Sunday, July 5, 2009

Choosing satisfaction over immortality

Teachers from elementary school through college warn their students to be very careful when using the Internet as a research tool. Most of the concern is directed at Wikipedia, which warrants particular diligence among its users, primarily because--as Wikipedia even admits in its entry on itself--"almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone who can access the Wikipedia website." You never know if the minute you access the entry on President Nixon some joker will have inserted a note that when Nixon went to China the first thing he did upon disembarking the plane was to drop his pants and sing "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

But some websites obviously are careful in what they publish and have some weight of authority standing behind them. I think "The New Georgia Encyclopedia" (NGE) is such a website; it has the University of Georgia, the Georgia Humanities Council, and others in charge of its content.

I mention this because I want to give a striking example of something I learned from the NGE that really took me aback, because I'd never seen this anywhere else. Before I tell you what it is, let me give you the facts as I learned them from good old fashioned books. Carol Berkin in A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (2002) says of William Pierce, a Georgia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, that "He left the convention early to attend to a business crisis" (p. 261).

As a comparison, I checked two other books about the Constitutional Convention that, like Berkin's volume, are what I'd call "popular" accounts of the event. Catherine Drinker Bowen, in Miracle at Philadelphia (1966) and the Collier brothers in Decision in Philadelphia (1986), say something quite different, that Pierce left the convention to attend meetings of the Confederation Congress in New York City (Bowen p. 22, Colliers p. 168).

Then I looked in two books about the making of the Constitution that are far more technical--Jack Rakove's Original Meaning: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996) and Forrest McDonald's Novus Ordo Seclorum : The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (1985). (With a title like that, McDonald's book had better be technical!) Rakove doesn't mention Pierce's departure, but McDonald agrees with Berkin that Pierce left to attend to personal business, adding that the business was in New York City (p. 235).

And now here is the version of what happened from the NGE:

"Although he agreed with the end result of the proceedings, Pierce did not sign the U.S. Constitution, having left the convention at the end of June to attend to 'a piece of business so necessary that it became unavoidable.' The business was a duel with merchant John Auldjo, after tempers flared over mishandled 'mercantile dealings.' Auldjo's second, Alexander Hamilton, intervened and prevented the contest."

Wow. I think we can all agree this little tidbit is a lot more interesting than just saying "Pierce left to attend to business." You've got a duel brewing that apparently would have occurred were it not for the intervention of a far more well-known convention delegate, who later would himself be killed in what surely ranks as the most famous duel ever carried out on American soil.

In technical works like Rakove's and McDonald's, it probably wouldn't be appropriate to mention Pierce's appointment (as they used to call duels) since it doesn't have anything to do with the debate over the Constitution. But next time somebody writes a popular account of the big event of 1787, don't you think he or she would want to prick the reader's interest by devoting a paragraph to the remarkable circumstances of somebody actually leaving the convention to participate in a duel?

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