|Founding Fathers of the United States|
|Location||The Thirteen Colonies|
|Including||Signers of the Declaration of Independence (1776), Articles of Confederation (1781), and United States Constitution (1789)|
|This article is part of a series on the|
|History of the |
The Founding Fathers of the United States, known simply as the Founding Fathers or Founders, were a group of late-18th-century American revolutionary leaders who united the Thirteen Colonies, oversaw the war for independence from Great Britain, established the United States, and crafted a framework of government for the new nation.
Historians generally recognize prominent leaders of the Revolutionary Era (1765–1791), such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, as Founding Fathers. In addition, signers of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are widely credited with the nation's founding, while other scholars include all delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 whether they signed the Constitution or not. Furthermore, some historians include signers of the Articles of Confederation, which was adopted as the nation's first constitution in 1781.
Beyond this, the criteria for inclusion vary. Historians have singled out individuals ranging from military leaders during the Revolutionary War and participants in events before the war to prominent writers, orators, and other contributors to the American cause, including both men and women. The debate has also shifted from the 19th-century concept of the Founders as demigods who created the modern nation-state to take into account contemporary concerns over the inability of the founding generation to remedy issues such as slavery and the treatment of Native Americans. More recently, yet another approach has been suggested that recognizes the accomplishments as well as the shortcomings of the nation's founders by viewing them within the context of their times.
The exact phrase Founding Fathers was first coined by Senator Warren G. Harding in his keynote speech at the Republican National Convention in 1916. Harding repeated the phrase at his own inauguration in 1921. While presidents used the terms founders and fathers in their speeches throughout the 20th century, it was another sixty years before one would use Harding's phrase during the inaugural ceremonies. Ronald Reagan referred to "Founding Fathers" at both his first inauguration in 1981 and his second in 1985. The term Founding Fathers has been widely used in histories of the founding era, the earliest example being James J. Walsh's Education of the Founding Fathers of the Republic: Scholasticism in the Original Colleges, which was published in 1935.
John Adams, in response to praise for his generation, rejoined, "I ought not to object to your reverence for your fathers ... but to tell you a very great secret, I have no reason to believe we were better than you are." He also wrote, "Don't call me, ... Father ... [or] Founder ... These titles belong to no man, but to the American people in general."
In his second inaugural address (1805), Thomas Jefferson referred to those who first came to the New World as "forefathers". At his 1825 inauguration, John Quincy Adams called the Constitution "the work of our forefathers" and expressed his gratitude to "founders of the Union". In July of the following year, Quincy Adams, in an executive order upon the deaths of his father John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, paid tribute to the two as both "Fathers" and "Founders of the Republic". These terms were used in the United States throughout the 19th century, from the inaugurations of Martin Van Buren and James Polk in 1837 and 1845, to Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union speech in 1860 and his Gettysburg Address in 1863, and up to William McKinley's first inauguration in 1897.
At a 1902 celebration of Washington's Birthday in Brooklyn, New York, James M. Beck, the constitutional lawyer and later congressman, delivered an address titled "Founders of the Republic". In it, he connected the concepts of founders and fathers: "It is well for us to remember certain human aspects of the founders of the republic. Let me first refer to the fact that these fathers of the republic were for the most part young men." Beck included George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Marshall in his pantheon of founders. He also credited the members of the Second Continental Congress who adopted the Declaration of Independence, mentioned John Hancock, Josiah Quincy, and Joseph Warren for their connections with the Boston Tea Party, and singled out Revolutionary War military leaders such as Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, John Paul Jones, and "Mad Anthony" Wayne.
Historian Richard B. Morris identified seven figures as key Founding Fathers in his 1973 book Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries. His selections, based on what Morris called the "triple tests" of leadership, longevity, and statesmanship, included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.
Morris's selection of seven "greats" has become widely accepted.  Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin were members of the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence. The Federalist Papers, which advocated the ratification of the Constitution, were written by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. The constitutions drafted by Jay and Adams for their respective states of New York (1777) and Massachusetts (1780) were heavily relied upon when creating language for the U.S. Constitution. Franklin, Jay and Adams negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris that brought an end to the American Revolutionary War.
Washington was Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and later president of the Constitutional Convention. All held additional important roles in the early government of the United States, with Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison serving as the first four presidents; Adams and Jefferson as the first two vice presidents; Jay as the nation's first chief justice; Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury; Jefferson and Madison as Secretaries of State; and Franklin as America's most senior diplomat and later governor of Pennsylvania.
