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  • Writer's picturePhil Nelsen

On The Founding Of America & The Rising Sun Chair

Even a casual observer of history might recognize the scene depicted in Howard Christy’s painting above. The backdrop is the Assembly Room of Independence Hall, on loan from the Pennsylvania legislature. George Washington stands proudly at attention. Richard Spaight bends at the waist signing. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton earnestly observe near front, though notably separated by enough space to accommodate their ideological differences. Hamilton particularly leans forward, anxious. Madison, though also focused, leans forward with slightly less tenacity than Hamilton. The men's different postures are perhaps analogous to their anticipation for this moment. In the years prior both had endeavored in their own manner to make this day happen. Both had published powerfully persuasive essays in New York’s Independent Journal imploring the people to support their cause. Madison had published an impressive 29 essays. Never one to be out-written, Hamilton published an astounding 51 essays over the course of only 6 months. Their combined efforts, including 5 essays from John Jay, later America’s first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, would become known as the Federalist Papers. Hamilton and Madison had sacrificed a great deal for this moment, nothing could draw their attention away.

Not all are so intently focused, however. A seated Benjamin Franklin appears amused as he reflects on, of all things, George Washington’s armchair. Washington had sat in it for the previous 3 months of negotiations. It was carved by Philadelphia cabinetmaker John Folwell. Made of mahogany, it featured a number of not-so-subtle symbols that seemed perfect for the occasion. Carved into the crest rail a liberty pole holds up a Phrygian cap, commonly interpreted at the time as symbols of freedom and revolution. Located just below the pole and cap, and immediately above the headrest, a brightly painted half-sun commands attention.

It was the half-sun that caught Franklin’s eye. With the rest of the room so intently focused on the important task at hand, a task that would change the course of human history, it might seem odd that Franklin would comment on something as mundane as a chair. Like most ostensibly peculiar things Franklin did, however, this too was with wise purpose. James Madison would recall Franklin’s comments to those around him at this crucial moment in history.

“I have often looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.” From that point on the chair would appropriately be known as the Rising Sun Chair. Almost 250 years later the chair still sits in the same room in Philadelphia today.

Franklin had first seen the Rising Sun Chair 4,064 days prior, when he sat in the very same room. At that time Franklin was a member of the Second Continental Congress. Trepidatious of what the future might hold, but certain he could no longer live under the boot of a king, he would sign his name to the Declaration of Independence. In doing so Franklin was simultaneously both traitor and patriot, only the outcome of a war would decide which title history would award him. One can logically assume when he signed the Declaration of Independence Franklin may have questioned if the chair ominously forewarned the setting of the sun for himself, and all of America. After all, what was he doing there? He was choosing a side, that by all estimates, was certain to lose a war in devastating fashion. The British were the world’s most powerful military since the Roman Empire, and who was Franklin to go up against them? At the moment Franklin was signing the Declaration there were three hundred British ships and thirty-two thousand soldiers amassing in Sandy Hook. The Declaration was not a message being sent to some distant nation on the other side of an ocean. The British were here, they were ready to fight, and this document would light the fuse. All signs must have pointed to a setting sun for Franklin, but he signed anyway.

Today, 11 years later, he again sat in Independence Hall. Again to sign his name. At 81 he was the oldest person in the room. We can assume the events of the previous decade had worn on his greatly. This time, however, he was buoyed by something he lacked previous, freedom. Freedom from tyranny and unjust rule. It was a feeling few men in history had ever experienced. Franklin knew that well, perhaps that was why he took a moment to wax poetic on a chair. Sitting on the other end of a war and an inexplicable victory, he had no doubt the sun was now rising. Rising on him and rising on his nation. Rising on freedom. The day was September 17, 1787. After remarking on the rising sun, Franklin would himself rise from his seat, approach Washington’s table, and forever inscribe his name to the United States Constitution.

Though the Constitution was signed that day it would not be ratified until June 21, 1788. The document was not perfect, so twelve amendments were quickly written and sent to the states for approval. Of the proposed twelve amendments, numbers three through twelve were ultimately approved. They became known as the Bill of Rights and officially joined the Constitution on December 15, 1791.

Fifteen years had passed from the signing of the Declaration of Independence until the Constitution as we know it became the law of the land. It is a document, as James Madison pointed out, like no other before or after. "In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example … of charters of power granted by liberty. This revolution in the practice of the world, may, with an honest praise, be pronounced the most triumphant epoch of its history, and the most consoling presage of its happiness.”

These incredible men had built what would become the world's most prosperous nation from rubble. They had drafted a constitution to protect its people from the oppressive government they had heretofore been subject to. As we make political decisions, and cast votes that the constitution guarantees us, we would be wise to remember it was with the intent of constraining, not expanding, governmental influence that the founders drafted these documents and built our nation.

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