Founding Fathers of the United States

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The Founding Fathers of the United States, or simply the Founding Fathers or Founders, were a group of American revolutionary leaders who united the Thirteen Colonies, led the war for independence from Great Britain, and crafted a framework of government for the new United States of America during the later decades of the 18th century.

Most historians recognize prominent leaders of the revolutionary era such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton.[2] 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 whether they signed the Constitution or not.[3][4] In addition, some historians include signers of the Articles of Confederation, which was adopted as the nation's first constitution in 1781.[5]

Beyond this, the criteria for inclusion vary as historians have come to single 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.[6][7][8][9] 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 failures of the founding generation in addressing issues such as slavery and the treatment of Native Americans.[10][11] 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.[12]


John Adams, in response to praise for his generation, rejoined, "I ought not to object to your reverence for your fathers, meaning those concerned with the direction of public affairs, 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."[13] Even so, the terms fathers, forefathers, and founders were often used in political speeches.[7] In his second inaugural address in 1805, Thomas Jefferson referred to those who first came to the New World as "forefathers".[14] At his 1825 inauguration, John Quincy Adams called the Constitution "the work of our forefathers" and expressed his gratitude to "founders of the Union".[15] 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".[16] These terms were used in the United States throughout the nineteenth 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 all the way up to William McKinley's first inauguration in 1897.[17][18][19][20]

In 1902, the constitutional lawyer and later congressman, James M. Beck, delivered an address titled "Founders of the Republic" on the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the holiday known as, George Washington's Birthday. 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 51 members of the 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 leaders such as Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, John Paul Jones, and "Mad Anthony" Wayne.[9]

The phrase "Founding Fathers," was first coined by Senator Warren G. Harding in his keynote speech at the Republican National Convention in 1916.[21] Harding repeated the phrase at his own inauguration in 1921.[22] While presidents and others would use the terms "founders" and "fathers" in their speeches throughout the 20th century, it would be 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.[23][24] The term "Founding Fathers" has been widely used in histories of the founding era, beginning with Kenneth Bernard Umbreit's Founding Fathers: Men who Shaped Our Tradition in 1941.[25][7]

Key Founding Fathers

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.[26]

Signature page of the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that was negotiated on behalf of the United States by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay

Morris's selection of seven "greats" has become widely accepted.[8][7] 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.[27][28][29] Jay, Adams, and Franklin negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris that brought an end to the American Revolutionary War.[30]

Washington was Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and later president of the Constitutional Convention.[31][32] 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.

Framers and signers of founding documents

Portraits and autograph signatures of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

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."[33] In addition, as the nation's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union has also gained acceptance as a founding document.[34][35]

As a result, signers of three key documents are generally considered to be Founding Fathers of the United States: Declaration of Independence (DI),[3] Articles of Confederation (AC),[5] and U.S. Constitution (USC).[4] The following table provides a list of these signers, some of whom signed more than one document.