Further information: Framers
The National Archives has identified three founding documents as the "Charters of Freedom": Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, and Bill of Rights. According to the Archives, these documents "have secured the rights of the American people for more than two and a quarter centuries and are considered instrumental to the founding and philosophy of the United States." In addition, as the nation's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union has also gained acceptance as a founding document. As a result, signers of three key documents are generally considered to be Founding Fathers of the United States: Declaration of Independence (DI), Articles of Confederation (AC), and U.S. Constitution (USC). The following table provides a list of these signers, some of whom signed more than one document.
|Name||Province/state||DI (1776)||AC (1777)||USC (1787)|
|Josiah Bartlett||New Hampshire||Yes||Yes|
|Gunning Bedford Jr.||Delaware||Yes|
|William Blount||North Carolina||Yes|
|David Brearley||New Jersey||Yes|
|Pierce Butler||South Carolina||Yes|
|Abraham Clark||New Jersey||Yes|
|John Collins||Rhode Island||Yes|
|Jonathan Dayton||New Jersey||Yes|
|William Henry Drayton||South Carolina||Yes|
|James Duane||New York||Yes|
|William Duer||New York||Yes|
|William Ellery||Rhode Island||Yes||Yes|
|William Floyd||New York||Yes|
|Nicholas Gilman||New Hampshire||Yes|
|Alexander Hamilton||New York||Yes|
|Cornelius Harnett||North Carolina||Yes|
|John Hart||New Jersey||Yes|
|Joseph Hewes||North Carolina||Yes|
|Thomas Heyward Jr.||South Carolina||Yes||Yes|
|William Hooper||North Carolina||Yes|
|Stephen Hopkins||Rhode Island||Yes|
|Francis Hopkinson||New Jersey||Yes|
|Richard Hutson||South Carolina||Yes|
|William Jackson||South Carolina||Yes|
|Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer||Maryland||Yes|
|William Samuel Johnson||Connecticut||Yes|
|John Langdon||New Hampshire||Yes|
|Henry Laurens||South Carolina||Yes|
|Francis Lightfoot Lee||Virginia||Yes||Yes|
|Richard Henry Lee||Virginia||Yes||Yes|
|Francis Lewis||New York||Yes||Yes|
|Philip Livingston||New York||Yes|
|William Livingston||New Jersey||Yes|
|Thomas Lynch Jr.||South Carolina||Yes|
|Henry Marchant||Rhode Island||Yes|
|John Mathews||South Carolina||Yes|
|Arthur Middleton||South Carolina||Yes|
|Gouverneur Morris[b]||New York||Yes|
|Lewis Morris||New York||Yes|
|Thomas Nelson Jr.||Virginia||Yes|
|Robert Treat Paine||Massachusetts||Yes|
|William Paterson||New Jersey||Yes|
|John Penn||North Carolina||Yes||Yes|
|Charles Pinckney||South Carolina||Yes|
|Charles Cotesworth Pinckney||South Carolina||Yes|
|Edward Rutledge||South Carolina||Yes|
|John Rutledge||South Carolina||Yes|
|Nathaniel Scudder||New Jersey||Yes|
|Jonathan Bayard Smith||Pennsylvania||Yes|
|Richard Dobbs Spaight||North Carolina||Yes|
|Richard Stockton||New Jersey||Yes|
|Matthew Thornton||New Hampshire||Yes|
|Nicholas Van Dyke||Delaware||Yes|
|John Wentworth Jr.||New Hampshire||Yes|
|William Whipple||New Hampshire||Yes|
|John Williams||North Carolina||Yes|
|Hugh Williamson||North Carolina||Yes|
|John Witherspoon||New Jersey||Yes||Yes|
The 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention are referred to as framers. Of these, 16 failed to sign the document. Three refused, while the remainder left early, either in protest of the proceedings or for personal reasons. Nevertheless, some sources regard all framers as Founders, including those who did not sign:
(*) Randolph, Mason, and Gerry were the only three present at the Constitution's adoption who refused to sign.
In addition to the signers of the founding documents and the seven notable leaders previously mentioned—Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Jay, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington—the following are regarded as Founders based on their contributions to the birth and early development of the new nation:
See also: Women in the American Revolution
Historians also have come to recognize the roles women played in the nation's early development, using the term "Founding Mothers". Among the females honored in this respect are:
Selected portraits of Founding Fathers
The following men and women also advanced the new nation through their actions, but are not necessarily regarded as founders:
See also: Stamp Act of 1765
In the mid-1760s, Parliament began levying taxes on the colonies to finance Britain's debts from the French and Indian War, a decade-long conflict that ended in 1763. Opposition to Stamp Act and Townshend Acts united the colonies in a common cause. While the Stamp Act was withdrawn, taxes on tea remained under the Townshend Acts and took on a new form in 1773 with Parliament's adoption of the Tea Act. The new tea tax, along with stricter customs enforcement, was not well-received across the colonies, particularly in Massachusetts.
