Tag Archives: Founding Fathers

Podcasting John Jay

When you’re at your Fourth of July barbecue tomorrow, and the topic of the Founding Fathers comes up, you’ll need something to say, right?

Well, I have just the ticket for you: an entire podcast on John Jay, religion, and politics.

I recently had the chance to record a podcast with Tony Gill, the Creative Genius™ behind the “Research on Religion” podcast. Tony is ensconced at the University of Washington, but the podcast is associated with the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. Over the past three years, Tony has hosted scholars working on all sorts of interesting projects. I highly recommend you subscribe to the free podcast in iTunes.

In honor of the Fourth, Tony had me on to talk about John Jay. The direct link is here. Listen and enjoy. And afterwards, be sure to tell somebody at that barbecue what you’ve learned about John Jay.

And, since we’re approaching the Fourth, I’ll close with some important thoughts from Jay that I used in the podcast:

“Providence has been pleased to bless the people of this country with more perfect opportunities of choosing and more effectual means of establishing their own government, than any other nation has hitherto enjoyed. [Hence] for the use we may make of these opportunities and these means, we shall be highly responsible to that Providence, as well as to mankind in general, and to our own posterity in particular.”

-John Jay, The Charge of Chief Justice Jay to the Grand Juries of the Eastern Circuit (1790).

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Historical Praise, Historical Put-Down

Kaminksy Cover ImageI was browsing earlier this week in the very fun collection The Founders on the Founders, edited by John Kaminski. If you ever wanted to know what various founding fathers said about themselves or the other founders, this is the place to look.

I was checking to see what other people had to see about John Jay, and I appreciated that many people had good things to say. Most impressively, John Adams really appreciated Jay. When they were negotiating the Treaty of Paris with England to end the Revolutionary War, Jay and Adams shared a common vision, strategy, and effort. John wrote to Abigail:

Mr. Jay has been my only Consolation. In him I have found a Friend to his Country, without Alloy. I shall never forget him, nor cease to love him, while I live. (April 16, 1783)

Several months later, again to Abigail, Adams wrote:

Mr. Jay has been my Comforter. We have compared Notes, and they agree. I love him so well that I know not what I should do in Europe without him. …He is a virtuous and religious Man. He has a Conscience, and has been persecuted, accordingly, as all conscientious Men are. (September 4, 1783)

Not everyone was impressed. Many European diplomats thought they could get to him through flattery and gifts. (Of course, they invariably failed.)

Most insulting, though, came from someone Jay had worked with on the Federalist Papers, James Madison. After party divisions had separated them for many years, an elderly Madison complained to Jared Sparks:

[Jay] “had two strong traits of character, suspicion and religious bigotry.” (April 1830)

In the early republic, that was a pretty serious insult–perhaps especially since Jay had passed away the previous year.

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Celebrating Ben Franklin’s Birthday

Last Friday I had an unusual experience–the chance to celebrate Ben Franklin’s birthday in Philadelphia.

Franklin was born in January 1706 in Boston, but of course he’s most associated with Philadelphia. Every year, the city celebrates Franklin’s life.

This year I was able to attend due to the generosity of Paul Kerry and his affiliated research center. It was quite an experience.

The day’s theme was built around the idea of Franklin as a diplomat.

The morning began with two lectures on Franklin’s diplomacy, held at the American Philosophical Society, which Franklin had helped found. Bruce Kuklick of the University of Pennsylvania suggested that Franklin’s diplomacy blended two streams: idealistic, republican values of openness and diplomacy as serving the entire nation on one-hand and a soft realism that looked to national self-interest. Kuklick suggested that the nation stumbled in the twentieth century when idealistic aims in diplomacy overshadowed and blinded the country to realistic interests. Kuklick handled the past-to-present connections with a pretty deft touch, I thought.

The other lecture was delivered by a scholar of contemporary foreign relations, Edward Turzanski, who drew a few small principles from Franklin’s life before launching into a much more concerted focus on present global realities.

My first observation was that, strangely, the other two significant diplomats from the Revolutionary War–John Adams and John Jay–didn’t get much recognition.

My second was that it’s very difficult to move from historical reflection to contemporary application. Most of the questions from the non-scholarly audience seemed to center around “What would Ben Franklin have thought about this or that contemporary event?” For many, Franklin seemed disconnected from his historical time and place and could offer support for whatever the questioner happened to like in the present.

After the seminar, participants were invited to a procession from the Society to lay a wreath on Franklin’s grave. As an historian, I’ve often read of parades in the streets of Philadelphia–I can now claim to have marched in one. (I was hoping for a session of 13 toasts, which could be reproduced in the newspaper, but was disappointed.) At the grave, we were also introduced to the Franklin reenactor, who would also feature in the rest of the program.

After the procession, we were able to attend a luncheon. The Franklin Society invited former ambassador Jon Huntsman to deliver a key-note address. The talk was rather forgettable, since it still carried traces of all of Huntsman’s stock lines from his recent presidential campaign.

Still, it was an enjoyable day since I got to interact with several scholars and was also able to see Paul Kerry’s recent collection of essays Benjamin Franklin’s Intellectual World. This volume contains essays by Michael Zuckerman, Carla Mulford, Simon Newman, and Lorraine Pangle, among others. It looks to be a great reflection on intellectual currents in the founding era.

Further, it pushed me to think more about connections of past and present and how to communicate this to people who might want to brandish Franklin or any of the other founders as a talisman for a preferred policy.

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