Name Province/state Number
DI (1776) AC (1777) USC (1787)
John Adams Massachusetts 1 Yes
Samuel Adams Massachusetts 2 Yes Yes
Thomas Adams Virginia 1 Yes
Abraham Baldwin Georgia 1 Yes
John Banister Virginia 1 Yes
Josiah Bartlett New Hampshire 2 Yes Yes
Richard Bassett Delaware 1 Yes
Gunning Bedford Jr. Delaware 1 Yes
John Blair Virginia 1 Yes
William Blount North Carolina 1 Yes
Carter Braxton Virginia 1 Yes
David Brearley New Jersey 1 Yes
Jacob Broom Delaware 1 Yes
Pierce Butler South Carolina 1 Yes
Charles Carroll Maryland 1 Yes
Daniel Carroll Maryland 2 Yes Yes
Samuel Chase Maryland 1 Yes
Abraham Clark New Jersey 1 Yes
William Clingan Pennsylvania 1 Yes
George Clymer Pennsylvania 2 Yes Yes
John Collins Rhode Island 1 Yes
Francis Dana Massachusetts 1 Yes
Jonathan Dayton New Jersey 1 Yes
John Dickinson Delaware 2 Yes Yes
William Henry Drayton South Carolina 1 Yes
James Duane New York 1 Yes
William Duer New York 1 Yes
William Ellery Rhode Island 2 Yes Yes
William Few Georgia 1 Yes
Thomas Fitzsimons Pennsylvania 1 Yes
William Floyd New York 1 Yes
Benjamin Franklin Pennsylvania 2 Yes Yes
Elbridge Gerry Massachusetts 2 Yes Yes
Nicholas Gilman New Hampshire 1 Yes
Nathaniel Gorham Massachusetts 1 Yes
Button Gwinnett Georgia 1 Yes
Lyman Hall Georgia 1 Yes
Alexander Hamilton New York 1 Yes
John Hancock Massachusetts 2 Yes Yes
John Hanson Maryland 1 Yes
Cornelius Harnett North Carolina 1 Yes
Benjamin Harrison Virginia 1 Yes
John Hart New Jersey 1 Yes
John Harvie Virginia 1 Yes
Joseph Hewes North Carolina 1 Yes
Thomas Heyward Jr. South Carolina 2 Yes Yes
Samuel Holten Massachusetts 1 Yes
William Hooper North Carolina 1 Yes
Stephen Hopkins Rhode Island 1 Yes
Francis Hopkinson New Jersey 1 Yes
Titus Hosmer Connecticut 1 Yes
Samuel Huntington Connecticut 2 Yes Yes
Richard Hutson South Carolina 1 Yes
Jared Ingersoll Pennsylvania 1 Yes
William Jackson South Carolina 1 Yes
Thomas Jefferson Virginia 1 Yes
Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer Maryland 1 Yes
William Samuel Johnson Connecticut 1 Yes
Rufus King Massachusetts 1 Yes
John Langdon New Hampshire 1 Yes
Edward Langworthy Georgia 1 Yes
Henry Laurens South Carolina 1 Yes
Francis Lightfoot Lee Virginia 2 Yes Yes
Richard Henry Lee Virginia 2 Yes Yes
Francis Lewis New York 2 Yes Yes
William Livingston New Jersey 1 Yes
James Lovell Massachusetts 1 Yes
Thomas Lynch Jr. South Carolina 1 Yes
James Madison Virginia 1 Yes
Henry Marchant Rhode Island 1 Yes
John Mathews South Carolina 1 Yes
James McHenry Maryland 1 Yes
Thomas McKean Delaware 2 Yes Yes
Gouverneur Morris New York 2[a] Yes
Pennsylvania Yes
Lewis Morris New York 1 Yes
Robert Morris Pennsylvania 3 Yes Yes Yes
John Morton Pennsylvania 1 Yes
Thomas Nelson Jr. Virginia 1 Yes
William Paca Maryland 1 Yes
Robert Treat Paine Massachusetts 1 Yes
William Paterson New Jersey 1 Yes
John Penn North Carolina 2 Yes Yes
Charles Pinckney South Carolina 1 Yes
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney South Carolina 1 Yes
George Read Delaware 2 Yes Yes
Joseph Reed Pennsylvania 1 Yes
Daniel Roberdeau Pennsylvania 1 Yes
Caesar Rodney Delaware 1 Yes
George Ross Pennsylvania 1 Yes
Benjamin Rush Pennsylvania 1 Yes
Edward Rutledge South Carolina 1 Yes
John Rutledge South Carolina 1 Yes
Nathaniel Scudder New Jersey 1 Yes
Roger Sherman Connecticut 3 Yes Yes Yes
James Smith Pennsylvania 1 Yes
Jonathan Bayard Smith Pennsylvania 1 Yes
Richard Dobbs Spaight North Carolina 1 Yes
Richard Stockton New Jersey 1 Yes
Thomas Stone Maryland 1 Yes
George Taylor Pennsylvania 1 Yes
Edward Telfair Georgia 1 Yes
Matthew Thornton New Hampshire 1 Yes
Nicholas Van Dyke Delaware 1 Yes
George Walton Georgia 1 Yes
John Walton Georgia 1 Yes
George Washington Virginia 1 Yes
John Wentworth Jr. New Hampshire 1 Yes
William Whipple New Hampshire 1 Yes
John Williams North Carolina 1 Yes
William Williams Connecticut 1 Yes
Hugh Williamson North Carolina 1 Yes
James Wilson Pennsylvania 2 Yes Yes
John Witherspoon New Jersey 2 Yes Yes
Oliver Wolcott Connecticut 2 Yes Yes
George Wythe Virginia 1 Yes

