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Hero Stories

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Old Ironsides
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Hobson And The Sinking Of The Merrimac

Benedict Arnold The Soldier-sailor
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The Young Decatur And His Brilliant Deeds At Tripoli

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How Paul Jones Won Renown

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The Monitor And The Merrimac

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The Crisis

Exactly eight years from the day when

"the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world,"

the Continental Congress informed General Washington that the war was
over. In September, 1783, the formal treaty of peace was signed; a
month later, the Continental army was disbanded; and three weeks
later, the British army sailed from New York.

What a pathetic and impressive scene took place at a little tavern,
in lower New York, when Washington said good-by to his generals! With
hearts too full for words, and with eyes dimmed with tears, these
veterans embraced their chief and bade him farewell.

A few days before Christmas, Washington gave up the command of the
army, and hurried away to spend the holidays at Mount Vernon.

"The times that tried men's souls are over," wrote the author of
"Common Sense," a man whose writings voiced the opinions of the

Freedom was indeed won, but the country was in a sad plight.

{139} "It is not too much to say," says John Fiske, "that the period
of five years following the peace of 1783 was the most critical
moment in all the history of the American people."

Thirteen little republics, fringing the Atlantic, were hemmed in on
the north, the south, and the west, by two hostile European nations
that were capable of much mischief.

In 1774, under the pressure of a common peril and the need of quick
action, the colonies had banded together for the common good. By a
kind of general consent their representatives in the Continental
Congress had assumed the task of carrying on the war. But for nine
years Congress had steadily declined in power, and now that peace had
come and the need of united action was removed, there was danger that
this shadowy union would dissolve. Believing strongly in their own
state governments, the people had almost no feeling in favor of

{140} Just before the disbanding of the army and his retirement to
private life, Washington wrote a letter to the governor of each
colony. This letter, he said, was his "legacy" to the American

He urged the necessity of forming a more perfect union, under a
single government. He declared that the war debt must be paid to the
last penny; that the people must be willing to sacrifice some of
their local interests for the common good; and that they must regard
one another as fellow citizens of a common country.

We must not make the mistake of thinking that the Continental
Congress was like our present national Congress.

When the struggle between the colonies and the mother country
threatened war, the colonies through their assemblies, or special
conventions, chose delegates to represent them in Philadelphia. These
delegates composed the first Continental Congress. It met on
September 5, 1774, and broke up during the last week of the following

Three weeks after Lexington, a second Congress met in the same city.
This was the Congress that appointed Washington commander in chief,
and issued the immortal Declaration of Independence.

In the strict sense of the word, this body had no legal authority. It
was really a meeting of delegates from the several colonies, to
advise and consult with each other concerning the public welfare.

{141} There was war in the land. Something must be done to meet the
crisis. The Continental Congress, therefore, acted in the name of the
"United Colonies."

Many of the ablest and most patriotic men of the country were sent as
delegates to this Congress; and until the crowning victory at
Yorktown, although without clearly defined powers, it continued to
act, by common consent, as if it had the highest authority. It made
an alliance with France; it built a navy; it granted permits to
privateers; it raised and organized an army; it borrowed large sums
of money, and issued paper bills.

A few days after the Declaration of Independence was signed, a form
of government, called the "Articles of Confederation," was brought
before Congress; but it was not adopted until several weeks after the
surrender of Burgoyne, in 1777.

The "Articles" were not finally ratified by the states until the
spring of 1781.

The constitution thus adopted was a league of friendship between the
states. It was bad from beginning to end; for it dealt with the
thirteen states as thirteen units, and not with the people of the
several states. It never secured a hold upon the people of the
country, and for very good reasons.

Each state, whether large or small, had only one vote. A single
delegate from Delaware or from Rhode Island could balance the whole
delegation from New York or from Virginia.

{142} Congress had no power to enforce any law whatever. It could
recommend all manner of things to the states, but it could do nothing
more. It could not even protect itself.

Hence, the states violated the "Articles" whenever they pleased. Thus
Congress might call for troops, but the states could refuse to obey.
Without the consent of every state, not a dollar could be raised by

At one time, twelve states voted to allow Congress to raise money to
pay the soldiers; but little Rhode Island flatly refused, and the
plan failed. The next year Rhode Island consented, but New York

Although Congress had authority to coin money, to issue bills of
credit, and to make its notes legal tender for debts, each one of the
thirteen states had the same authority.

