Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Sic Semper Tyrannis

Probably the one thing that propelled me most into the history of the Declaration of Independence was The West Wing. The idea of taking a descendent of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and making him an American president fascinated me. But as much as I loved the show, I couldn't help but be frustrated that Aaron Sorkin could make up two such wonderful history geeks as Josiah Bartlet and Sam Seaborn and yet, other than a few passing references to great-great-whatever-grandpa, fail to mine the sheer wealth of historical trivia available to him. Nor did he answer such burning questions as, in all the generations between Josiah Bartlett the Signer and Josiah Bartlet the President, what happened to the second T?

This kind of stuff is important.

So just for fun, I jumped into the alternate universe of fan fiction. And yes, I am weird enough to consider spending countless hours searching for historical minutiae fun. It was a lot of fun, in fact, and not entirely in vain because I have already used some of the research in this blog.

Since the West Wing characters I kidnapped do not belong to me, the novel I wrote was never intended to be anything other than just a fun thing to do. Up until now, I've never let anyone but my niece read any of it, and it's not likely that anyone else ever will. But in observance of the 2nd of July, I've decided to publish the prologue as an independent short story. Set in 1776, it is historical fiction, but more historical than fiction. All the characters and virtually all of their words and actions are real, and the details are mostly all factual.

Here is the short story:

Sic Semper Tyrannis

Pennsylvania State House
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Friday, June 7, 1776

He was a man with a mandate. The day was here. This was the place. The time was now.

It fell upon Virginia--oh, did it not always fall upon Virginia?--and therefore it fell upon him.

He was a professional politician--though he called politics the “science of fraud”-- the senior member of the Virginia delegation, the ringleader of radicals, the American Cicero with his passionate ideals of liberty and freedom which he declaimed so splendidly.

But it was not his profession that brought him here today with the words he had written in his hand. It fell upon Virginia, as it always did and would continue to do, to lead the way, step up to the task, to sacrifice her all, to meet the challenge, to supply the need. Sic semper tyrannis. It fell upon Virginia; therefore it fell upon him. For he was a Lee.

His mouth was dry as a committee made their report. “Resolved, That Mr. Charles Walker, of New Providence, ought to be paid the value of the sloop Endeavour, together with four tons of lignum vitae, and one hundred cedar posts, taken by the said commodore, for the use of the colonies, and the damages the said Walker has sustained by the taking and detention of said vessel, lignum vitae and posts; the said Walker--”

What would happen? What would happen to these 13 weak little colonies, loosely united against a tyrant, but so divided among themselves? What would happen to Virginia? To Westmoreland County? To his family? His brother? His wife and children? To himself?

He found himself ayeing a motion he could not recall once the word left his mouth. A different committee--was Walker paid for his ship?--something about battalions raised in South Carolina. And now some complaint about the powder manufactured at some mill. He recalled the words of his firebrand friend Patrick Henry when he delivered his Stamp Act Resolutions 12 years ago.

This was high treason against the Crown.

It was time. He looked to his brother Frank. Frank, the sweet one, the quiet one who balanced his fiery divisiveness, the one their brother referred to as “calmness and philosophy itself.” Well, if they die, they die as brothers. He looked then to the others. Benjamin Harrison. The law professor, George Wythe, and his former law student, Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Nelson. Carter Braxton. Men he knew so well. Men he had worked with, argued with, lived with, played with. Men whom, if he were not related to, he was related to someone who was. Men he was tied to in so many ways in that web that Virginia wove so well. Men he just might die with.

Men of Virginia.

High treason was punishable by hanging.

He looked beyond them. Beyond Virginia. All around the room. Finally to his friend John Adams of Massachusetts, who looked back at him and nodded. He thought of Henry’s words. It was now. It was time.

He was Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. He was about to change the world.

If this be treason, he said to himself, make the most of it.

He swallowed. He rose. He unfolded the paper in his hand. He read it. He read it with passion, with cadence and grace, in that deep, melodious voice of his, the voice Patrick Henry described as “the canorous voice of Cicero.” He read with his heart. He read with his hands--one of them covered with a black silk handkerchief concealing the consequences of a hunting accident--his gestures so perfectly choreographed and orchestrated it was said he practiced before a mirror (but after all, he was a professional politician).

“Resolved,” he read, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

“That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.

“That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.”

He looked up and breathed.

There was silence. A silence that seemed to last forever. And yet was over too soon.

And then there was a second by John Adams.

