Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Most Overrated American (Part One)

Henry Ford, inventor of...well, perhaps not much!  (See below)

Jennifer and I are still in the process of trying to get settled into our new home.  We have finally reached the final stages, going through those last few boxes and determining whether or not to keep the stuff in them, and where to put the stuff we keep.  Today I was going through a box of keepsakes and found some of my mom (may her memory be eternal!)'s old stuff. 

One thing I found was a very interesting pamphlet called "The Most Overrated American."  It includes the results of a survey conducted at some time in the past, perhaps about 20 years ago.  Here's what the cover says about the survey:

"We asked journalists, politicians and historians to choose the single most overrated figure in American history.  The 'nominations' are rather surprising.  And some of them are enclosed."

The next couple of pages list a few of the unenviable "nominations."  Each nomination is followed by a blurb written by one of the persons who made the nomination.  As a life-long student of U. S. History, I found some of the nominations quite surprising.  Because of this, I thought I would reproduce the pamphlet in full.  I'll list the first three allegedly overrated Americans, and then next time, I'll list the other four.  Then, in the third part in this series, I'll reproduce the fourth page of the pamphlet, which is called "Some of the Most Underrated Americans."

But before I give the list, one disclaimer:  The opinions listed are not necessarily my own.  I'm just copying what it says in the pamphlet (and perhaps adding a few comments of my own). So, if you disagree with any of these, please feel free to say so, but don't get mad at me! 

Now, drum roll please... the first three people whom at least some scholars believe are overrated:

1.  Patrick Henry:  His "Liberty or Death" speech has him on a pedestal with the other Founding Fathers.  But how much did he really do?  He contributed practically nothing to the military side of the American Revolution.  And he contributed only mischief to the many American politicians to get a away with the gift of gab.  (Walter Lord)

2.  Thomas Jefferson:  Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence took on its much-admired spare elegance only after Congress had edited it heavily.  He was a disastrous Revolutionary Governor of Virginia.  And, a he had the grace to acknowledge, his Presidency was just as bad.  (Pauline Maier)  (This was a big surprise to me!  This is the first time I've ever heard Jefferson's presidency described as bad. - FJE)

3.  Henry Ford:  Despite popular misconceptions, he did not invent the automobile, the assembly line, vertical integration, or mass ownership of cars.  (Bernard Weisberger)

I'll list the "final four" overrated Americans (or at least the ones listed in this pamphlet) next time.


Clint said...

Wow, I have always admired Patrick Henry. To paraphrase Henry Ford, I think this listing is "bunk."

But that is just my opinion...

Fr. James Early said...

Walter Lord, the historian who wrote the blurb about Henry, certainly makes it sound as if a Founding Father "contributed practically nothing to the military side of the American Revolution," you are barely relevant at best. That criterion would render people like Thomas Paine and John Adams overrated as well. But his question stands; after he made his speech, "how much did he really do?" This may be my ignorance speaking, but I personally am not aware of anything. Perhaps someone could enlighten me.

Clint said...

He actually served in governmental roles for most of his life, serving as governor of VA on two occasions. He was an opponent of the federalists and did not want to replace the articles of confederation with the constitution.

Now, one's political persuasions may influence whether one agrees or not with Henry's positions, but he was pretty vocal and influential throughout his life.

I would daresay that many of the things he warned about have come to pass in the past couple of hundred years.

Clint said...

from Wikipedia, about Henry's later years:

After the Revolution, Henry again served as governor of Virginia from 1784 to 1786, but declined to attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787 saying that he "smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy." An ardent supporter of state rights, Henry was an outspoken critic of the United States Constitution and led the Virginia opposition to its ratification arguing that it gave the federal government too much power and that the untested office of the presidency could devolve into a monarchy. As a leading Antifederalist, he was instrumental in forcing the adoption of the Bill of Rights to amend the new Constitution and became a leading opponent of James Madison.

Henry served as a representative to the Virginia convention of 1788 that ratified the U. S. Constitution. He voted against ratification.[13] He was chosen as an elector for the 1789 election from Campbell District.[14] That District consisted of Bedford County, Campbell County, Charlotte County, Franklin County, Halifax County, Henry County, Pittsylvania County, and Prince Edward County, which cover the area between Danville and Lynchburg in the south of Virginia [15] All of the 10 electors who voted cast one of their two votes for George Washington. Five of them cast their other vote for John Adams. Three cast theirs for George Clinton. One cast his for John Hancock. One cast his for John Jay.[16] Clinton was a leading Antifederalist,[17][dubious – discuss] a view which he shared with Henry.
Boulder and plaque marking location of Henry's home in Henry County, Virginia

President George Washington offered Henry the post of Secretary of State in 1795, which he declined out of opposition to Washington's Federalist policies. However, following the radicalism of the French Revolution Henry's views changed as he began to fear a similar fate could befall America and by the late 1790s Henry was in support of the Federalist policies of Washington and Adams. He especially denounced the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which had been secretly written by Jefferson and Madison, and approved by the legislatures of those two states. He warned that civil war was threatened because Virginia, "had quitted the sphere in which she had been placed by the Constitution, and, in daring to pronounce upon the validity of federal laws, had gone out of her jurisdiction in a manner not warranted by any authority, and in the highest degree alarming to every considerate man; that such opposition, on the part of Virginia, to the acts of the general government, must beget their enforcement by military power; that this would probably produce civil war, civil war foreign alliances, and that foreign alliances must necessarily end in subjugation to the powers called in."[citation needed] In 1798 President John Adams nominated Henry special emissary to France, but he had to decline because of failing health. He strongly supported John Marshall and at the urging of Washington stood for and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates as a Federalist.[18] However, three months prior to taking his seat in the state legislature, he died of stomach cancer on June 6, 1799, while at Red Hill, his family's large plantation.

That sounds like a pretty involved and busy fellow.

Fr. James Early said...

Touche, Clint! You've convinced me! Henry's concerns about too much power in the federal government certainly were prescient, if not prophetic. If he were alive today, he would probably say "I told you so!" On the other hand, the U.S. under the Articles would almost certainly have degenerated into a multitude of tiny, insignificant independent states.

Clint said...

I should point out that I read a bio of Henry a couple of years ago, and lived about an hour from his final home, so was a bit intrigued by him.

I won't digress into the politics of it all, since that really isn't the point. My obscure political views would only irritate some and cause others to think less of me...

It is an interesting list, and I wonder WHY they came up with these folks, in reality?

Fr. James Early said...

12 years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Christ (Episcopal) Church, the church in Richmond, VA, where Henry gave the famous "Give Me Liberty" speech. When he gave the speech, many famous people were in attendance, including George Washington.