The First Town Hall
by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith
With great reverence they put down the parchment. They placed it on a table and stood back and looked at their work. It had taken a long time. There had been many compromises and many arguments.
They thought the arguments were over.
But they hadn’t yet held their first town hall meeting.
* * *
Ben Franklin was smiling. Part of his smile was purely political, and part of his smile was his remembering a particular pink petticoat someone had left behind under the back seat of his snazzy new red and gold buggy.
After all the work involved, John Adams was relieved. All about the room you could see handshakes and congressmen slapping each other on the back.
“Let posterity see to it that each particular contribution of this great and noble day is long remembered,” someone said.
“Shall we let in some of the citizens?” asked the clerk.
John Adams spoke forcefully. “Yes. Throw open those doors. Let’s meet with the town in this hall... as equal delegates of a new endeavor. They may enter.” he said. “This day is also theirs, today and tomorrow.”
“He could have just said, ‘yes’,” thought the clerk as he approached the dark oak doors.
Outside there was a huge mob. Some carried signs that read, “Isn’t it about time for some amendments?” Some carried signs that read, “Amendments never.”
Paradoxically, a group of the most isolated and cantankerous carried signs that read, “Just say no to social schisms.”
The mob came inside and the room filled and still there were dozens outside. The clerk tried to hold out some of the excess.
Those denied entry happened to be peat farmers from over by the bog. They started chanting. “No justice! No peat!” “No justice! No peat!”
The mob that had pushed inside didn’t wait for any invitations to speak. One tall farmer with a big slouch hat and a pinkish piglet tucked under his left arm invaded Congress right to the railings and said, “Is it true that part of this-yere document forces people to use same-sex outhouses?”
Richard Stockton of New Jersey looked confused. “What are you talking about?” he asked.
“Same-sex outhouses... men and women using the same damn outhouses... forced to surrender their dignity... forced to stare naked at each other.”
“Men and women already use outhouse,” Stockton said. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. And if you are who I think you are, I’m forever seeing you and your family out using the woods anyway. I don’t think you’ve dug down for anything, positive or negative.”
The tall farmer was pushed aside by a group of women all wearing the same color bonnets. “Have you read that thing? All of it?” they asked, pointing at the long parchment. Their tone indicated they weren’t about to take any answers as answers.
An old farmer shouted out, “I’m agin taxatin’ without representatin’.”
One of the framers, Mr. John Witherspoon, from New Jersey, wanted to say that yes, he had read all of the text, but he hadn’t read the signatures yet, as the signatures were just now added, so he couldn’t say he’d actually read the entire thing... Not really... not as yet... Only, he never got to add anything to the discussion as the women started throwing stale corn muffins at the entire New Jersey delegation... mainly hitting Hopkins, Hart and Clark.
As Congress continued dodging corn dodgers, a man in the back with a bald head and a long white beard kept screaming. “Why can’t we just have honest words? When my dad was here everyone trusted a man’s words. That document is too high-fluting if yee ask me. Why, it’s fulled up with writin’s! It’s the work of the devil, I says!” He turned slowly and in turn pointed at all the people in the room. “When yee leave this den...” he said, “When you leave this foul place... don’t you daest look back, lest you be a pillar of salt by morning. Jest like... you know who.” Then he left, not glancing back till he was at least thirty feet from the doorway.
A man who owned a number of small businesses in the community was the next one to have his say. “The town crier tells me we’re doing this as a direct response to that damn French Revolution that’s about to happen. And he says international indications shouldn’t have any bearing on what happens in this country. He tells me they are going to try and build a ten-lane modern dirt road all the way up through the colonies so that Mexicany farmers can spend time leisure fishing off Cape Cod right alongside helpless white women. And also, ain’t it about time to cut back on the growth of government? Why do we need Minute Men? What’s wrong with 50 seconds or maybe 30 seconds?”
The same old farmer as what shouted before shouted again. “I’m agin taxatin’ without no representatin’.” he said.
A baker in his tall hat said he didn’t want his ailing mother to have to move to the wilderness. “She likes me to bake her lots of bran muffins,” he said. “She goes to eating bear liver and China berries and she’s gonna close up like an aspen creek full of beaver.”
