Every September for the past six years, Political Science professor David Chambers has donned an 18th-century suit and done his best to channel the spirit of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin.
Once again this year, on Monday, September 17, 2012, Chambers will pull on knee breeches, balance a pair of wire-rimmed bifocals atop his nose, and walk across the Oak Grove, enduring the stares of curious undergraduates. “The costume isn’t so bad,” said Chambers. “It’s that darned wig that gets to me. You wouldn’t believe how hot it is.”
As part of IUP’s commemoration of Constitution Day—the day in 1787 when the authors of the U.S. Constitution signed the document—Chambers will join with three other IUP professors portraying Founders in “Original Intentions? A Chat with the Founding Fathers.” The presentation is the first of this year’s Six O’Olock Series and is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. on Monday, September 17, in the Hadley Union Building’s Ohio Room.
Appearing with Franklin will be fellow Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton, Charles Pinckney, and James Madison (portrayed, respectively, by Political Science professors Steven Jackson and Dighton “Mac” Fiddner, and by History professor Joe Mannard.)
Until a few years ago, September 17 was dubbed “Citizenship Day” and was a relatively obscure federal holiday. That changed in 2005, after the late Robert Byrd, a long-time senator from West Virginia, became frustrated with how little most Americans know about their government and the document that created it. Byrd quietly inserted an amendment into a 2004 spending bill that renamed September 17 as Constitution Day and mandated that all educational institutions that receive federal funding—including universities—observe the holiday with educational programs to increase awareness about the U.S. Constitution.
So, starting in 2005, schools and universities scrambled to find ways to engage students and the public in learning about their Constitution. That was the impetus that led to IUP conjuring the spirit of Benjamin Franklin to talk the process of writing the U.S. Constitution in the summer of 1787.
“I wanted to find a way to bring history to life—literally,” said Gwen Torges, a Political Science professor who has coordinated IUP’s Constitution Day activities since 2006. “People often refer to the intentions of the Founders. I thought it would be interesting to give students a chance to interact, in a way, with the past,” Torges said.
Torges came up with an idea: How about enlisting someone familiar with the writing and ratification of the Constitution to portray one of the Founders? She thought it would be a good idea to choose a Founder recognizable to the public and known as an engaging personality; someone like Benjamin Franklin. “From there, it was easy,” Torges said. She remembered that one of her colleagues, David Chambers, taught a course on the Federalist Papers, a series of writings that explain and defend the Constitution, and she believed Chambers would be a natural at portraying Franklin. “The hard part was getting the courage to ask him,” said Torges. “It seemed like a lot to ask someone to put on a hot costume and traipse around campus talking about the Constitution.”
To her pleasant surprise, Chambers not only agreed, but seemed pleased by the idea. Indeed, after the scheduled events were done, Chambers went walking through the Oak Grove, distributing copies of the Constitution and chatting with students.
The following Constitution Day, in 2007, was the first of the “chats with the Founders,” because Franklin was joined by Founder James Madison, portrayed by History professor Joe Mannard. Appearing before about 50 students in the Stabley Library, Franklin and Madison were asked about their role in writing the Constitution by Torges.
Mannard warmed quickly to his role as Madison and has participated every year since (this will be his fifth year). “Preparing for this annual event has given me a greater appreciation of how, despite the serious disagreements dividing them, these men were nevertheless able to transcend their differences and frame a document establishing a government that has endured for more than two centuries,” said Mannard. “Their example gives me hope that we will be able to find solutions to the seemingly intractable problems facing our own time.”
By 2008, Alexander Hamilton and Charles Pinckney had also been resurrected to participate in the “chat with the Founders.”
Charles Pinckney represented South Carolina at the Constitutional Convention, and so Political Science professor Dighton “Mac” Fiddner (who hails from neighboring North Carolina) enjoys embellishing his portrayal of Pinckney with authentic doses of his Southern accent, gentlemanly charm, and folksy humor. Fiddner becomes most animated when informing audiences that the so-called New Jersey plan (which is mentioned in every history of the Convention) was mostly plagiarized from his “Pinckney Plan.” “Those Jersey boys get all the glory, but it was this country boy from South Carolina who did all the work,” Fiddner said last year about Pinckney.
Fiddner believes that these “chats”—which are always lively and filled with friendly differences of opinion—are important because they provide an accurate account of the tumult that characterized much of the deliberations at the Convention. “There was really nothing orderly about the Convention,” said Fiddner. “I think many people today fail to realize just how deeply the delegates disagreed about so many issues.”
Chambers agrees. “One of the things I admire most about Franklin’s participation at the Convention was his ability to assume the role of elder statesman and to persuade the delegates to agree to compromise in a spirit of moderation and cooperation.”
Jackson said playing a Founder has given him an increased appreciation for Alexander Hamilton. “I enjoy playing Hamilton,” said Jackson. “Of all of the Founders, his vision of America as a strong, prosperous, industrial country was closest to what we eventually became, and his views on slavery and native Americans were, for the day and compared to the other Founders, also forward-looking.”
Anyone who’s seen one of the “chat with the Founders” can see that the professors portraying the Founders are obviously enjoying themselves. Mannard put it this way: “Serving with my fellow ‘Founders’ and moderator has also given me, a member of the Department of History, the opportunity to extend hands across Keith Hall and work closely with my talented colleagues in the Political Science Department. I have been consistently impressed not only by their obvious intelligence and erudition, but also by their unfailing wit and good humor, making the whole experience one I eagerly anticipate sharing each Fall.”