On December 16, 1773, 150 colonists disguised as Mohawk Indians, boarded ships in Boston and dumped 342 chests of tea into the city's harbor, a protest that came to be known as the Boston Tea Party. Orchestrated by Samuel Adams and the Boston Committee of Correspondence, the protest was viewed as treasonous by British authorities. In response, Parliament passed the Coercive or Intolerable Acts, a series of punitive laws that closed Boston's port and placed the colony under direct control of the British government. These measures stirred unrest throughout the colonies, which felt Parliament had overreached its authority and was posing a threat to the self-rule that had existed in the Americas since the 1600s.
Intent on responding to the Acts, twelve of the Thirteen Colonies agreed to send delegates to meet in Philadelphia as the First Continental Congress, with Georgia declining because it needed British military support in its conflict with native tribes. The concept of an American union had been entertained long before 1774, but always embraced the idea that it would be subject to the authority of the British Empire. By 1774, however, letters published in colonial newspapers, mostly by anonymous writers, began asserting the need for a "Congress" to represent all Americans, one that would have equal status with British authority.
Main article: Continental Congress
The Continental Congress was brought together to deal with a series of pressing issues the colonies were facing with Britain. Its delegates were men considered to be the most intelligent and thoughtful among the colonialists. In the wake of the Intolerable Acts, at the hands of an unyielding British King and Parliament, the colonies were forced to choose between either totally submitting to arbitrary Parliamentary authority or resorting to unified armed resistance. The new Congress functioned as the directing body in declaring a great war, and was sanctioned only by reason of the guidance it provided during the armed struggle. Its authority remained ill defined, and few of its delegates realized that events would soon lead them to deciding policies that ultimately established a "new power among the nations". In the process the Congress performed many experiments in government before an adequate Constitution evolved.
Main article: First Continental Congress
The First Continental Congress convened at Philadelphia's Carpenter's Hall on September 5, 1774. The Congress, which had no legal authority to raise taxes or call on colonial militias, consisted of 56 delegates, including George Washington of Virginia; John Adams and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts; John Jay of New York; John Dickinson of Pennsylvania; and Roger Sherman of Connecticut. Peyton Randolph of Virginia was unanimously elected its first president.
The Congress came close to disbanding in its first few days over the issue of representation, with smaller colonies desiring equality with the larger ones. While Patrick Henry, from the largest colony, Virginia, disagreed, he stressed the greater importance of uniting the colonies: "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American!". The delegates then began with a discussion of the Suffolk Resolves, which had just been approved at a town meeting in Milton, Massachusetts. Joseph Warren, chairman of the Resolves drafting committee, had dispatched Paul Revere to deliver signed copies to the Congress in Philadelphia. The Resolves called for the ouster of British officials, a trade embargo of British goods, and the formation of a militia throughout the colonies. Despite the radical nature of the resolves, on September 17 the Congress passed them in their entirety in exchange for assurances that Massachusetts' colonists would do nothing to provoke war.
The delegates then approved a series of measures, including a Petition to the King in an appeal for peace and a Declaration and Resolves which introduced the ideas of natural law and natural rights, foreshadowing some of the principles found in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. The declaration asserted the rights of colonists and outlined Parliament's abuses of power. Proposed by Richard Henry Lee, it also included a trade boycott known as the Continental Association. The Association, a crucial step toward unification, empowered committees of correspondence throughout the colonies to enforce the boycott. The Declaration and its boycott directly challenged Parliament's right to govern in the Americas, bolstering the view of King George III and his administration under Lord North that the colonies were in a state of rebellion.
Lord Dartmouth, the Secretary of State for the Colonies who had been sympathetic to the Americans, condemned the newly established Congress for what he considered its illegal formation and actions. In tandem with the Intolerable Acts, British Army commander-in-chief Lieutenant General Thomas Gage was installed as governor of Massachusetts. In January 1775, Gage's superior, Lord Dartmouth, ordered the general to arrest those responsible for the Tea Party and to seize the munitions that had been stockpiled by militia forces outside of Boston. The letter took several months to reach Gage, who acted immediately by sending out 700 army regulars. During their march to Lexington and Concord on the morning of April 19, 1775, the British troops encountered militia forces, who had been warned the night before by Paul Revere and another messenger on horseback, William Dawes. Even though it is unknown who fired the first shot, the Revolutionary War began.
Main article: Second Continental Congress
On May 10, 1775, less than three weeks after the Battles at Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress convened in the Pennsylvania State House. The gathering essentially reconstituted the First Congress with many of the same delegates in attendance. Among the new arrivals were Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Hancock of Massachusetts, and in June, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Hancock was elected president two weeks into the session when Peyton Randolph was recalled to Virginia to preside over the House of Burgesses as speaker, and Jefferson was named to replace him in the Virginia delegation. After adopting the rules of debate from the previous year and reinforcing its emphasis on secrecy, the Congress turned to its foremost concern, the defense of the colonies.
