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The Goading of America

Fisher Ames is the Founding Father who draws a blank. Few people today have heard of him, yet he wrote the final version of the First Amendment, and his speech on Jay's Treaty, delivered when he was the leader of the Federalists in the First Congress, was called the finest example of American oratory by Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom memorized large portions of it to train themselves in the art.

Why then the blackout on Fisher Ames?

He was born in Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1758, entered Harvard at 12, and graduated at 16. He was mustered, with the rest of the class of 1774, to fight in the Revolution, but his militia unit saw no action. After Independence he taught himself law and went into practice, farming the family lands on the side, until politics called.

The Ames home seems to have been a cocoon of idyllic happiness. His wife evinced none of the nascent feminism of Abigail Adams. She gave him six sons and a daughter, who received large chunks of paternal quality time thanks to the pleasure Ames took in inventing and playing educational games. He also got along well with his in-laws; his letters to brother-in-law Thomas Dwight are as warm as they are voluminous.

Fisher Ames was called a "sweet" man by his contemporaries. His first biographer, writing shortly after his death, spoke of "the charms of his conversation and manners [that] won affection" and...

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