His fellow patriots (traitors?) listened as Lee eloquently spoke to his motion. “Why then, sir,” said he, in conclusion, “why do we longer delay? Why still deliberate? Let this happy day give birth to an American republic. Let her arise, not to devastate and to conquer, but to reestablish the reign of peace and of law. The eyes of Europe are fixed upon us: she demands of us a living example of freedom, that may exhibit a contrast in the felicity of the citizen to the ever increasing tyranny which desolates her polluted shores. She invites us to prepare an asylum, where the unhappy may find solace, and the persecuted repose. She entreats us to cultivate a propitious soil, where the generous plant which first sprung and grew in England, but is now withered by the poisonous blasts of Scottish tyranny, may revive and flourish, sheltering under its salubrious and interminable shade, all the unfortunate of the human race. If we are not this day wanting in our duty, the names of the American legislators of 1776 will be placed by posterity at the side of Theseus, Lycurgus, and Romulus, of the three Williams of Nassau, and of all those whose memory has been, and ever will be, dear to virtuous men and good citizens.”

His resolution was heatedly debated for several days before the vote was postponed so that the delegates might have opportunity to determine the will of their colonies, while the drafting committee committed their argument to paper. John Adams declined the proposition by Thomas Jefferson that he write the document. “Reason first,” Adams told him, “you are a Virginian, and Virginia ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular; you are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.”

“Well,” said Jefferson, “if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.”

Finally, on July 2, twelve colonies voted for independence. New York abstained until July 15.

On August 2, the engrossed parchment, 24½ by 29¾ inches, was ready to be signed. William Ellery of Rhode Island moved closer to the signing table because he said he wanted to see how they all looked as they signed what might be their death warrants. He saw undaunted resolution on every countenance.

“Gentlemen,” John Hancock of Massachusetts addressed them, “we must be unanimous. There must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together.”

“Yes,” quipped Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, “we must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

As President of the Congress, Hancock took up the quill first and, centered beneath the last line, the one that read, “And, for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” he scrolled his name in large, bold letters. “There!” he announced. “His Majesty can now read my name without spectacles, and can now double his reward of 500 pounds for my head. That is my defiance.” Then beginning with the northernmost colony, he called for the delegates. “Josiah Bartlett, will you sign?”

Thus, Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire became the first to step forward and commit his name (his life?).

Having done so, Dr. Bartlett handed the quill to William Whipple and stepped aside to the watch the rest of the signers, moving to stand by Harrison and the Lee brothers. Despite Franklin’s wit, the mood was somber.

Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire.

Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.

Gerry joined their little group. The large Harrison, not one to resist so great an opportunity, began teasing the slender man about all the ways they might dance on air if the British strung them up. “I’ll die quickly,” he assured Gerry, “but you’ll be kicking for half an hour.”

Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island at least had the excuse of palsy. “My hand trembles,” he said, handing the quill to William Ellery, “but my heart does not.”

Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, and Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut. William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, and Lewis Morris of New York.

Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, and Abraham Clark of New Jersey.

Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, and George Ross of Pennsylvania.

Caesar Rodney, George Read, and Thomas McKean of Delaware.

Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone.

“Charles Carroll,” Hancock called. Carroll was the new delegate from Maryland.

“He stands to lose,” Bartlett whispered to Harrison. “He’s one of the richest men in the colonies.”

“Will you sign?” Hancock asked him.

“Most willingly,” he replied. Then, lest King George have any doubts who he was or where to find him, he signed himself as Charles Carroll, of Carrollton.

“There go a few millions,” someone whispered.

Virginia was called. George Wythe was not present. As Richard Henry Lee bent his hand to the parchment, he left a space so that the law professor’s signature would appear first among Virginians when he signed later.

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Carter Braxton. Virginians, of Virginia.

William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn of North Carolina.

Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton of South Carolina.

Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton of Georgia.

Walton replaced the quill in the ink well. The whole thing had taken only a few minutes.

“We have six months,” Hancock reminded them, “before the signatures become public. Do what you can to secure your families, and yourselves. There will be reprisals, gentlemen.”

“What will become of our sons?” Harrison asked softly. No one knew the answer to that, so no one spoke for a moment.

“It will fall to our sons,” Dr. Bartlett said finally, “to continue what we have begun here today, to lead this new nation in the way it should go.”

“Gentlemen,” Benjamin Harrison proposed, “may our sons ever uphold the ideals of virtue, liberty, and freedom.”

“I second that motion,” confirmed John Adams, and all voiced their agreement.

Thus ever to tyrants.


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