Money affairs got into a wretched condition. Paper money became
almost worthless. The year after Saratoga, a paper dollar was worth
only sixteen cents, and early in 1780 its value had fallen to two

A trader in Philadelphia papered his shop with dollar bills, to show
what he thought of the flimsy stuff. In the year of Cornwallis's
surrender, a bushel of corn sold for one hundred and fifty dollars;
and Samuel Adams, the Boston patriot, had to pay two thousand dollars
for a hat and a suit of clothes.

A private soldier had to serve four months before his pay would buy a
bushel of wheat. When he could {143} not collect this beggarly sum,
is it any wonder that he deserted or rebelled?

At one time, being unable to get money for the army, Congress asked
the states to contribute supplies of corn, pork, and hay.

To add to the general misery, the states began to quarrel with one
another, like a lot of schoolboys. They almost came to bloodshed over
boundary lines, and levied the most absurd taxes and duties.

If a Connecticut farmer brought a load of firewood into New York, he
had to pay a heavy duty. Sloops that sailed through Hell Gate, and
Jersey market boats that crossed to Manhattan Island, were treated as
if from foreign ports. Entrance fees had to be paid, and clearance
papers must be got at the custom house.

The country was indeed in a bad condition. There were riots,
bankruptcy, endless wranglings, foreclosed mortgages, and
imprisonment for debt.

The gallant Colonel Barton, who captured General Prescott, was kept
locked up because he could not pay a small sum of money. Robert
Morris, once a wealthy merchant, was sent to jail for debt, although
he had given his whole fortune to the patriot cause.

Thoughtful and patriotic men and women throughout the country felt
that something must be done.

Washington and other far-sighted men of Virginia began to work out
the problem. First it was proposed that delegates from two or three
states should meet at {144} Annapolis, to discuss the question of
trade. Finally all the states were invited to send delegates.

At this meeting, only twelve delegates, from five states, were
present. Alexander Hamilton wrote an eloquent address, which it was
voted to send to the state assemblies, strongly recommending that
delegates should be appointed to meet at Philadelphia on the second
day of May, 1787.

This plan, however, Congress promptly rejected.

During the winter of 1786, the times were perhaps even harder, and
the country nearer to the brink of civil war and ruin. There were
riots in New Hampshire and in Vermont and Shays's Rebellion in the
old Bay State. There were also the threatened separation of the
Northern and Southern states, the worthless paper money, wildcat
speculation, the failure to carry out certain provisions of the
treaty of peace, and many troubles of less importance.

As we may well suppose, all this discord made King George and his
court happy. He declared that the several states would soon repent,
and beg on bended knees to be taken back into the British empire.

{145} When it was predicted in Parliament that we should become a
great nation, a British statesman, who bore us no ill will, said, "It
is one of the idlest and most visionary notions that was ever
conceived even by a writer of romance."

Frederick the Great was friendly to us, but he declared that nobody
but a king could ever rule so large a country.

All these unhappy events produced a great change in public opinion.
People were convinced that anarchy might be worse than the union of
these thirteen little commonwealths, under a strong, central

At this great crisis in affairs, Virginia boldly took the lead, and
promptly sent seven of her ablest citizens, one of whom was
Washington, to the Philadelphia convention. This was a masterly
stroke of policy. People everywhere applauded, and the tide of
popular sentiment soon favored the convention. At last Congress
yielded to the voice of the people and approved the plan. Every state
except Rhode Island sent delegates.

It was a notable group of Americans that met in one of the upper
rooms of old Independence Hall, the last {146} week of May, 1787.
There were fifty-five delegates in all, some of whom, however, did
not arrive for several weeks after the convention began its meetings.

Eight of the delegates had signed the Declaration of Independence, in
the same room; twenty-eight had been members of the Continental
Congress, and seven had been governors of states. Two afterwards
became presidents of the United States, and many others in after
years filled high places in the national government.

Head and shoulders above all others towered George Washington. The
man most widely known, except Washington, was Benjamin Franklin,
eighty-one years old; the youngest delegate was Mr. Dayton of New
Jersey, who was only twenty-six.

Here also were two of the ablest statesmen of their time, Alexander
Hamilton of New York, and James Madison of Virginia.