The provincial assembly in Massachusetts, which had declared the colony's governorship vacant, reached out to the Congress for direction on two matters: whether the assembly could assume the powers of civil government and whether the Congress would take over the army being formed in Boston. In answer to the first question, on June 9 the colony's leaders were directed to chose a council to govern within the spirit of the colony's charter. As for the second, Congress spent several days discussing plans for guiding the forces of all thirteen colonies. Finally, on June 14 Congress approved provisioning the New England militias, agreed to send ten companies of riflemen from other colonies as reinforcements, and appointed a committee to draft rules for governing the military, thus establishing the Continental Army. The next day, Samuel and John Adams nominated Washington as commander-in-chief, a motion that was unanimously approved. Two days later, on June 17, the militias clashed with British forces at Bunker Hill, a victory for Britain but a costly one.
The Congress's actions came despite the divide between conservatives who still hoped for reconciliation with England and at the other end of the spectrum, those who favored independence. To satisfy the former, Congress adopted the Olive Branch Petition on July 5, an appeal for peace to King George III written by John Dickinson. Then, the following day, it approved the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, a resolution justifying military action. The declaration, intended for Washington to read to the troops upon his arrival in Massachusetts, was drafted by Jefferson but edited by Dickinson who thought its language too strong. When the Olive Branch Petition arrived in London in September, the king refused to look at it. By then, he had already issued a proclamation declaring the American colonies in rebellion.
Main article: United States Declaration of Independence
Under the auspices of the Second Continental Congress and its Committee of Five, Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. It was presented to the Congress by the Committee on June 28, and after much debate and editing of the document, on July 2, 1776, Congress passed the Lee Resolution, which declared the United Colonies independent from Great Britain. Two days later, on July 4, the Declaration of Independence was adopted. The name "United States of America", which first appeared in the Declaration, was formally approved by the Congress on September 9, 1776.
In an effort to get this important document promptly into the public realm John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress, commissioned John Dunlap, editor and printer of the Pennsylvania Packet, to print 200 broadside copies of the Declaration, which came to be known as the Dunlap broadsides. Printing commenced the day after the Declaration was adopted. They were distributed throughout the 13 colonies/states with copies sent to General Washington and his troops at New York with a directive that it be read aloud. Copies were also sent to Britain and other points in Europe.
Main article: American Revolutionary War
While the colonists were fighting the British to gain independence their newly formed government, with its Articles of Confederation, were put to the test, revealing the shortcomings and weaknesses of America's first Constitution. During this time Washington became convinced that a strong federal government was urgently needed, as the individual states were not meeting the organizational and supply demands of the war on their own individual accord. Key precipitating events included the Boston Tea Party in 1773, Paul Revere's Ride in 1775, and the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River was a major American victory over Hessian forces at the Battle of Trenton and greatly boosted American morale. The Battle of Saratoga and the Siege of Yorktown, which primarily ended the fighting between American and British, were also pivotal events during the war. The 1783 Treaty of Paris marked the official end of the war.
After the war Washington was instrumental in organizing the effort to create a "national militia" made up of individual state units, and under the direction of the Federal government. He also endorsed the creation of a military academy to train artillery offices and engineers. Not wanting to leave the country disarmed and vulnerable so soon after the war, Washington favored a peacetime army of 2600 men. He also favored the creation of a navy that could repel any European intruders. He approached Henry Knox, who accompanied Washington during most of his campaigns, with the prospect of becoming the future Secretary of War.
Main article: Treaty of Paris (1783)
After Washington's final victory at the surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, more than a year passed before official negotiations for peace commenced and ultimately a treaty was adopted. The Treaty of Paris was drafted in November 1782, and negotiations began in April 1783, continued through the summer, and the completed treaty was signed on September 3. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay and Henry Laurens represented the United States, and David Hartley, a member of Parliament, and Richard Oswald, a prominent and influential Scotish businessman, represented Great Britain. While in France, Franklin, who had a long established rapport with the French, and was almost entirely responsible for securing an alliance with them during the war, was greeted with high honors from the French council, while the others received due accommodations but were generally considered to be amateur negotiators. Communications between Britain and France was largely effected through Franklin and Lord Shelburne who was on good terms with Franklin. Franklin, Adams and Jay understood the concerns of the French at this uncertain juncture and, using that to their advantage, in the final sessions of negotiations convinced both the French and the British that American independence was in their best interests.
Main article: Constitutional Convention (United States)
Under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress of the Confederation had no power to collect taxes, regulate commerce, or pay the national debt. Key leaders–George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and others–began fearing for the young nation’s fate. As the Articles' weaknesses became more and more apparent, the idea of creating a strong central government gained support, leading to the call for a convention to amend the Articles.
