By William Ezra Allen, Ph.D
A few days ago, a colleague asked me to join an online discussion by Liberians in the Diaspora about the number of delegates at the 1847 Constitutional Convention. History teaches that eleven delegates were elected in the three original counties of Montserrado, Grand Bassa, and Sinoe for the Convention.
Yet, the online discussion suggested that there were actually twelve, not eleven delegates. Therefore, the Liberian flag should have had twelve stripes, since each is said to represent a delegate. There are no official records of the Constitutional Convention, because all were reportedly ruined. So I agreed to participate in that online discussion, hoping that someone had stumbled upon a trove of records after all.
But there was no trove there. Instead, what had sparked the debate was an online version of the Declaration of Independence that appeared on the website http://www.onlineliberia.org/con_declaration.htm. I noticed that the controversy stemmed from the last sentence preceding the names of the delegates.
I concluded that it was a commentary, and so it had not been part of the original Declaration of Independence. It read: “Written by Hilary Teage, the signers of the Declaration of Independence were twelve representatives . . . .” This is followed by six names from Montserrado, four from Grand Bassa, and two from Sinoe, totaling twelve.
As proof that the sentence was a commentary, I pointed to the name John Naustehlau Lewis, a delegate from Montserrado County. That name is unusual. In all the well-known sources, this name is written or signed simply J. N. Lewis but never with a full middle name. Also, the controversial sentence is written in the third person. This too is strange. The delegates had written the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in the first person plural, i.e., we.
But there was still the issue of the twelve delegates. I explained that this online version of the Declaration of Independence erred when it added Jacob W. Prout as a delegate from Sinoe County; Prout was secretary of the Convention. There were eleven delegates, and this fact has so far been uncontroversial.
All the well-known historical sources that I have seen described Prout as secretary and confirmed that there were eleven delegates. See, e.g., Charles Henry Huberich, The Political and Legislative History of Liberia, vi, page 821; Harry Johnston, Liberia, vi, page 217.
Besides these secondary sources, there is an eyewitness account that acknowledged that Prout was a secretary and not a delegate. That account is from the memoir of J. W. Lugenbeel, at the time, the American resident doctor in Liberia. Lugenbeel made a clear distinction between Prout and the delegates by referring to Prout as “The Secretary,” and the delegates as the “Convention.” Here are examples. “The Convention was occupied one full hour . . . to correct the minutes . . . The Secretary certainly make a very bungling fist of it . . . An Assistant Secretary was appointed yesterday. He is worse than the principal. . . This was a poor compliment to the Secretary, Dr. J. W. Prout and his assistant . . . one of whom received $2.25, and the other $1.25, a day for their services.” There is no evidence in Lugenbeel’s diary (or the secondary ones above) that Prout was a delegate or that he doubled as a secretary and a delegate, as some are wont to argue.
Finally, the one irrefutable proof that Prout was not a delegate is found in the original 1847 Constitution. In 2013, this old document, which had been locked in a safe in the Liberian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for probably three decades, was retrieved. The signatures of eleven delegates are written in exquisite calligraphy contained in three individual brackets. Each bracket is labeled for a county and contained the names of that county’s delegates: Montserrado County: S. Benedict President; J.N. Lewis, H. Teage, Beverly R. Wilson, Elijah Johnson, J. B. Gripon; Grand Bassa County John Day, A. B. Gardner, Amos Herring, Ephraim Titler; County of Sinou (now Sinoe): R. E. Murray. NO PROUT THERE!
Rather Prout’s signature is tucked away in the opposite corner of the page, without a bracket, and his title as secretary is plainly abbreviated. NOTHING ELSE! Thus, one can say that though Prout signed the Declaration of Independence, he was not a signatory, i.e., he was not a delegate clothed with the authority to write the Constitution. Copies of the Constitution can be obtained in Monrovia from the Center for National Documents and Records Agency (CNDRA) on Tubman Boulevard and 12th Street.
One contributor to the debate, who insisted that Prout was a delegate, suggested that the eleven stripes represent “the number of towns,” not delegates. Yet, his list of towns omitted some of the recognized settlements of that era, including Virginia and Readsville in Sinoe County. But he did concede, however, that there was presently no evidence to support his “towns for stripes” opinion, and that he is looking for one.
In the meantime, until evidence can demonstrate otherwise one must accept the verdict of history. There were eleven signatories to the Declaration of Independence, and those eleven are represented by the eleven stripes on the Liberian flag.
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