Connecticut sent two of her great men, Oliver Ellsworth, afterwards
chief justice of the United States, and Roger Sherman, the learned

Near Robert Morris, the great financier, sat his namesake, Gouverneur
Morris, who originated our decimal system of money, and James Wilson,
one of the most learned lawyers of his day.

The two brilliant Pinckneys and John Rutledge, the silver-tongued
orator, were there to represent South Carolina.

{147} Then there were Elbridge Gerry and Rufus King of Massachusetts,
John Langdon of New Hampshire, John Dickinson of Delaware, and the
great orator, Edmund Randolph of Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would no doubt have been delegates,
had they not been abroad in the service of their country. Patrick
Henry and Samuel Adams remained at home; for they did not approve of
the convention.

How Rhode Island must have missed her most eminent citizen, Nathanael
Greene, who had just died of sunstroke, in the prime of manhood!

Washington was elected president of the convention. The doors were
locked, and, every member being pledged to secrecy, they settled down
to work.

Just what was said and done during those four months was for more
than fifty years kept a profound secret. After the death of James
Madison, often called the {148} "Father of the Constitution," his
journal was published, giving a complete account of the proceedings.

When the delegates began their work, they soon realized what a
problem it was to frame a government for the whole country. As might
have been expected, some of these men had a fit of moral cowardice.
They began to cut and to trim, and tried to avoid any measure of
thorough reform.

Washington was equal to the occasion. He was not a brilliant orator,
and his speech was very brief; but the solemn words of this majestic
man, as his tall figure drawn up to its full height rose from the
president's chair, carried conviction to every delegate.

"If, to please the people," he said, "we offer what we ourselves
disapprove, how can we afterward defend our work? Let us raise a
standard to which the wise and the honest can repair; the event is in
the hand of God."

The details of what this convention did would be dull reading; but
some day we shall want to study in our school work the noble
Constitution which these men framed.

The gist of the whole matter is that our Federal Constitution is
based upon three great compromises.

The first compromise was between the small and the large states. In
the upper house, or Senate, equal representation was conceded to all
the states, but in the lower house of Congress, representation was
arranged according to the population.

{149} Thus, as you know, little Rhode Island and Delaware have each
two senators, while the great commonwealths of New York and Ohio have
no more. In the House of Representatives, on the other hand, New York
has forty-three representatives, and Ohio has twenty-two, while Rhode
Island has three, and Delaware only one.

The second compromise was between the free and the slave states.

Were the slaves to be counted as persons or as goods?

South Carolina and Georgia maintained that they were persons; the
Northern states said they were merely property.

Now indeed there was a clashing over local interest; but it was
decided that in counting the population, whether for taxation, or for
representation in the lower house, a slave should be considered as
three fifths of an individual. And so it stood until the outbreak of
the Civil War.

It was a bitter pill for far-sighted men like Washington, Madison,
and others, who did not believe in slavery. Without this compromise,
however, they believed that nine slave states would never adopt the
Constitution, and doubtless they were right.

The slave question was the real bone of contention that resulted in
the third compromise. The majority of the delegates, especially those
from Virginia, were not in favor of slavery.

{150} "This infernal traffic that brings the judgment of Heaven on a
country!" said George Mason of Virginia.

At first, it was proposed to abolish foreign slave trade. South
Carolina and Georgia sturdily protested.

"Are we wanted in the Union?" they said.

They declared that it was not a question of morality or of religion,
but purely a matter of business.

Rhode Island had refused to send delegates; and those from New York
had gone home in anger. The discussions were bitter, and the
situation became dangerous.

While the convention "was scarcely held together by the strength of a
hair," the question came up for discussion, whether Congress or the
individual states should have control over commerce.

The New England states, with their wealth of shipping, said that by
all means Congress should have the control, and should make a uniform
tariff in all the states. This, it was believed, would put an end to
all the wranglings and the unjust acts which were so ruinous to

The extreme Southern states that had no shipping said it would never
do; for New England, by controlling the carrying trade, would extort
ruinous prices for shipping tobacco and rice.

When the outlook seemed darkest, two of the Connecticut delegates
suggested a compromise.

"Yes," said Franklin, "when a carpenter wishes to fit two boards, he
sometimes pares off a bit from each."