The Constitutional Convention met in the Pennsylvania State House from May 14 through September 17, 1787. The 55 delegates in attendance represented a cross-section of 18th-century American leadership. The vast majority were well-educated and prosperous, and all were prominent in their respective states. Many delegates were late to arrive, and after a few days' delay, a quorum was finally present on May 25 to elect Washington, the nation's most trusted figure, as convention president. Four days later, on May 29, the convention adopted a rule of secrecy, a controversial decision but a common practice that allowed delegates to speak freely.
Immediately following the secrecy vote, Virginia governor Edmund Randolph introduced the Virginia Plan, fifteen resolutions written by Madison proposing a government of three branches: a single executive, a bicameral (two-house) legislature, and a judiciary. The lower house was to be elected by the people, with seats apportioned by state population. The upper house would be chosen by the lower house from delegates nominated by state legislatures. The executive, who would have veto power over legislation, would be elected by the Congress, which could overrule state laws. While the plan exceeded the convention's objective of merely amending the Articles, most delegates were willing to abandon their original mandate in favor of crafting a new form of government.
Discussions of the Virginia resolutions continued into mid-June, when William Paterson of New Jersey presented an alternative proposal. The New Jersey Plan retained most of the Articles' provisions, including a one-house legislature and equal power for the states. One of the plan's innovations was a "plural" executive branch, but its primary concession was to allow the national government to regulate trade and commerce. Meeting as a committee of the whole, the delegates discussed the two proposals beginning with the question of whether there should be a single or three-fold executive and then whether to grant the executive veto power. After agreeing on a single executive who could veto legislation, the delegates turned to an even more contentious issue, legislative representation. Larger states favored proportional representation based on population, while smaller states wanted each state to have the same number of legislators.
By mid-July, the debates between the large-state and small-state factions had reached an impasse. With the convention on the verge of collapse, Roger Sherman of Connecticut introduced what became known as the Connecticut Compromise. Sherman's proposal called for a House of Representatives elected proportionally and a Senate where all states would have the same number of seats. On July 16, the compromise was approved by the narrowest of margins, 5 states to 4.
The proceedings left most delegates with reservations. Several went home early in protest, believing the convention was overstepping its authority. Others were concerned about the lack of a Bill of Rights safeguarding individual liberties. Even Madison, the Constitution's chief architect, was dissatisfied, particularly over equal representation in the Senate and the failure to grant Congress the power to veto state legislation. Misgivings aside, a final draft was approved overwhelmingly on September 17, with 11 states in favor and New York unable to vote since it had only one delegate remaining, Hamilton. Rhode Island, which was in a dispute over the state's paper currency, had refused to send anyone to the convention. Of the 42 delegates present, only three refused to sign: Randolph and George Mason, both of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.
The Constitution faced one more hurdle: approval by the legislatures in at least nine of the 13 states. Within three days of the signing, the draft was submitted to the Congress of the Confederation, which forwarded the document to the states for ratification. In November, Pennsylvania's legislature convened the first of the conventions. Before it could vote, Delaware became the first state to ratify, approving the Constitution on December 7 by a 30-0 margin. Pennsylvania followed suit five days later, splitting its vote 46-23. Despite unanimous votes in New Jersey and Georgia, several key states appeared to be leaning against ratification because of the omission of a Bill of Rights, particularly Virginia where the opposition was led by Mason and Patrick Henry, who had refused to participate in the convention claiming he "smelt a rat". Rather than risk everything, the Federalists relented, promising that if the Constitution was adopted, amendments would be added to secure people's rights.
Over the next year, the string of ratifications continued. Finally, on June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify, making the Constitution the law of the land. Virginia followed suit four days later, and New York did the same in late July. After North Carolina's assent in November, another year-and-a-half would pass before the 13th state would weigh in. Facing trade sanctions and the possibility of being forced out of the union, Rhode Island approved the Constitution on May 29, 1790 by a begrudging 34-32 vote.
The Constitution officially took effect on March 4, 1789, when the House and Senate met for their first sessions. On April 30, Washington was sworn in as the nation's first president. Ten amendments, known collectively as the United States Bill of Rights, were ratified on December 15, 1791. Because the delegates were sworn to secrecy rule, Madison's notes on the ratification were not published until after his death in 1836.
Main article: United States Bill of Rights
The Constitution, as drafted, was sharply criticized by the Anti-Federalists, a group that contended the document failed to safeguard individual liberties from the federal government. Leading Anti-Federalists included Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, both from Virginia, and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts. Delegates at the Constitutional Convention who shared their views were Virginians George Mason and Edmund Randolph and Massachusetts representative Elbridge Gerry, all of whom refused to sign the final document. Henry, who derived his hatred of a central governing authority from his Scottish ancestry, did all in his power to defeat the Constitution, opposing Madison every step of the way.
