Posts Tagged ‘United States Constitution’

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On today’s bike ride I stopped by to see the United States Constitution at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Building. I chose to do so because it was on this day in 1789 that an American government under the Constitution initially began when the first session of Congress was held in New York City.

It was three years earlier, in 1786, that shortcomings in the Articles of Confederation became apparent, such as the lack of central authority over foreign and domestic commerce and the inability of Congress to levy taxes. This led Congress to endorse a plan to draft a new governing document.  In September of the following year, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the new U.S. Constitution was approved by 38 of 41 delegates to the convention, creating a Federal government with an intricate system of checks and balances.

However, the new document would not become binding until it was ratified by nine of the 13 existing states. So it was sent to the state legislatures for ratification.  Five states – Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut – quickly ratified it. However, other states opposed the document for its failure to reserve powers not delegated by the Constitution to the states and its lack of constitutional protection for such basic political rights as freedom of speech, religion and the press, and the right to bear arms.

The following February, a compromise was reached in which the other states agreed to ratify the document with the assurance that amendments would immediately be adopted. The Constitution was thus narrowly ratified by Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire, giving it the number needed for adoption, and government under the U.S. Constitution was scheduled to begin on March 4, 1789.

However,  for that first session of congress, of the 22 senators and 59 representatives called to represent the 11 states who had ratified the Constitution, only nine senators and 13 representatives showed up.   So I guess the today’s work ethic in Congress is really nothing new.

(Note:  They wouldn’t let me bring my bike into the National Archives to take a photo next to the Constitution.  In fact, they don’t allow any photography at all, which is why the photo I quickly took when no one was looking is not very good.)

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The George Mason Memorial

On this lunchtime bike ride I visited the national memorial to a man who George Washington regarded as his mentor, and who was described by Thomas Jefferson as “the wisest man of his generation.” The memorial honors George Mason, and is located at 900 Ohio Drive (MAP), near the Tidal Basin and The Jefferson Memorial, in southwest D.C.’s West Potomac Park.

George Mason, one of our nation’s Founding Fathers, devoted himself to achieving American independence, despite being a widower with nine children to raise.  He was the author of the Fairfax Resolves that recommended a “continental congress” to preserve colonial rights.  And in 1776, as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Mason wrote the Virginia Constitution and the landmark Virginia Declaration of Rights, the seminal document that not only influenced Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, but also France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the United Nations’ 1954 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Although Mason was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, and took an active role in drafting the United States Constitution, he refused to sign it or participate in its signing ceremony, which occurred on this day, September 17th, in 1787.  The decision not to sign the Constitution would cost him his friendship with George Washington.  He objected with the final draft of the Constitution because, as an Anti-Federalist, he thought that the document did not contain provisions to sufficiently guarantee individual human rights and protect citizens from the power of the Federal government.  He also refused to sign the Constitution because it failed to ban the importation of slaves, an institution which he considered morally objectionable, despite the fact that he was one of the largest slaveholders in the area, possibly second only to George Washington.  In fact, he not only refused to sign the Constitution, but along with Patrick Henry he actively led a fight against its ratification.  For this he would come to be known as “the reluctant statesman.”  Four years later, after the subsequent adoption of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, Mason stated that he could finally devote his “heart to the new Government.”

The George Mason Memorial features a 72-foot long stone wall with a larger than life-sized bronze statue of Mason staring off into the distance.  He is depicted sitting with his legs crossed, holding a book, with his walking stick and hat on the bench to his right and a stack of books to his left.  The statue is situated under a trellis, in a landscaped grove of trees and flower beds set among concentric circles around a circular pool with a fountain. The memorial was designed by sculptor Wendy M. Ross and landscape architect Faye B. Harwell.

Because there were no reliable images of Mason for her to accurately render her statue of him, Ross’s depiction is based on descriptions from Mason’s family and friends, a meeting with Mason’s living relatives, and a single posthumous painting of Mason which is located at Gunston Hall, Mason’s Georgian-style mansion near the Potomac River just 24 miles south of the memorial in nearby Mason Neck, Virginia.

Harwell designed the memorial’s landscaping features to adapt to the site’s history as a formal garden, as well as Mason’s love of gardens.  The site had originally been a Victorian garden in the late 19th century, which was subsequently designated in 1902 as one of the four national gardens established by The McMillan Plan, a comprehensive planning document for the development of the national capital city’s monumental core and the park system.  In 1929, the site was redesigned as The Pansy Garden.  This garden and its accompanying fountain which was used by Harwell in the design of the memorial.

The George Mason Memorial was authorized by Congress in August of 1990, with groundbreaking just over a decade later in October of 2000. It was completed and dedicated in April of 2002, and is managed by the National Park Service.  It is the first memorial in the Tidal Basin area dedicated to an individual who did not serve as president, and among the last to be sited on the grounds of the National Mall.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

Statue of Doctor John Witherspoon

Statue of Doctor John Witherspoon

On today’s anniversary of his death in 1794, I chose the Statue of Doctor John Witherspoon at the intersections of Connecticut Avenue, N Street and 18th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s DuPont Circle neighborhood as the destination for this bike ride. The bronze sculpture by William Couper is part of a group of fourteen statues in D.C. known collectively as the “American Revolution Statuary.” They are listed together as a group on the National Register of Historic Places, and are scattered across the city, mainly in squares and traffic circles.

John Knox Witherspoon was born in February of 1723 at Gifford, a parish of Yester, at East Lothian, Scotland. He was a Scots Presbyterian minister before he and his family emigrated to New Jersey in 1768 in order to become President and head professor of the small Presbyterian College of New Jersey, which would eventually become Princeton University.

As a native Scotsman who was long wary of the power British Crown, Witherspoon came to support the Revolution in his new country. He was then elected in June of 1776 to the Continental Congress as part of the New Jersey delegation, and appointed Congressional Chaplain. He voted to adopt the Virginia Resolution for Independence, which was finally approved on July 2, 1776. The text of the document formally announcing this action, the United States Declaration of Independence, was approved two days later, to which Witherspoon was a signatory, and the only college president to sign it.

Witherspoon went on to serve in Congress until November 1782, and became one of its most influential members. He served on over 100 committees, spoke often in debate; helped draft the Articles of Confederation, and played a major role in shaping foreign policy. He also helped organize the Federal government’s executive departments.  He later served twice in the New Jersey Legislature, and strongly supported the adoption of the United States Constitution during the New Jersey ratification debates.

Actress Reese Witherspoon has claimed to be a direct descendant of John Witherspoon. However, it has been noted by the Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence that her claim has yet to be verified.