their protests resulted in a pitched battle at Alamance against the Governor and the state militia. The Regulator movement was crushed and William Few’s brother was one of six prisoners hanged by the government. His family fled to Georgia leaving William to fight for their land in the courts. Upon joining his family in Augusta, Georgia, Few joined the militia to fight against Britain in the War for Independence.
As a man of intelligence, legal acumen and leadership quality, William Few rose through the ranks to Lt. Colonel. He fought in several battles and then was elected to help write Georgia’s Constitution. He was sent to Congress in 1780 and then returned to Georgia to open what proved to be a very lucrative law practice in Augusta. He said that he never spent a single hour in a law office or a class before becoming a lawyer. In 1786 he was returned to Congress and then the Constitutional Convention. His fellow Georgia signer of the Constitution stated that “Few possesses a fine natural Genius and from application has acquired knowledge of legal matters.” He gave several speeches in the Convention, and was one of the very few who did not come from wealth and privilege.
While in Congress as a senator, he married a New York woman and also joined Thomas Jefferson’s faction in politics. The man from the farm hated slavery and lost his seat in 1796. He also served as a state Congressman and three terms as a judge in Georgia. Following the ’96 election, Few moved to New York where he was promptly elected to three terms in the state legislature. He became president of City Bank in New York City, having amassed a substantial fortune. William Few died full of years at age eighty and was buried in New York City, later moved to Augusta. Having gone from being a Carolina man of the soil, to one of fortune and fame through hard work, self-discipline, reading, fighting, developing strong leadership qualities, and uncompromising principles—Few is one of not a few American success stories whose signature on the United States Constitution has real meaning as a practical example of liberty untrammeled by government regulation.
Rufus King, (1755-1827), Signer of the United States Constitution
His surname should have been a clue to his party loyalty, and his family’s experience in the troubled times of the pre-Revolutionary War era should have predicted his politics in the upcoming fight. Born to a wealthy Massachusetts merchant and a staunch Tory, young Rufus saw an angry mob descend on his home, break in, and ransack the family possessions, because of his father’s supported of the Stamp Tax and of the King’s and Parliament’s right to levy it. His father died a year later. King attended Harvard, where he became a staunch patriot, graduating in 1777. After reading law a short while, he joined the militia, thus turning his back on the family loyalties. Little could he have known then, the providential events that would define his life, henceforth.
During a break in the fighting in Rhode Island, he got up from breakfast to investigate cannon fire in the distance. The soldier who sat in his place at the table moments later, was struck by an artillery shell which crashed through the wall and smashed his foot, resulting in amputation. As a lawyer after the war, King developed a real gift for making speeches, and used his talent successfully as a Massachusetts legislator. King became one of the best known political orators of his day. Apparently his persuasive powers worked in personal matters as well for he married a beautiful sixteen year old New York heiress, Mary Alsop, and, combined with the inheritance from his Tory father, established a comfortable home, King Manor, today a museum devoted to his memory.
Rufus King represented Massachusetts at the Constitutional Convention, and with his “sweet, high-toned voice,” became the leader of the larger states. His skepticism about just modifying the Articles of Confederation, changed to total support of a new Constitution through the arguments of some of his fellow delegates. He attended every session, spoke out strongly and persuasively, and earned the respect of the older and more famous delegates. He was chosen for the committee that wrote the final text of the Constitution, along with James Madison, Gouverneur Morris, and Alexander Hamilton. King returned home to Massachusetts and led the fight for ratification with his “learned, informed, and persuasive speeches.” It narrowly passed.
King had been one of the most outspoken anti-slavery men at the convention and thus alienated some of his pro-slavery colleagues, which would cost him politically in the coming years. He predicted that future conflicts would be between North and South, making him a particularly prescient Founder. Failing to be elected Senator, King, with the urging of his fellow Federalist comrade Alexander Hamilton, pulled up stakes and moved to New York. The people of the Empire State elected him twice to the Senate.
George Washington asked King to serve as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, where he served under the first three U.S. Presidents. Upon his return to the United States in 1803, the silver-tongued orator ran twice (unsuccessfully) for vice-president on the Federalist ticket against both Jefferson and Madison. He launched a presidential campaign in 1816 against James Monroe along with one of General Washington’s best colonels from the war, Eager Howard of Maryland, and lost again. Jeffersonian Republicanism would define the era, not Kingian Federalism. He served two more terms in the Senate though, and lived long enough to fight against what became the Missouri Compromise in 1820, which set the boundaries for future slave states.
Rufus King served as ambassador to Great Britain once more, under John Quincy Adams, and died at the age of 72 at King Manor in New York, one of the greatest Founding Fathers of the United States, who, although fighting losing political battles over the last forty years of his life, never wavered from the political principles that the Constitutional Convention had solidified in his conscience in 1787. His legacy has been carried on by a multitude of distinguished descendants from five of his children, which include governors, congressmen, generals, fleet admiral, educators, judges and writers.