The criticisms are what led to the amendments proposed under the Bill of Rights. Madison, the bill's principal author, was originally opposed to the amendments, but was influenced by the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, primarily written by Mason, and the Declaration of Independence, by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, while in France, shared Henry's and Mason's fears about a strong central government, especially the president's power, but because of his friendship with Madison and the pending Bill of Rights, he quieted his concerns. Alexander Hamilton, however, was opposed to a Bill of Rights believing the amendments not only unnecessary but dangerous:
Why declare things shall not be done, which there is no power to do ... that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?
Madison had no way of knowing the debate between Virginia's two legislative houses would delay the adoption of the amendments for more than two years. The final draft, referred to the states by the federal Congress on September 25, 1789, was not ratified by Virginia's Senate until December 15, 1791.
The Bill of Rights drew its authority from the consent of the people and held that,
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
— Article 11.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
— Article 12.
Madison came to be recognized as the founding era's foremost proponent of religious liberty, free speech, and freedom of the press.
The first five U.S. presidents are regarded as Founding Fathers for their active participation in the American Revolution: Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. They all previously served as delegates in the Continental Congress.
The Founding Fathers represented the upper echelon of political leadership in the British colonies during the latter half of the 18th century. All were leaders in their communities and respective colonies who were willing to assume responsibility for public affairs.
Of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and U.S. Constitution, nearly all were native born and of British heritage, including Scots, Irish, and Welsh. Nearly half were lawyers, while the remainder were primarily businessmen and planter-farmers. The average age of the founders was 43. Benjamin Franklin, born in 1706, was the oldest, while only a few were born after 1750 and thus were in their 20s.
The following sections discuss these and other demographic topics in greater detail. For the most part, the information is confined to signers/delegates associated with the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution.
All of the Founding Fathers had extensive political experience at the national and state levels. As just one example, the signers of the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation were members of Second Continental Congress, while four-fifths of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention had served in the Congress either during or prior to the convention. The remaining fifth attending the convention were recognized as leaders in the state assemblies that appointed them.
Following are brief profiles of the political backgrounds of some of the more notable founders:
More than a third of the Founding Fathers attended or graduated from colleges in the American colonies, while additional founders attended college abroad, primarily in England and Scotland. All other founders either were home schooled, received tutoring, completed apprenticeships, or were self-educated.
Following is a listing of founders who graduated from six of the nine colleges established in the Americas during the Colonial Era. A few founders, such as Alexander Hamilton and James Monroe, attended college but did not graduate. The other three colonial colleges, all founded in the 1760s, included Brown University (originally College of Rhode Island), Dartmouth College, and Rutgers University (originally Queen's College).
Following are founders who graduated from colleges in Great Britain:
The greater majority of founders were natives of the American Colonies, while just nineteen were born in other parts of the British Empire.
While the Founding Fathers were engaged in a broad range of occupations, the greater majority had careers in three professions: about half the founders were lawyers, a sixth were planters/farmers, another sixth were merchants/businessmen, and the others were spread across miscellaneous professions.
Of the 55 delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, 28 were Anglicans (i.e. Church of England; or Episcopalian, after the American Revolutionary War was won), 21 were other Protestant, and three were Roman Catholic (Daniel Carroll and Fitzsimons; Charles Carroll was Roman Catholic but was not a Constitution signatory). Among the Protestant delegates to the Constitutional Convention, eight were Presbyterians, seven were Congregationalists, two were Lutherans, two were Dutch Reformed, and two were Methodists. A few prominent Founding Fathers were anti-clerical, notably Jefferson. Historian Gregg L. Frazer argues that the leading Founders (John Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Wilson, Morris, Madison, Hamilton, and Washington) were neither Christians nor Deists, but rather supporters of a hybrid "theistic rationalism". Many Founders deliberately avoided public discussion of their faith. Historian David L. Holmes uses evidence gleaned from letters, government documents, and second-hand accounts to identify their religious beliefs.
Four U.S. Founders are minted on American currency—Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington; Washington and Jefferson both appear on three different denominations.
|Founding Father name||Currency image||Denomination|
|George Washington||Quarter dollar (quarter)|
|Thomas Jefferson||Five cents (nickel)|
|Alexander Hamilton||Ten dollars|
|Benjamin Franklin||One hundred dollars|
Independence Day (colloquially called the Fourth of July) is a United States national holiday celebrated yearly on July 4 to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the nation. Washington's Birthday is also observed as a national federal holiday, and is also known as Presidents' Day.