Delegates who did not sign the U.S. Constitution

In addition to recognizing the 39 signers of the U.S. Constitution, some sources also consider those who helped write the document but did not sign it to be founders.[4] The following list includes the 16 framers who participated in the Constitutional Convention but, for one reason or another, did not sign the document presented to the Confederation Congress for adoption by the states:[36][37]

Additional founders

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:

Colonies unite

  First Continental Congress at prayer,
by T. H. Matteson, 1848

Beginning in the mid-1760s, Parliament began to levy taxes on the colonies to raise funds for Britain's debts from the French and Indian War a decade earlier.[63][64] Opposition to Stamp Act and Townshend Acts united the colonies in a common cause.[65] 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.[66]

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.[67][68] Orchestrated by Samuel Adams and the Boston Committee of Correspondence, the protest was viewed as treasonous by British authorities.[69] 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.[66]

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.[70] 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.[71]

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.[72][73] 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.[74][75]

First Continental Congress

The First Continental Congress, convened at Philadelphia's Carpenter's Hall on September 5, 1774.[76] 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.[77][78]

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.[79] Joseph Warren, chairman of the Resolves drafting committee, had dispatched Paul Revere to deliver signed copies to the Congress in Philadelphia.[80][81][69] The Resolves called for the ouster of British officials, a trade embargo of British goods, and the formation of militia throughout the colonies.[79] 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.[82][83]

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.[84] The declaration asserted the rights of colonists and outlined Parliament's abuses of power. It also included a trade boycott known as the Continental Association.[85] 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.[86]

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.[87][88] 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 Boston. The letter took several months to reach Gage, who acted immediately by sending out 700 army regulars.[89] 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 no one knows who fired the first shot, battles broke out and the Revolutionary War began.[90]

Second Continental Congress

Less than three weeks after the Battles at Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775 in the Pennsylvania State House. The gathering essentially reconstituted the First Congress with many of the same delegates in attendance.[91] Among the new arrivals were Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris, both of Pennsylvania; John Hancock of Massachusetts, John Witherspoon of New Jersey, and Charles Carroll of Maryland. 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. Thomas Jefferson replaced Randolph in the Virginia delegation.[92] They immediately began reviewing depositions from eyewitnesses and other papers recounting the fighting in Massachusetts.[93]

The Congress then appointed a committee to draft rules to govern the military and in so doing established the Continental Army on June 14.[94] The next day Samuel and John Adams nominated Washington as commander-in-chief, a motion that was unanimously approved.[95] Three days later, Patriot and British forces clashed at Bunker Hill on June 17, resulting in a costly British victory.[96] In an effort to justify military preparations, Congress passed the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms on July 6, written by Thomas Jefferson and revised by John Dickinson.[94]

The debate over proportionate representation was hotly debated in the First Continental Congress, but was never resolved due to the lack of colonial population data at the time.[97] Subsequently one of the first issues debated and a major source of contention was over proportionate representation, where the larger colonies would carry greater weight over the smaller ones. Benjamin Harrison and Patrick Henry stood firmly on the idea that the larger states have proportionate voting status. Samuel Chase and Thomas Stone of Maryland, a state with a much smaller population than Virginia, maintained that, "The small colonies have a right to happiness and security; they would not have no safety if the great colonies were not limited." Samuel Huntington of Connecticut aired concerns that if a larger state could have its voting status limited, that it might pave the way to having a colony's borders pared to so limit its territory. Benjamin Franklin held that votes of any colony should be proportional to its population, and that if the smaller states were granted equal voting status that they bear equal financial burdens and provide as many men in military matters as the larger colonies would.[98] William Paterson of New Jersey felt such a policy "struck at the very existence" of the smaller states.[99] Many of the delegates regarded the idea of proportional representation as a way for the larger states, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, in "snuffing out ten states by three", and refused to entrust this responsibility to the people of those states.[100]