John Rutledge, (1739-1800), South Carolina Signer of the Constitution
Charleston native John Rutledge, like two of the other three signers of the Constitution from South Carolina, built his wealth through a law practice. Like the other three signers he earned and inherited extreme wealth, claimed membership in the Anglican/Episcopal Church, and held a substantial number of slaves. He joined the Patriot cause early on and served in one capacity or another until just after the Constitutional Convention. Some historians consider Rutledge the most eloquent and most brilliant of the South Carolina grandees who autographed the two great documents of the Republic.
The oldest child of seven, John was primarily educated by his father until latter teen years when he studied under a tutor and began to read law. Sent to England and the Middle Temple, he absorbed the English legal history and practice and even won a few cases in the English courts. He returned to Charleston, began a lucrative law practice, added his primogeniture fortune, and married, eventually fathering ten children. At twenty-one he was a member of the legislature and at twenty-five the South Carolina attorney general.
In 1765, Rutledge was the youngest in attendance of the first significant cross-colonial assembly called the Stamp Act Congress, in New York City, along with Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina. In 1774, the governor of the colony dismissed the legislature, so Rutledge and Gadsden helped form the subversive Committee of Public Safety. Later that year, he was chosen to attend the Continental Congress where John Adams described him as a man of “reserve, design, and cunning.” As a member of the Second Continental Congress, Rutledge served on many committees. He returned to Charleston, however, due to increasing tensions between loyalists and patriots. In the event, his brother Edward went on to sign the Declaration of Independence.
When the British attacked Fort Sullivan on Sullivan’s Island, Rutledge refused permission for General Moultrie to evacuate the American army, over the protestations of Major General Charles Lee. He opined “I would rather cut off my hand than issue the order [to evacuate]. The patriots beat off the attack by the English navy, an early major victory for the Americans. He was soon elected first Governor of South Carolina and served until 1782, after which he became a judge in the chancery court. He barely escaped to North Carolina when the British later captured Charleston.
Rutledge returned to the national scene in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. “He spoke often and convincingly, often in defense of the slave trade.” As a major player at the Convention, he served on the Committee of Detail which drafted the final form of the United States Constitution. He was not above compromise, and projected stability and unity in the give and take of the debates. South Carolina became the eighth state to ratify after a strong defense of the document by Rutledge.
Upon the retirement of John Jay as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Rutledge served an interim appointment, made by George Washington when the Senate was not in session. When a post-war treaty with Great Britain, known as Jay’s Treaty, came before the Senate, Rutledge joined the forces of rejection, against George Washington, and loudly proclaimed that it was a terrible mistake. He was not confirmed as justice. Upon his return to Charleston, he faced the loss of his wife and younger brother, financial ruin, and deteriorating health. In deep depression, he twice tried to kill himself, but died of kidney failure at the age of sixty-one in 1800. Charles Rutledge, however, would be remembered as a patriot without reservation, and public service that defined the last thirty-seven years of his life. His sons would carry on his legacy into the future.
Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) Signer of the Constitution
His first name means governor in French; Abigail Adams said it is pronounced “Gouveneer.”He was a ladies man and considered a rogue by some of his peers, at least until he married at fifty-seven. He lost his leg in a carriage accident at thirty-two fleeing an irate husband. The woman he married was his house-keeper and a relative of Thomas Jefferson, accused of adultery and murder at her sister’s plantation known as Bizarre. He beat off a French Revolutionary mob with his crutch. He died from a self-inflicted wound attempting to install a whalebone catheter. And, he also signed the Articles of Confederation and gave 173 speeches at the Constitutional Convention. Morris was a close friend of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, wrote the Preamble and was considered the “pen” of the Constitutional Republic—he is one of the most important Founding Fathers, feet of clay, roving eye, and all.
Gouverneur Morris was born to privilege and wealth in New York, the only child of a second marriage. He enrolled at King’s College (later Columbia) at the age of twelve. He was admitted to the bar after learning from one of the best legal minds in the colony and an opponent of English tyranny. He joined with patriots John Jay and Alexander Hamilton in the incipient rebellion and was thus forced to go against his mother (who gladly turned over the estate to the British army for their use), half-brother who was a British General, and many men of his social strata whose wealth depended on British trade and loyalty to the crown. He joined a local militia company in 1776 but left to serve in the political end of the “revolution.” His polemical skills and outspokenness, as well as his absolute devotion to the cause made him indispensable to New York’s remaining in the fight. The new state constitution was mostly his work, the political solutions to military problems his specialty.