Several Founding Fathers were instrumental in establishing schools and societal institutions that still exist today:
The Founding Fathers were portrayed in the Tony Award–winning 1969 musical 1776, which depicted the debates over, and eventual adoption of, the Declaration of Independence. The stage production was adapted into the 1972 film of the same name. The 1989 film A More Perfect Union, which was filmed on location in Independence Hall, depicts the events of the Constitutional Convention. The writing and passing of the founding documents are depicted in the 1997 documentary miniseries Liberty!, and the passage of the Declaration of Independence is portrayed in the second episode of the 2008 miniseries John Adams and the third episode of the 2015 miniseries Sons of Liberty. The Founders also feature in the 1986 miniseries George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation, the 2002–03 animated television series Liberty's Kids, the 2020 miniseries Washington, and in many other films and television portrayals.
Several Founding Fathers, Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison—were reimagined in Hamilton, a 2015 musical inspired by Ron Chernow's 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, with music, lyrics and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The musical won eleven Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Several major professional sports teams in the Northeastern United States whose names pay homage to events, monuments, and ideals related to the founding:
Religious persecution had existed for centuries around the world and it existed in colonial America. Founders such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry and James Mason first established a measure of religious freedom in Virginia in 1776 with the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which became the model for religious liberty for the nation. The Baptists, Presbyterians and the Lutherans had been for a decade prior petitioning against the established church of England for religious liberties. Jefferson had left the Continental Congress to return to Virginia to join the fight for religious freedom, which proved difficult, as many members of the Virginia legislature belonged to the established church. While he was not completely successful, Jefferson managed to have the laws which punished those with different religious beliefs repealed. Jefferson was also the architect for separation of Church and State, was opposed to the use of public funds to support the established church and thought it unwise to link civil rights to religious doctrine. Freedom of religion, along with freedom of speech, ultimately became the law of the nation. The first statement in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution proclaims the right to Freedom of Religion, and became part of the Bill of Rights which was adopted in 1791. Washington was a firm believer of religious freedom, and once assured Virginia Baptists, worried that the Constitution as framed might not protect their religious liberties, said that, "... certainly, I would never have placed my signature to it." Along with Christians, Jews also viewed Washington as a champion of freedom, and also sought his assurances that they would enjoy complete religious freedom. Washington responded by declaring America’s revolution in religion stood as an example for the rest of the world.
Further information: Slavery in the United States
The Founding Fathers were not unified on the issue of slavery. Many of them were opposed to it and repeatedly attempted to end slavery in many of the colonies, but predicted that the issue would threaten to tear the country apart and had limited power to deal with it. In her study of Jefferson, historian Annette Gordon-Reed discusses this topic, "Others of the founders held slaves, but no other founder drafted the charter for freedom". In addition to Jefferson, Washington and many other of the Founding Fathers were slaveowners, but some were also conflicted by the institution, seeing it as immoral and politically divisive; Washington gradually became a cautious supporter of abolitionism and freed his slaves in his will. Jay and Hamilton led the successful fight to outlaw the slave trade in New York, with the efforts beginning as early as 1777. Conversely, many Founders such as Samuel Adams and John Adams were against slavery their entire lives. Rush wrote a pamphlet in 1773 which criticizes the slave trade as well as the institution of slavery. In the pamphlet, Rush argues on a scientific basis that Africans are not by nature intellectually or morally inferior, and that any apparent evidence to the contrary is only the "perverted expression" of slavery, which "is so foreign to the human mind, that the moral faculties, as well as those of the understanding are debased, and rendered torpid by it." The Continental Association contained a clause which banned any Patriot involvement in slave trading.
Franklin, though he was a key founder of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, originally owned slaves whom he later manumitted (released from slavery). While serving in the Rhode Island Assembly, in 1769 Hopkins introduced one of the earliest anti-slavery laws in the colonies. When Jefferson entered public life as a young member of the House of Burgesses, he began his career as a social reformer by an effort to secure legislation permitting the emancipation of slaves. Jay founded the New York Manumission Society in 1785, for which Hamilton became an officer. They and other members of the Society founded the African Free School in New York City, to educate the children of free blacks and slaves. When Jay was governor of New York in 1798, he helped secure and signed into law an abolition law; fully ending forced labor as of 1827. He freed his own slaves in 1798. Hamilton opposed slavery, as his experiences in life left him very familiar with slavery and its effect on slaves and on slaveholders, although he did negotiate slave transactions for his wife's family, the Schuylers. Many of the Founding Fathers never owned slaves, including John Adams, Samuel Adams, and Paine.