{151} It was finally decided that there should be free trade between
the states, and that Congress should control commerce.

To complete the "bargain," nothing was to be done about the African
slave trade for twenty years. Slavery had been slowly dying out both
in the North and in the South, for nearly fifty years. The wisest men
of 1787 believed that it would speedily die a natural death and give
way to a better system of labor.

It was upon these three great foundation stones, or compromises, that
our Constitution was built. The rest of the work, while very
important, was not difficult or dangerous. The question of choosing a
president, and a hundred other less important matters were at last

{152} The scorching summer of 1787 was well-nigh spent before the
great document was finished. The convention broke up on September 17.
Few of its members were satisfied with their work. None supposed it

Tradition says that Washington, who was the first to sign, standing
by the table, held up his pen and said solemnly, "Should the states
reject this excellent Constitution, they probably will never sign
another in peace. The next will be drawn in blood."

Of the delegates who were present on the last day of the convention,
all but three signed the Constitution.

It is said that when the last man had signed, many of the delegates
seemed awe-struck at what they had done. Washington himself sat with
head bowed in deep thought.

Thirty-three years before this, and before some of the delegates then
present were born, Franklin had done his best to bring the colonies
into a federal union. He was sixty years of age when, in this very
room, he put his name to the Declaration of Independence. Now, as the
genial old man saw the noble aim of his life accomplished, he
indulged in one of his homely bits of pleasantry.

There was a rude painting of a half sun, gorgeous with its yellow
rays, on the back of the president's black armchair. When Washington
solemnly rose, as the meeting was breaking up, Franklin pointed to
the chair and said, "As I have been sitting here all these weeks, I
have often wondered whether that sun behind our president is rising
or setting. Now I do know that it is a rising sun."

The Constitution was sent to the Continental Congress, who submitted
it to the people of the several states for their approval. It was
agreed that when it was adopted by nine states, it should become the
supreme law of the land.

Now for the first time there was a real national issue. The people
arranged themselves into two great political parties, the
Federalists, who believed in a strong government and the new
Constitution, and the Anti-Federalists, who were opposed to a
stronger union between the states.

And now what keen discussions, bitter quarrels, and scurrilous and
abusive newspaper articles! A bloodless war of squibs, broadsides,
pamphlets, and frenzied oratory was waged everywhere.

Hamilton and Madison were "mere boys" and "visionary young men";
Franklin was an "old dotard" and "in his second childhood"; and as

for Washington, "What did he know about politics?"

{154} The Constitution was called "a triple-headed monster." Many
able men sincerely believed it to be "as deep and wicked a conspiracy
as ever was invented in the darkest ages against the liberties of the

How eloquently did such men as Hamilton, Madison, Randolph, Jay,
"Light-Horse Harry" Lee, John Marshall, Fisher Ames, and a score of
other "makers of our country" defend the "New Roof," as the people
were then fond of calling the Federal Constitution!

A series of short essays written by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, and
published under the name of "The Federalist," were widely read.
Although written at a white heat, their grave and lofty eloquence and
their stern patriotism carried conviction to the hearts of the

"The Delaware State," as it was called, was the first to adopt the
Constitution. It was not until the next June that Massachusetts and
Virginia ratified it, as the sixth and tenth states. New York next
fell into line in July.

The victory was won! The "New Roof" was up and finished, supported by
eleven stout pillars!

On the glorious "Fourth" in 1788, there was great rejoicing
throughout the land. Bonfires, stump speeches, fireworks,
processions, music, gorgeous banners, and barbecues of oxen expressed
the joy of the people over the establishment of a federal government.

"Hurrah for the United States of America!" shouted every patriot.

{155} "The good ship Constitution" was at last fairly launched.

The wheels of the new government began to turn slowly and with much
friction. It was not until the first week of April, 1789, that the
House of Representatives and the Senate met and counted the electoral
votes for a President of the newly born nation. There were sixty-nine
votes in all, and of these every one was for George Washington. John
Adams was the second choice of the electoral college. He received
thirty-four votes, and was accordingly declared Vice President.

Thus was formed and adopted our just and wise Constitution, which,
except for a few amendments, has ever since been the supreme law of
the land. This document has been called by Gladstone "the greatest
work ever struck off at any time by the mind and purpose of man." To
it we owe our prosperity and our high place among nations.

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