The newly founded country needed a government to replace the one created by Parliament. After more than a year of debate, on November 15, 1777, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, a constitution establishing a national government with a one-house legislature. Its ratification by all thirteen colonies, which took nearly four years, gave the Congress a new name: the Congress of the Confederation.[101][102] In spite of its shortcomings, the Articles served as the nation's first Constitution during the last two years of the war and the ensuing five-year period.[103] The issue of proportional representation, granting larger colonies greater voting status became the law, was incorporated into the Articles of Confederation, and would remain so until it was contested and a compromise, proposed by Roger Sherman, was obtained during the Constitutional ratification debates. The idea of proportional representation remained a major issue that kept many of the founders divided over political ideology throughout the revolution and early years of the newly established country.[104][105]


Under the auspices of the Second Continental Congress and its Committee of Five,[106] Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. It was presented to the Congress by the Committee on June 28,[107] and after much debate and editing of the document, on July 2, 1776,[108][109] Congress passed the Lee Resolution, which declared the United Colonies independent from Great Britain, and two days later, on July 4, adopted the Declaration of Independence.[110] The name "United States of America", which first appeared in the Declaration, was formally adopted by the Congress on September 9, 1776.[111]

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 colony/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.[112][113][107]

Constitution and ratification

The Constitutional Convention took place during the summer of 1787, in Philadelphia.[114] Although the convention was called to revise the Articles of Confederation, the intention from the outset for some, including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, was to create a new framework of government rather than amend the existing one.[115]

The fifty-five delegates attending the Constitutional Convention were a group of distinguished men who represented a cross section of eighteenth century America. Nearly all of them were well educated and prominent in their respective states. Nearly all were involved in the revolution and its war, with at least twenty-nine of them who fought in the Continental Army. The group in its entirety had extensive political experience; Forty-one individuals of the fifty-five delegates were or had been members of the Continental Congress.[116]

The delegates elected George Washington, whom they all trusted, to preside over the convention.[115] The result of the convention was the United States Constitution. After the Constitution had been adopted, Madison maintained that it was Washington's influence that brought overall acceptance of the Constitution.[117] The ratified Constitution was, however, met with much criticism from anti-federalists, led by Patrick Henry and George Mason, and which also included Samuel Adams and Elbridge Gerry, none of whom had signed the Constitution, and who strongly contended that in its present form the Constitution did not provide any safeguards for individual liberties from the federal government.[118] This is what brought about a Bill of Rights to this end. Madison, influenced by Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence,[119] was the principle author of the Bill of Rights whose final draft was completed on September 25, 1789 and ratified on December 15, 1791.[120] Madison thus came to be widely considered the foremost champion of religious liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press in the founding era.[121]

Social background and commonalities

George Washington served as president of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.[32]
Benjamin Franklin, an early advocate of colonial unity, was a foundational figure in defining the US ethos and exemplifying the emerging nation's ideals.
Alexander Hamilton served as Washington's senior aide-de-camp during most of the Revolutionary War; wrote 51 of the 85 articles comprising the Federalist Papers; and created much of the administrative framework of the government.
John Jay was president of the Continental Congress from 1778 to 1779, negotiated the Treaty of Paris with Adams and Franklin, and wrote The Federalist Papers with Hamilton and Madison.
James Madison, called the "Father of the Constitution" by his contemporaries[123]
Peyton Randolph, as president of the Continental Congress, presided over creation of the Continental Association.[77]
Richard Henry Lee, who introduced the Lee Resolution in the Second Continental Congress calling for the colonies' independence from Great Britain
John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, renowned for his large and stylish signature on the United States Declaration of Independence
John Dickinson authored the first draft of the Articles of Confederation in 1776 while serving in the Continental Congress as a delegate from Pennsylvania, and signed them late the following year, after being elected to Congress as a delegate from Delaware.
Henry Laurens was president of the Continental Congress (November 1, 1777 - December 9, 1778) when the Articles were passed on November 15, 1777.[124]
Roger Sherman, member of the Committee of Five, signed Olive Branch Petition in 1775; the only person who signed all four major U.S. founding documents.[125]
Robert Morris, president of Pennsylvania's Committee of Safety, "Financier of the Revolution", and one of the founders of the financial system of the United States.

The Founding Fathers represented a cross-section of the 18th-century U.S. population, all were males, non-Hispanic whites of Western European (English, Welsh, Scots, Irish, Dutch) ancestry. All were Christian or deists, Charles and David Carroll among the few Catholics. Some were leaders in their communities; several were also prominent in national affairs. At least 29 members of the Constitutional Convention had served in the Continental Army, some in positions of command.[126][127][128]


Many of the Founding Fathers attended or graduated from the colonial colleges, most notably Columbia (known at the time as "King's College"), Princeton originally known as "The College of New Jersey", Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and the College of William and Mary. Some had previously been home schooled or obtained early instruction from private tutors or academies.[126][129] Others had studied abroad. Ironically, Franklin who had little formal education, would ultimately establish the College of Philadelphia (1755) and earned an international reputation in science; "Penn" would have the first medical school (1765) in the thirteen colonies where another Founder, Rush, would eventually teach.

With a limited number of professional schools established in the colonies, Founders also sought advanced degrees from traditional institutions in Scotland, including University of Edinburgh, University of St Andrews, and University of Glasgow.

Colleges attended

  • College of William and Mary: Jefferson, Harrison[130]
  • Harvard College: John Adams, Samuel Adams, Hancock and William Williams
  • King's College (now Columbia): Jay, Hamilton,[131] Gouverneur Morris, Robert Livingston and Egbert Benson.[132]
  • College of New Jersey (now Princeton): Madison, Bedford, Rush, and Paterson
  • College of Philadelphia, later merged into the University of Pennsylvania: eight signers of the Declaration of Independence and twelve signers of the U.S. Constitution[133]
  • Yale College: Wolcott and Andrew Adams
  • James Wilson attended the University of St Andrews and the University of Glasgow[134]

Advanced degrees and apprenticeships

Doctors of Medicine
  • University of Edinburgh: Rush [135]
  • University of Utrecht, Netherlands: Hugh Williamson
  • University of Edinburgh: Witherspoon (attended, no degree)
  • University of St Andrews: Witherspoon (honorary doctorate)
Legal apprenticeships

Several like Jay, Wilson, John Williams and Wythe[136] were trained as lawyers through apprenticeships in the colonies while a few trained at the Inns of Court in London. Charles Carroll earned his law degree at Temple in London.

Self-taught or little formal education

Franklin, Washington, John Williams and Wisner had little formal education and were largely self-taught or learned through apprenticeship.


The great majority were born in the Thirteen Colonies, but eighteen were born in other parts of the British Empire:

  • England: Robert Morris, Banister, Duer, Jackson, and Gwinnett
  • Ireland: James Smith, Butler, Fitzsimons, McHenry, Taylor, Thomson, Thornton, and Paterson
  • West Indies: Hamilton and Roberdeau
  • Scotland: Wilson, Telfair, and Witherspoon

Many of them had moved from one colony to another. Eighteen had lived, studied or worked in more than one colony: Baldwin, Bassett, Bedford, Dickinson, Few, Franklin, Ingersoll, Hamilton, Livingston, Martin, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, Read, Sherman, and Williamson. Several others had studied or traveled abroad.


The Founding Fathers practiced a wide range of high and middle-status occupations, and many pursued more than one career simultaneously. They did not differ dramatically from the Loyalists, except they were generally younger and less senior in their professions.[137]

  • As many as 35 including Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and Jay were trained as lawyers though not all of them practiced law. Some had also been local judges.[126]
  • Washington trained as a land surveyor before he became colonel of the Virginia Regiment.
  • At the time of the convention, 13 men were merchants: Blount, Broom, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Gilman, Gorham, Langdon, Robert Morris, Pierce, Sherman, and Wilson.
  • Broom and Few were small farmers.
  • Franklin, McHenry and Mifflin had retired from active economic endeavors.
  • Franklin and Williamson were scientists, in addition to their other activities.
  • McHenry, Rush and Williamson were physicians.
  • William Samuel Johnson and Witherspoon were college presidents.


A few of them were wealthy or had financial resources that ranged from good to excellent, but there are other founders who were less than wealthy. On the whole they were less wealthy than the Loyalists.[137]

  • Seven were major land speculators: Blount, Dayton, Fitzsimmons, Gorham, Robert Morris, Washington, and Wilson.
  • Eleven speculated in securities on a large scale: Bedford, Blair, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Franklin, King, Langdon, Robert Morris, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Sherman.
  • Many derived income from plantations or large farms which they owned or managed, which relied upon the labor of enslaved men and women particularly in the Southern colonies: Bassett, Blair, Blount, Butler, Charles Carroll, Davie,[138] Jefferson, Jenifer, Johnson, Madison, Mason, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Rutledge, Spaight, and Washington.
  • Eight of the men received a substantial part of their income from public office: Baldwin, Blair, Brearly, Gilman, Livingston, Madison, and Rutledge.