“Nothing says she can’t take bran with her when she gets forcefully relocated,” said the short shoemaker with the evasive eyes. “I done looked over the whole thing and there’s nothing limiting the use of bran during the use of wilderness.”
“You sure?” said the baker.
“I got the whole thing right here.” said the shoe-maker, and he pulled a small booklet out of his red flannel shirt. The booklet contained a reproduction of the Declaration and a copy of the Constitution.
Ben Franklin looked amazed. He was used to the limits of printing. He looked back over his shoulder at the brand new document on the table. Even he wasn’t versed in all the aspects of the law. He was not yet familiar with the type of people who could be counted on to have a booklet with them at all times. The shoemaker was that type. The type who’d argue that money had to be gold coins. That selling guns on a schoolyard was good for student safety. He would argue that the theft of a horse could only be proven if the horse could remember to come when its name was called.
“You know that these thing’s are written by lawyers,” Franklin said. “It’s going to require some interpretation,” he said.
“That brings me to my next point,” said the baker. “If we do win and we do manage to break away and form our own nation, will I still be able to stay loyal to King George if I want to? Choose his tax rates if they happen to be lower than your tax rates?”
Ben Franklin looked tired. He started shaking his head and walking away.
“It’s just I’m scared of making big changes,” the baker called after him.
The old farmer shouted a third time. “I’m strick’ agin taxatin’ without no representatin’,” he said.
Lyman Hall from the Georgia delegation said, “You should calm yourself, old fella. This here document guarantees you’ll get representation.”
“Then I’m just agin’ the taxatin,” the old farmer replied, and he spat some chew on the floor.
The man who owned the mill wasn’t used to siding with the rabble, but he was with the people let in to visit the new document. “Do you promise me... absolutely promise me,” he began, “that this here Constitution encourages our country to make more positive steps towards bringing foreigners in? Will immigration be permitted? No, more than that: will there be programs that draw immigrants right here into each of our small communities?”
Samuel Chase stepped forward. He bowed briefly and then recovered himself. He pointed at the ink drying on the table and promised, “It’s in there.”
Over in the corner a young person with dark, tear-stained eyes was holding a white blanket over his head. He was obviously very upset about something. He was facing the wall, hidden from the people in the room. He was obviously a very private individual. He was crying. He began his plea. “Let Abigail alone!” he said. “We’re lucky she even stays in the colonies. She’s worth so much more than any one of you! Leave Abigail alone!” He took a moment to sob and then a deep breath. “She’s had a rough time recently. She needs to be left alone. Can you understand what I’m saying? Leave Abigail alone!” he cried. It was the first time in America that a young man’s mascara was ruined by tears. It wouldn’t be the last.
A woman off to one side of the room stood there with a concerned look on her face. She didn’t consider herself a person used to complaining. She was known throughout the town as hard-working and long-suffering. She had a half-finished bundle of knitting in a basket. She had a small child clinging to her skirt. Her husband was a rare kind of man: a drifter who stayed put, a man who was all the more vacant the more he was seen. Because of his lethargy she had very little money. She worked hard and worried about her child’s future. Almost quietly she asked, “And just who’s going to pay for this?”
Most of the congressmen were caught up in the storm, pressed against the railing and fighting for their careers. Most of the citizens were speaking, but not listening. Only one lawmaker had actually heard the woman. It was William Whipple from the New Hampshire delegation. “At last an honest question,” he said.
He walked over so he could be closer to the woman. He walked over so he didn’t have to shout. He smiled at the child. He wasn’t making a speech; wasn’t trying to be evasive or glib. He really wanted to answer her question. He looked at the woman when he spoke.
“You will,” he said. “You will pay. Why... in just a little while, the church will come to you and tell you how our soldiers are cold at night, and you will knit them gloves. Not in your spare time, because you have no spare time. And you will put pennies in the plate as it is collected to care for our wounded, and they will be pennies you yourself need. For that document, homes will be burned and people uprooted, and cannons fired long into the night.”
“Will my children be all right?” asked the woman with the knitting.
“No one knows,” he said. “Every new path has dangers. Every old path has dangers. We can only head where we think things might be better.”
Few heard his words.
Few lived by them.
But they were true.
Copyright © 2009 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith