Viewpoint: L. Phillips Runyon III – Youngsters at the founding

L. Phillips Runyon III


Published: 06-28-2024 11:50 AM

Due to a number of factors related to modern life – perhaps eating better and exercising more, and certainly taking all manner of Big Pharma concoctions – we’ve become a nation where our primary leaders tend to have silver hair or no hair and are often twice the age our founders were when creating this nation for us.

Ben Franklin was clearly the outlier, at 70 in 1776, but many of the rest of them -- and they were all men, of course -- were barely old enough to hold the new government offices they would be establishing. 

We tend to overlook all that youthfulness because the portraits we have of the founding generation typically show them as elder statesmen, in powdered wigs and the formal dress of sedate seniors. 

That really wasn’t the case among our founders, though, when average life expectancy wasn’t the 80s of today, but about half that number. In other words, you really had to get cracking if you were going to make your mark, like creating a new nation from scratch.

So, on July 4, 1776, let’s look at some hard facts instead of those geriatric portraits in oil.

John Hancock, who was president of the Second Continental Congress -- and the scion of the tallest insurance building in Boston -- was actually the only signer of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, and he was all of 39. His signature was probably so large because he had so much empty space on the document to work with. The rest of the signers didn't add their Hancocks until Aug. 2, so put that date on your calendar, too, and you can impress your friends and neighbors with some additional fireworks.

Thomas Jefferson, who had written the Declaration, was only 33 – that's 15 years younger than Red Sox manager Alex Cora -- and he hadn't even met Sally Hemings yet. 

James Madison, the eventual author of the Constitution, was 25 that July 4, and his Virginia colleague James Monroe was just 18 – probably a junior or senior in high school these days.  

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Alexander Hamilton, who went on to create much of our federal financial system, was only 21 and barely old enough to celebrate the Declaration with a tankard of mead or grog or some other unpleasant concoction of the day.

And lest you think these were just the exceptions to other gray-haired founders of legend, here are a few more.

Nathan Hale, who regretted that he “only had one life to lose for his country," was 21 -- and wouldn't get any older before being hanged as a traitor in September.

John Marshall, our greatest chief justice, who established the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of everything legal, was 20 that July 4 and not even a rookie lawyer yet.

The Marquis de Lafayette, without whose help we’d probably still be flying the Union Jack and July 4 would just be the day after July 3, was 18 and would probably be a classmate of Monroe today.

And so as not to overlook women entirely -- though most men did then -- Betsy Ross, who’s said to have sewn the first American flag and is usually portrayed as a middle-aged spinster sitting in a rocking chair, was only 24.

The real old-timers were Thomas Paine, whose publication of “Common Sense” at 39 had ignited the drive to independence; Patrick Henry, who also at 39 had fanned those flames with "give me liberty or give me death" -- fortunately no one gave him death -- and Paul Revere, who at the decrepit age of 40 had managed to ride a horse all the way to Lexington the prior April.  

Then there was George Washington himself, who at 44 was old enough to be the father of many of those founders, not to mention the father of his infant nation. He didn’t say much during the debate about the Declaration, but maybe because his mouthful of false teeth was giving him trouble.   

So what lessons might we take from this precocious group of founding youngsters?

One might be that speaking out about what we believe in knows no age limits. 

Another might be that while years of experience are valuable teachers, there’s a lot to be said for youthful energy and idealistic enthusiasm.

Whatever we do, though, let’s not assume from the staid portraits we have of the founders that there’s a need to wait to start making a difference.  

By all accounts, they knew very little about what they were embarked on when they forged ahead on that July 4.  There was no road map -- in fact, hardly any roads at all -- no Google for “how to declare independence” or You Tube video for “how to create your new country”.  

One thing’s certain, however. We owe them everything for having taken that leap of faith and courage. Just look at the difference they’ve made for the lives of nearly everyone on the planet almost 250 years later.  Not one thing about today's world would be the same if those young Americans hadn't taken that fearless stand.   

So, maybe their lesson is simply this – When a critical but absolutely worthwhile task seems impossible, when the chance for success looks overwhelmingly bleak, when we don't have any idea how to get from here to there, remember those young founders -- and then in the words of a famous slogan of our generation, “Just Do It.”  They certainly did, and when our moments come, we should, too.

Happy 4th of July!

L. Phillips Runyon III has practiced law in Peterborough for 50 years and was the presiding justice of the 8th Circuit Court.