Select Page

The New York-Packet and the Constitution

The New York-Packet and the Constitution

by William H. Benson

November 1, 2018

     Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian, published her newest book a month ago, These Truths: A History of the United States. In a short introduction, she describes in detail the October 30, 1787 edition of a semi-weekly newspaper, The New-York Packet.

     A reader then could have read: of “a schoolmaster who was offering lessons in reading, writing, arithmetic,” of an estate sale of “a large and General Assortment of Drugs and Medicines,” of a “Scotsman who offered reward for the return of his stolen chestnut-colored mare,” and of a merchant who was selling “dry codfish, molasses, ground ginger, rum, writing paper, and men’s shoes.”

     In addition, that same reader might have glanced at two additional advertisements. The first: “To be sold. A likely young Negro girl, 20 years of age; she is healthy and had the small pox; she has a young male child.” The second: a copy of “the Columbian Almanac, plus, as a bonus, something entirely new, the Constitution of the United States,” on “four pages of parchment.”

     A slave girl that could not expect pay for her hard labor for a white taskmaster, an almanac that predicted the tides and the phases of the moon, and a new Constitution that sought to ensure liberty. The New-York Packet‘s editor mixed the “atrocity of slavery” with the blessings of liberty. 

     Lepore also pointed out that if a reader flipped to page two of that same edition of the New-York Packet, she or he could have read Alexander Hamilton’s words in the first of The Federalist Papers.

     “[I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

     Ever since, Americans have had “to decide the important question.” Can the people of this country  govern themselves by “reflection and choice,” or only by “accident and force?” The brash thirty-year-old New York City lawyer named Alexander Hamilton believed that we could.

     Except for Rhode Island, fifty-five representatives from the states assembled in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787. George Washington and James Madison came from Virginia, Alexander Hamilton from New York. Their average age was forty-two, but the oldest by far was Benjamin Franklin, then eighty-one.

     Together they pledged themselves to secrecy, going so far as to nail the windows shut. Stuck inside that Convention hall throughout that hot summer, until September 17, the men sweated, argued, debated, lost their tempers, regained them, and compromised, until they hammered out a Constitution.   

     The 20th century historian John P. Roche described the Founding Fathers, “[T]hey were first and foremost superb democratic politicians.” Working in their state governments, they had learned the art of argument, of debate, and of agreeing upon a compromise that would more or less satisfy all.

     John Dickinson, a Pennsylvania representative to the Convention, said, “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.” In other words, pure philosophical reason constructed in an ivory tower may falter when tried in a world filled with power-hungry and greedy men and women.

      Of “experience,” the 20th century historian, Douglas G. Adair, said that, “no other word was used more often; time after time ‘experience’ was appealed to as the clinching argument for an opinion.”

     Jill Lepore describes three founding truths: “the idea of equality came out of a resolute rejection of the idea of inequality; a dedication to liberty emerged out of [the] bitter protest against slavery; and the right to self-government was fought for by sword and by pen.” Equality, liberty, and self-government.

     In August this year, the political columnist, George Will, quoted Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address of January 1861, when the new president called “the Declaration of Independence the ‘apple of gold’ that is ‘framed’ by something ‘silver,’ the Constitution. Silver is less precious than gold; frames serve what they frame.”

     With Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, plus the 55 representatives’ Constitution, and a Bill of Rights, we Americans, you and I, are a most fortunate and a most blessed people.

     Two interesting points. I met Jill Lepore in April of 2010, when I attended an awards banquet for the History Department at the University of Northern Colorado. She gave a riveting account of the close relationship between Benjamin Franklin and his house-bound sister, Jane Mecham. Also, Ms. Lepore points out in her book that the New-York Packet‘s printing shop was located a mere eight blocks from the World Trade Center.