Slaves and slavery are mentioned only indirectly in the 1787 Constitution. For example, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 prescribes that "three-fifths of all other Persons" are to be counted for the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives and direct taxes. Additionally, in Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3, slaves are referred to as "persons held in service or labor". The Founding Fathers, however, did make important efforts to contain slavery. Many Northern states had adopted legislation to end or significantly reduce slavery during and after the American Revolution. In 1782, Virginia passed a manumission law that allowed slave owners to free their slaves by will or deed. As a result, thousands of slaves were manumitted in Virginia. In the Ordinance of 1784, Jefferson proposed to ban slavery in all the western territories, which failed to pass Congress by one vote. Partially following Jefferson's plan, Congress did ban slavery in the Northwest Ordinance, for lands north of the Ohio River. The international slave trade was banned in all states except South Carolina by 1800. Finally in 1807, President Jefferson called for and signed into law a federally enforced ban on the international slave trade throughout the U.S. and its territories. It became a federal crime to import or export a slave. However, the domestic slave trade was allowed for expansion or for diffusion of slavery into the Louisiana Territory.
Main article: Historiography of the United States
Historians who wrote about the American Revolutionary era and the founding of the United States government now number in the thousands, and whose inclusion would go well beyond the scope of this article. Some of the most prominent ones, however, are listed below. While most scholarly works maintain overall objectivity, historian Arthur H. Shaffer notes that many of the early works about the American Revolution often express a national bias, or anti-bias, but maintains that this bias lends a direct insight into the minds of the founders and their adversaries respectively. He notes that any bias is the product of a national interest and prevailing political mood, and as such cannot be dismissed as having no historic value for the modern historian. Conversely, various modern accounts of history contain anachronisms, modern day ideals and perceptions used in an effort to write about the past and as such can distort the historical account in an effort to placate a modern audience.
Several of the earliest histories of America's founding and its founders were written by Jeremy Belknap, author of his three volume work, The history of New-Hampshire, published in 1784.
David Ramsay, one of the first major historians of the American Revolutionary War.
Mercy Otis Warren wrote extensively about the Revolution and Post Revolution. All of her works were published anonymously until 1790.
Mason Locke Weems wrote the first biography of Washington in 1800. It contains the famous story about the young Washington and the cherry tree.
William Wirt wrote the first biography about Patrick Henry in 1805, but was accused for much bias in his praise of Henry.
John Marshall, a Supreme Court Justice who completed and published a two volume biography of Washington in 1832, three years before his death.
Rufus Wilmot Griswold authored Washington and the Generals of the Revolution, a two volume work published in 1885.
Henry Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams, wrote a nine volume work, The History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, acclaimed for its literary style, and documentary evidence, and first hand knowledge of major figures during the early period.
Albert Bushnell Hart, Professor of History at Harvard University, editor of a definitive twenty-seven volume work entitled, The American Nation: A History, published in 1904–1918.
Articles and books by 20th- and 21st-century historians combined with the digitization of primary sources like handwritten letters continue to contribute to an encyclopedic body of knowledge about the Founding Fathers.
Dumas Malone is noted for his six-volume biography Jefferson and His Time, for which he received the 1975 Pulitzer Prize, and for his co-editorship of the twenty-volume Dictionary of American Biography.
Douglas Southall Freeman wrote an extensive seven volume biography on George Washington. Historian and George Washington biographer John E. Ferling maintains that no other biography for Washington compares to that of Freeman's work.
Ron Chernow won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2010 biography of Washington. His 2004 bestselling book Alexander Hamilton inspired the 2015 blockbuster musical of the same name.
According to Joseph Ellis, the concept of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. emerged in the 1820s as the last survivors died out. Ellis says "the founders", or "the fathers", comprised an aggregate of semi-sacred figures whose particular accomplishments and singular achievements were decidedly less important than their sheer presence as a powerful but faceless symbol of past greatness. For the generation of national leaders coming of age in the 1820s and 1830s – men like Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun – "the founders" represented a heroic but anonymous abstraction whose long shadow fell across all followers and whose legendary accomplishments defied comparison.
We can win no laurels in a war for independence. Earlier and worthier hands have gathered them all. Nor are there places for us ... [as] the founders of states. Our fathers have filled them. But there remains to us a great duty of defence and preservation.
Joanne B. Freeman's area of expertise is the life and legacy of Hamilton as well as political culture of the revolutionary and early national eras. Freeman has documented the often opposing visions of the Founding Fathers as they tried to build a new framework for governance."
Annette Gordon-Reed is an American historian and Harvard Law School professor. She is noted for changing scholarship on Jefferson regarding his alleged relationship with Sally Hemings and her children. She has studied the challenges faced by the Founding Fathers particularly as it relates to their position and actions on slavery."
David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize–winning 2001 book, John Adams., focuses on the Founding Father, and his 2005 book, 1776, details Washington's military history in the American Revolution and other independence events carried out by America's founders.
Jack P. Greene is an American historian, specializing in Colonial American history.
Peter S. Onuf and Jack N. Rakove have researched Jefferson extensively.