Friday, July 10, 2020

In Vino Gravitas

     You’ve seen the phrase In vino veritas before, right? “In wine, there is truth.” Well, there might also be a measure of Constitutional insight:

     (Shamelessly stolen from Kenny “Wirecutter” Lane.)

     It recalls to mind an Independence Day piece I wrote long ago, which first appeared at Eternity Road. The meat of it follows.

     Today is, of course, Independence Day, the quintessentially American holiday. In a way, it's misplaced, for independence was ratified by a unanimous vote taken on the Second of July, 1776; the final wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved on the Fourth, and the signatures of the majority of the delegates were affixed to it on the Second of August. Down the decades that have passed since then, historians and others have speculated as to why the delegates waited nearly a full month to sign Thomas Jefferson's immortal document.

     Actually, people "in the know" have simply refrained from letting the information get around. It was too embarrassing. It would abrade too many sensibilities. The national psyche could be mortally wounded. Nevertheless, the time has come for full disclosure. The delegates to the Continental Congress refrained from signing the document on the Fourth for the best of all reasons.

     They were drunk.

     You've been drunk at least once, haven't you? So you know what it's like to awaken gummy-eyed and dry-mouthed, feeling as if you've been knocked down by a dog and run over by a truck. There's this pain somewhere behind your eyes that suggests that your sinuses have been invaded by a regiment of Desiccators from Death Valley. Your joints feel as if someone opened each one up and poured in a handful of sand. When you first sit up, you get a distinct feeling that the world ended during the night, and for your sins you've been named to the cleanup crew. Coffee doesn't really help; it only awakens you still further to the magnitude of your self-inflicted agonies.

     And that's if you remember the night before.

     Anyway, the ratifiers of our Declaration of Independence surely understood the gravity of their decision. At that time, Britain was the preeminent military power in the Western world, while the American colonies could barely muster an army. To sign the Declaration, putting one's public stamp of approval on a win-or-die rebellion against so powerful an empire, must have evoked intense fears...especially among those delegates who'd have to explain their decisions to their wives. Beyond all question, after the Declaration was approved, the delegates trooped in a body into the nearest watering hole and did their damnedest to drown their anxieties in ale.

     (You didn't really think Samuel Adams's name was famous for his insurrectionist activities, did you?)

     And a mighty drunk it must have been. For whenever a delegate returned to partial sobriety, he needed only to glance at his partners in rebellion, snoring around him, to remember why he'd embraced Bacchus so fervently the night before. That was more than enough impetus to call for another round.

     That classic binge gave rise to one of the most important features of the new republic: the national debt. For the delegates had been sent to Philadelphia by the state legislatures; they were on expense accounts. And when was a politician's claim of "entertainment expenses" ever put to serious scrutiny? Of course, eventually the tab exceeded the delegates' means, at which point the innkeeper rousted them all out. That allowed them to sober up sufficiently to sign the Declaration a mere twenty-nine days after actually ratifying it.

     That wasn't quite the end of the affair. The innkeeper harried the delegates from place to place, demanding compensation for their multifarious uses of his establishment. Their frequent relocations owed as much to his wrath as to the danger from the Redcoats. Ultimately, the imperative of national unity compelled a Second Continental Congress in 1777, where their gargantuan bar bill was appended to the war liabilities of the federal government in a "closed" session. They proceeded to draft the Articles of Confederation and, still being hung over, guaranteed national insolvency by neglecting to give the newly formed federal government the power to tax. Thus was the Constitutional Convention of 1787 made inevitable, and the phrase "not worth a Continental Congressman," unfortunately shorn by overprotective historians of its last word, coined.

     Happy Independence Day, America. Hoist one or two or six for me, would you please? I'll be sure to do the same for you. For we are all truly blessed...and in my case, in more ways than I can count, but one meriting special mention today: the friendship of a certain brilliant and extremely well shod American-by-choice, whose contributions to the maintenance of my mental health are greater than I could ever say.

     And from such persons and their bibulosity, we got the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Doesn’t that lend a bit of support to H. L. Mencken’s recommendation that, for maximum social harmony, it would be best to keep the entire population of the world “gently stewed?” Give it some thought. I have – and I believe I’ll have another drink. The Pinot Noir this time, sweetie.

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