We all have our little addictions – well, they told me that in the ’60s, anyway – and one of mine is the musical 1776. Aside from successfully executing one of those “can-you-top-this-implausible-idea?” challenges that galvanize the theater (like, say, making a watchable opera about Nixon in China), this all-singing, all-dancing, all-bewigged piece is slavishly true to the facts and personalities of the varied characters who fell together in Philadelphia with only the vaguest of goals in mind, and managed despite wildly diverse shortcomings and prejudices somehow to create a new regent-less country. And, hey, our ubiquitous Johnnie Witherspoon is one of the good guys.
At one critical juncture (when things look darkest yadayadayada), Charles Thomson, the recording secretary of the Congress with no official standing, is idly asked which side he supports, the revolutionaries or the conservatives. Essentially saying “a pox on both your houses,” he chooses instead Gen. George Washington, whose forlorn dispatches from the war front (“Is anybody there? Does anybody care?”) Thomson daily reads aloud.
In this perverse spirit, and looking at the current polarizing presidential campaign, I have decided with much soul-searching to cast my lot instead back with the very same 18th century; in this case, with the 1787 Tiger Nine. Although Moe Berg ’23 intriguingly thought baseball was established at Princeton by then, this is not a World Series team – it’s the nine alums who gathered at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Not only did they outnumber those of any other college (five each from Yale and William & Mary), they tellingly represented six different states, reflecting Princeton’s unique reach in attracting students. These distinguished, creative, and involved guys made ubiquitous Johnnie W. proud back at the College, and set in motion the most insightful, incisive political force of our age. Although I seriously doubt any of them ever shot either a moose or hoops with Coach Craig Robinson ’83, I think they have more to offer the current American political landscape than the combined attendance at the two party conventions in August. Or maybe even more than Ralph Nader ’55 having coffee with George Will *68.
Attracted to Princeton for various reasons in its earliest days, most of the Tiger Nine had parents who blissfully imagined their little binkums as respectable Presbyterian ministers like Johnnie W. and his Princeton predecessors like Jonathan Edwards and Aaron Burr Sr. [Not to be confused with Burr Jr. 1772; now, he probably shot a moose…]. Instead, they ended up cast by the Revolution into first, unlikely independence, and then the conundrum of what a country ought to be if you could start your own from scratch.
In order of seniority, the 1787 Tiger Nine included:
- Alexander Martin 1756, a regimental commander in the Revolution, then a North Carolina state senator and governor.
- William Paterson 1763, a Princeton townie, the first New Jersey attorney general.
- Oliver Ellsworth 1766, who served on the Connecticut Superior Court and the national Committee of Appeals.
- Luther Martin 1766 (valedictorian of his class), the Maryland attorney general (do we sense a theme developing here?).
- William Houston 1768, a Princeton professor and Revolutionary company commander, then member of the Continental Congress from New Jersey.
- Gunning Bedford Jr. 1771 (another valedictorian), the Delaware attorney general (reprise theme music).
- James Madison 1771 (and Princeton’s first grad student, under Witherspoon), who helped draft the Virginia constitution and was a member of the Continental Congress.
- William Davie 1776, wounded as a 23-year-old cavalry brigade commander in the Revolution, a member of the North Carolina House of Commons.
- Jonathan Dayton 1776, who became an infantry captain at 19 and who served in the Continental Congress from New Jersey, the youngest member of the convention at 26.
Even representing 16 percent of the delegates, this group covered a remarkable range of constitutional thought. Madison was one of the prime movers behind the Virginia plan, which would have left the populous states dominant. Paterson quarterbacked the New Jersey Plan of the small states, a unicameral one-state, one-vote approach. Ellsworth co-authored the crucial Connecticut Compromise, which divided the House of Representatives based on population from the Senate with two votes per state. It was this version that carried the day under the charismatic presiding of Washington and the fastidious recordkeeping of Madison – his notes are far better than the putative minutes – who worked all sides as if possessed in order to get a revised agreement and see the new, stronger United States on its way. His influence is reflected in his de facto recognition as Father of the Constitution.
Not satisfied with that, Madison went on to get the Bill of Rights attached, wrote The Federalist in support of the Constitution with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, was elected to the House, acquired Louisiana as secretary of state under Jefferson, then became president in his own right. The others of the nine also went on impressively: Ellsworth became Princeton’s only U.S. chief justice, serving on the Supreme Court with Paterson, who previously had been governor of New Jersey. Alexander Martin became governor again, then joined the U.S. Senate from North Carolina. Davie succeeded him as governor and was the official “Father of the University of North Carolina.” Dayton served as speaker of the U.S. House, then senator from New Jersey. Bedford shepherded Delaware into being the first state to ratify the Constitution, then became the first president of Wilmington College. Luther Martin remained Maryland attorney general for 28 years, and successfully defended Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in the landmark 1805 impeachment trial that reaffirmed U.S. judicial independence. Only Houston, the battlin’ professor, was missing; he died of tuberculosis in 1788.
And in a Nassau-flavored coda to the founding of the new nation, Dayton was arrested as part of Burr Jr.’s trumped-up treason “conspiracy” in the West, but never was tried. Burr then was defended successfully in 1807 by Luther Martin, as Chase had been.
Madison was, fittingly, the last of them – and the last signer of the Constitution – to die, in 1836.
In 1776, the song “Egg” presages this dynamic new country, and declares that “the Eagle inside [the egg that England laid] belongs to us.” This is tellingly not an ensemble number, but a trio among John Adams, Ben Franklin, and Tom Jefferson. And they are clearly not referring to the Congress, but to themselves. It’s a precise portrait of the very personal nature of this greatest of revolutions and its succeeding Constitution, and it’s shown just as clearly in the multifarious Tiger Nine (consider “The Father of” this and “The Father of” that etc. etc.), certainly the political equals of many entire governments, past or current. Perhaps we might even forgive them the Electoral College idea. Anyhow, paying closer attention to the spirit and letter of their handiwork probably would stand us in good stead about now; maybe we should make a musical out of it.