Prior political experience

Several of the Founding Fathers had extensive national, state, local and foreign political experience prior to the adoption of the Constitution in 1787. Some had been diplomats. Several had been members of the Continental Congress.

Nearly all of the Founding Fathers had some experience in colonial and state government, and the majority had held county and local offices.[139] Those who lacked national congressional experience were Bassett, Blair, Brearly, Broom, Davie, Dayton, Martin, Mason, McClurg, Paterson, Charles Pinckney, and Strong.


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 two were Roman Catholic (Daniel Carroll and Fitzsimons; Charles Carroll was Roman Catholic but was not a Constitution signatory).[140] 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.[140] A few prominent Founding Fathers were anti-clerical, notably Jefferson.[141][142] 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".[143] 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.[144]


George Washington and his valet slave William Lee, by John Trumbull, 1780

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".[145] 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.[146][147] 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.[148][149][150][151]

Franklin, though he was a key founder of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society,[152] 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,[153] although he did negotiate slave transactions for his wife's family, the Schuylers.[154] Many of the Founding Fathers never owned slaves, including John Adams, Samuel Adams, and Paine.[155]

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".[152][156] 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.[156] In 1782, Virginia passed a manumission law that allowed slave owners to free their slaves by will or deed.[157] As a result, thousands of slaves were manumitted in Virginia.[157] 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.[156]

Attendance at conventions

In the winter and spring of 1786–1787, twelve of the thirteen states chose a total of 74 delegates to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Nineteen delegates chose not to accept election or attend the debates. Among them was Henry, who in response to questions about his refusal to attend was quick to reply, "I smelled a rat." He believed that the frame of government the convention organizers were intent on building would trample upon the rights of citizens.[158] Also, Rhode Island's lack of representation at the convention was the result of suspicions of the convention delegates' motivations. As the colony was founded by Roger Williams as a sanctuary for Baptists, Rhode Island's absence at the convention in part explains the absence of Baptist affiliation among those who did attend. Of the 55 who did attend at some point, no more than 38 delegates showed up at one time.[159]

Spouses and children

Only four (Baldwin, Gilman, Jenifer, and Martin) were lifelong bachelors. Many of the Founding Fathers' wives, such as Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Sarah Livingston Jay, Dolley Madison, Mary White Morris and Catherine Alexander Duer, were strong women who made significant contributions of their own to the fight for liberty.[160] Sherman fathered the largest family: 15 children by two wives. At least nine (Bassett, Brearly, Johnson, Mason, Paterson, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Sherman, Wilson, and Wythe) married more than once. Washington, who became known as "The Father of His Country",[161] had no biological children, though he and his wife raised two children from her first marriage and two grandchildren.

Post-constitution life

Subsequent events in the lives of the Founding Fathers after the adoption of the Constitution were characterized by success or failure, reflecting the abilities of these men as well as the vagaries of fate.[162] Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe served in the highest U.S. office of president. Jay was appointed as the first chief justice of the United States and later was elected to two terms as governor of New York. Hamilton was appointed the first Secretary of the Treasury in 1789, and later Inspector General of the Army under President John Adams in 1798.

Seven (Fitzsimons, Gorham, Luther Martin, Mifflin, Robert Morris, Pierce, and Wilson) suffered serious financial reversals that left them in or near bankruptcy. Robert Morris spent three of the last years of his life imprisoned following bad land deals.[160] Two, Blount and Dayton, were involved in possibly treasonous activities. Yet, as they had done before the convention, most of the group continued to render public service, particularly to the new government they had helped to create.