Morris took his seat in the Continental Congress in 1778 and was immediately given the task of working out military reform with George Washington. “His support for Washington, Nathaniel Greene, and Frederick von Steuben contributed directly to the success of the training and structural reforms thrashed out in the snows of Valley Forge and the meeting rooms of Congress.” His outspokenness and use of sarcasm advocating a stronger central government lost him his Congressional seat in 1779. Morris responded by moving to Philadelphia and hitching his star to the preeminent Patriot financier Robert Morris (no relation). Together they stabilized Congressional finances and funded the Yorktown Campaign.
The high point of Morris’s career came when Pennsylvania elected him to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. For a change, he became the soother of ruffled feathers and the wise promoter of judicious compromise. He fought hard on behalf of religious liberty, the right of property as the foundation of society, rule of law, and consent of the governed. His solid opposition to slavery failed to gain any traction. Morris was the principle draftsman of the final version of the Constitution.
Following the successful ratification of the Constitution, Morris spent the next ten years in Europe on business and serving President Washington in diplomatic positions, including ambassador during the French Revolution. Upon his return to America he allied with Alexander Hamilton and fought for Federalist Party issues. He was also indispensable to the creation of the Erie Canal in New York. Gouverneur Morris was buried in a church in the Bronx; his wooden leg is on display at the New York Historical Society, of which he was President. Millions of American children have quoted Morris’s most famous words, without knowing of their origin:
We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
George Mason, (1725-1792) Principle Author of Constitution
What Founding Father was considered the most profound thinker in Virginia and probably made the largest contribution to the composition of the United States Constitution at the Convention in Philadelphia, but refused to sign it or support its ratification? He considered family more important than anything else in the world, raised his nine children who survived to adulthood, as a widower, and never remarried. He eschewed the limelight, refused preferment and resisted election to high office. A major university in Northern Virginia is named after him. He was a neighbor of George Washington–George Mason IV of Gunston Hall.
George lost his father in a boating accident at the age of nine in 1734, and was instructed by tutors for the next nine years, as well as spending time in his brilliant lawyer-uncle Uncle John Mercer’s presence, and in his huge library. As his father before him, Mason was appointed to the county court, helping adjudicate criminal, civil, and tax cases. He also served as a vestryman at the local Truro Anglican Church. To hold that position Mason had to affirm the 39 Articles of the Church of England, a Reformed Protestant confession. In 1750 he married Ann Eilbeck of Maryland, also from a wealthy family, with whom he produced twelve children. George helped design his house, Gunston Hall and the landscape gardens that surrounded it. Like neighbor and fellow-land speculator George Washington, Mason expanded his holdings in land and diversified his crops. His seeming idyllic life did not remain unperturbed.
Mason’s political career began in 1758 when he was elected to the House of Burgesses at the age of thirty-three. He attended infrequently, not liking to be away from his family lands. Based on his speeches and conversations, as well as committee assignments, his fellow burgesses saw Mason as a man of wisdom and perspicacity and consulted with him even when not present. Strongly opposed to both the Stamp tax and the Townshend duties, Mason framed Virginia’s response of non-importation. The fiery Patrick Henry led the more radical faction in the House, but it was Mason’s arguments that fueled the legislation. It was Mason that responded to George Washington’s plea for an articulate and powerful response to the Intolerable Acts passed to punish Massachusetts—The Fairfax Resolves.
Mason resisted nomination to attend the Continental Congress—he had nine children to raise and was in poor health off and on for years. He was literally forced to head the Committee of Safety and he also spent two years raising militia forces and lobbying for funds to defend the colony. The Virginia Declaration of Rights and the 1776 Constitution of Virginia were largely Mason’s work, and they became the template for the Declaration of Independence. Mason spent the war resisting British encroachment on this county and along the river of Virginia, and fighting off attempts of the state to send him to the Continental Congress.
Mason’s journey to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 was the first time he had ever left Virginia or nearby Maryland. His domestic duties were lessened by then and he believed the modification of the Articles of Confederation were necessary for the Republic to function properly. He also wanted to ensure that the Northern states did not dominate Virginia. Mason’s overall role proved central to the construction of the new government. But its ultimate weakness prevented him from supporting the document to which he had devoted his best reasoning—it contained no bill of rights to protect the people from the Central governing authorities. Although Virginia barely ratified the document, Mason fought against it with all his powers, but then helped frame the first ten amendments, which became The Bill Of Rights.
George Mason’s towering legacy remains intact in the Constitution and Bill Of Rights, although his resistance cost him friendships, not the least of which was George Washington. Mason, of course, refused to serve in the new Federal Government. The bronze statue of George Mason in Washington D.C. near the Jefferson Memorial reflects the contemplative genius of the man who reluctantly served in politics but always with a defense of his homeland, family, and rights of liberty as his guiding star.