Once upon a time, America had a president whose ratings were lower than George. W. Bush’s. They accused him of everything, and in 1949, every commentator and newspaper in the country said Harry Truman couldn’t possibly win. In fact, Harry Truman did win against all odds.
The Democratic Party was split two ways. The Dixiecrats, all of the Democrats from the Southern states, had walked out of the convention, and Strom Thurmond ran for president, representing Southern Democrats.
The governor of New York was Thomas Dewey, popular and sure to win. The Chicago Tribune was so sure Dewey would win that it went to press with the headline “Dewey beats Truman.” It was Harry Truman, known as “Give ’em hell Harry,” who won the election. As they said at the time, nobody loved Harry — except the people.
Today, looking back, Harry Truman was a great president. The reason I mention this this morning is because I truly believe in one of his most famous quotes. Harry Truman once said, “The only thing new in the world is the history we don’t know.” Here in Norwich, we have so much history, and not even the residents know about it.
This year, there was a new historical group formed in Norwich. It is an offspring of the Norwich Historical Society, but it will stand alone with a single purpose. The purpose of the Forgotten Founders is to establish in Norwich a presidential library that will celebrate 14 great Americans.
While every president has a presidential library, the Forgotten Founders are those men who were presidents of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. They have been completely forgotten, never recognized, and there is no library to celebrate their accomplishments, which were monumental.
The Forgotten Founders will have one purpose — to establish a library for the 14 men who were presidents of the Continental Congress, three of whom were actually presidents of the United States in Congress Assembled under our first Constitution, known as the Articles of Confederation.
Included in the presidential library will be a center for the study of the first Constitution, which few people know about, but which served as the foundation for today’s Constitution put together by well-known-founders — Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington and so many giants whose names come to mind on reflecting of the birth of this nation.
The Forgotten Founders of Norwich have had preliminary talks with the Chelsea Gardens with the hope that if the two groups work together we may access more funds and create a great site for the presidential library and a great public attraction for Norwich’s botanical gardens. Nothing has been decided, only preliminary talks.
The Forgotten Founders will be seeking support of the community, the state, the federal government and many foundations for substantial gifts … foundations like the Ford Foundation, Mellon Foundation, Carnegie Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. These great philanthropic organizations have been generous to many foundations that were once a dream and are now a reality.
It is our intent to invite all 13 states to participate, though we can expect that states like Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York will compete for the library because so much of our history happened in those states as well.
But it was Connecticut, and more particularly Norwich, that offered Samuel Huntington, who was president of the Continental Congress on Nov. 1, 1781, when Maryland finally became the last state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, and we first became a nation of the world — the United States of America — no longer the United Colonies of America.
The first Constitution proclaimed that whoever was president of the Continental Congress would also serve as “His Excellency, President of the United States in Congress Assembled.”
On the day we became a national for the first time, Norwich’s Samuel Huntington was president of the Continental Congress, and, with the ratification of the 13 states, he automatically became the first president of the United States in Congress Assembled under the Articles of Confederation.
I didn’t know that until the work began to restore Samuel Huntington’s tomb. At that time, I was searching everywhere for information on Huntington. I contacted two very learned and famous historians — Gen. Dave Palmer and internationally known historian Thomas Fleming, thought by many to be the greatest authority on the history of the American Revolution.
Palmer was superintendent of West Point for years and told me of the Articles of Confederation and how badly they worked. While Huntington was technically the first president, the presidency then as nothing like today’s presidency.
Fleming, author of many volumes including “Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America,” “Liberty! The American Revolution” and “Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge,” said a presidential library for all 14 men is something that should be done, as these men put on the line their treasures and their very lives. Had we lost the war, all 14 of them would have been executed for treason.
It will be a long, hard climb, but if we, the Forgotten Founders of today in Norwich, can’t finish the project, at least we can launch it, and others who follow may finish the project.
This would be a national historic site, in the words of Fleming, and would create tourism traffic for the average American and a center for study for students and professors of history. According to Fleming, “Visitors will come from every state in our current union to discover how Americans learned to govern themselves as a nation.”
The Forgotten Founders will have two boards of directors; one to raise money and to build and operate the facility. The second board of directors will be nationally recognized historians who will determine the curriculum and will be in total control of the academic and historical nature of both the library and the study center for our first Constitution.
Ambitious it is, but it is even more deserving to give recognition to the men who made it happen — who today are known as the Forgotten Founders.
This morning’s picture was taken on Navy Day, 1949, at Town Hall in New York City. I took it and had to break police lines to get close enough for this particular photo. As it happened, I had misplaced the pass the Secret Service had given and had to get the picture for the Sunday paper. Truman referred to the young photographer (who raced across the square with half of New York’s police following in pursuit) saying, “When the photographer got 15 feet from me, I raised my hand and gave him a good picture.”
This morning’s picture is that photo. In 1949, I lived in New York, went to photographic school in the morning and work afternoons and evenings as an apprentice photographer with The New York Herald Tribune. It was a great chapter of life, and I am very proud of this photo of one of my favorite presidents.