Interview With A Founding Father

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His red judge’s robe looked faded and theatrical by daylight. People at the bus stop stared at him, and his face flushed near the color of the robe. But he busily ignored them.

“There were market sheds here, where we assembled.” Judge Wilson is trying to re-create the route of the Grand Procession that marched through Philadelphia on July 4, 1788, to celebrate the ratification of the Constitution by ten states. We have started, where the parade did, at South and Third streets. “At ten piers along the way we had ships representing each new state; they saluted us with their cannon.” He glanced absentmindedly back and forth across the street, trying to find a familiar building. “There’s St. Peter’s. It has not changed.”

I tell him there is a house farther on, on the left, that he must have visited: the Powel House. “Is that it? It looks smaller now that it does not stand alone.”

“And your house was just beyond, at Walnut?”

“Yes.”

But he tries to hurry me by the site, which now holds an apartment building done in the bunker-colonial style of Society Hill’s modern structures. I have to clutch his robe, to his obvious distress, and make him read the plaque. “This is one of the few places where your name is publicly displayed in Philadelphia. You are a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and you are buried in Christ Church yard; but the placard in front of the cemetery mentions only the other five signers there, not you.”

George Washington sat there at the convention. That did everything. If he had gone, we all would have.

“You know very well why.” He eyes me with asperity. “I was buried first in North Carolina. It was not till1906, was it?—that my body was brought back to Christ Church.”

“You should remember the date. It is your body.”

“I cannot keep track of what you do with things in this terrible century. Look what you have done to the Republic we left you. If you knew what it cost, you would take better care of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Presidents resigning in disgrace...”

“Well, you died in disgrace, a Supreme Court Justice.”

“A matter of private debt. Nothing I could not have settled in time, if they had only given me time.”

“And you were an expert on finance, hired by the Bank of North America to explain the mystery of credit.”

“I explained very well. But that was theory. I had a hard time making theory fit with facts in my life. Don’t most people?”

“Then why be surprised that the Republic does not reflect your theory any more?”

“What disturbs me about the Republic is not the discrepancy between fact and theory but the lapse of theory altogether. Where is the ideal of the citizens in action?”

“That is why I wanted you to look at the plaque on this apartment building. It says that ‘Fort Wilson’—the place where citizens attacked your house for harboring loyalists in the Revolution—stood here.”

“That was a rabble—”

“It was a state militia—”

“—Out of the control of its own officers. That was the intimidation that went on under the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776—the one I changed at the state convention of 1790.”

“Did you think of this bloody battle at your house, of the six men killed there, when you marched past it nine years later in the Grand Procession?”

“No, there was no time for that. That procession was a miracle of timing and coordination. Every artisan company had its float or marching group. The whole town was put on wheels or on foot. Yet only one man marched as the embodiment of Pennsylvania; only one man gave a speech that day. I was the man.”

“Well, yes, Dr. Franklin was bedridden by then.”

“I gave Franklin’s speeches in the drafting convention. He had turned to me by then for his politics. He had completely forsworn the old state constitution.”

He was getting testy again. I reminded him that he was on loan for an interview today because there was so little demand for him. James Madison was signed up for every day of 1987 and for months afterward. George Washington was not granting interviews. Franklin, talking all day long, was booked forever. “Even William Paterson was harder to talk with than you.”

“Yes,” he said bitterly, “though Madison and I—the two Jemmys, they called us—blocked Paterson and rammed the Constitution through. I was the one who gave Madison his defense against the charge that we were traitors.”

“Who were traitors?”