Death age of the Founding Fathers

Many of the Founding Fathers were under 40 years old at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776: Hamilton was 21 and Gouverneur Morris was 24. The oldest was Franklin at 70.[163] A few Founding Fathers lived into their nineties, including: Charles Carroll, who died at age 95; Thomson, who died at 94; William Samuel Johnson, who died at 92; and John Adams, who died at 90. The last remaining Founders, also poetically called the "Last of the Romans", lived well into the 19th century.[164] The last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence was Charles Carroll, who died in 1832.[165] The last surviving member of the Continental Congress was John Armstrong Jr., who died in 1843.[166] Three (Hamilton, Spaight, and Gwinnett) were killed in duels. Adams and Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826.[167]

Legacy and cultural impact

Institutions formed by founders

Several Founding Fathers were instrumental in establishing schools and societal institutions that still exist today:

Founding Fathers on U.S. currency and postage

Four U.S. Founders are minted on American currencyBenjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington; Washington appears on three different denominations and Jefferson appears on two.

Founding Father name Currency image Denomination
Benjamin Franklin New100front.jpg One hundred dollars
Alexander Hamilton US10dollarbill-Series 2004A.jpg Ten dollars
Thomas Jefferson Nickel Front.jpg Five cents (nickel)
Thomas Jefferson US $2 obverse.jpg Two dollars
George Washington 2021-P US Quarter Obverse.jpg Quarter dollar (quarter)
George Washington George Washington Presidential $1 Coin obverse.png Dollar coin
George Washington Onedolar2009series.jpg One dollar


George Washington,
1917 issue
Benjamin Franklin, 1918 issue
Thomas Jefferson, 1904 Issue

Founding events

Drafting the Articles of Confederation, 1977 issue
Washington at Cambridge, 1925 Issue
Washington at the Battle of Brooklyn, 1951 issue

In stage and film

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.[168]

Scholarship on the founders

Several of the earliest histories of America's founding and its founders were written by Jeremy Belknap, William Gordon, David Ramsay, and Mercy Otis Warren.[169]

Modern historians who focus on the Founding Fathers

Articles and books by 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.

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.

Daniel Webster, 1825.[170]

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.[171][172][173] Freeman has documented the often opposing visions of the Founding Fathers as they tried to build a new framework for governance, "Regional distrust, personal animosity, accusation, suspicion, implication, and denouncement—this was the tenor of national politics from the outset."[174]

Annette Gordon-Reed is an American historian and Harvard Law School professor. She is noted for changing scholarship on Jefferson regarding his 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. She points out "the central dilemma at the heart of American democracy: the desire to create a society based on liberty and equality" that yet does not extend those privileges to all."[145]

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.

Both Peter S. Onuf and Jack N. Rakove researched Jefferson extensively.

Noted collections of the Founding Fathers

Presidents of the United States

The first five U.S. presidents are regarded as Founding Fathers because of their active participation in the American Revolution[citation needed]: Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. They all previously served as delegates in the Continental Congress.

Other notable patriots of the period

The following men and women also advanced the new nation through their actions.

Abigail Adams, close advisor to her husband John Adams

See also


  1. ^ Morris signed two of the documents, one as a delegate from New York, and one as a delegate from Pennsylvania.


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Online sources

Further reading

  • American National Biography Online, (2000).
  • Bailyn, Bernard. To Begin the World Anew (Knopf, 2003) online
  • Barlow, J. Jackson; Levy, Leonard Williams (1988). The American founding : essays on the formation of the Constitution. New York : Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-3132-56103.
  • Bernstein, Richard B. Are We to Be a Nation? The Making of the Constitution. (Harvard University Press, 1987).
  • Commager, Henry Steele. "Leadership in Eighteenth-Century America and Today," Daedalus 90 (Fall 1961): 650–673, reprinted in Henry Steele Commager, Freedom and Order (New York: George Braziller, 1966) online.
  • Dreisbach, Daniel L. Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (2017) online review
  • Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000) online.
  • Ellis, Joseph J. The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783–1789 (New York: Vintage Books, 2016) online.
  • Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Green, Steven K. Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding. (Oxford University Press, 2015).
  • Greene, Jack P. "The Social Origins of the American Revolution: An Evaluation and an Interpretation," Political Science Quarterly, 88#1 (Mar. 1973), pp. 1–22 JSTOR 2148646.
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  • Trees, Andrew S. The founding fathers and the politics of character (Princeton University Press, 2005). online
  • Valsania, Maurizio. The French Enlightenment in America: Essays on the Times of the Founding Fathers (U of Georgia Press, 2021).
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