Morris's selection of seven "greats" was widely accepted through the 20th century. 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, which recognized American independence, bringing an end to the American Revolutionary War.
Beyond this, the criteria for inclusion varied. Historians with an expanded view of the list of Founding Fathers include
Revolutionary War military leaders as well as participants in developments leading up to the war, including prominent writers, orators, and other men and women who contributed to the American Revolutionary cause. Since the 19th century, some of the analysis has shifted from the 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 quickly remedy issues such as
slavery and the treatment of
Native Americans. More recently, other scholars of the American founding have suggested that the Founding Fathers' accomplishments and shortcomings be viewed within the context of their times.
In the early 19th century, responding to praise for his generation,
John Adams wrote to
Josiah Quincy "I ought not to object to your Reverence for your Fathers as you call them ... 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."
At a 1902 celebration of
Washington's Birthday in
James M. Beck, a constitutional lawyer and later a U.S. Congressman, delivered an address, "Founders of the Republic", in which he connected the concepts of founders and fathers, saying: "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."
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.
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.
Additional Founding Fathers
In addition to the signers and Framers of the founding documents and one of the seven notable leaders previously mentioned—
John Jay—the following are regarded as Founders based on their contributions to the birth and early development of the new nation:
George Clinton, first governor of New York, 1777–1795, served again from 1801–1805, and was the fourth vice president of the US, 1805–1812. He was an anti-Federalist advocate of the Bill of Rights.
Patrick Henry, gifted orator, known for his famous quote, "
Give me liberty, or give me death!", served in the First Continental Congress in 1774 and briefly in the Second Congress in 1775 before returning to Virginia to lead its militia. He then completed terms as the first and sixth governor of Virginia, 1776–1779 and 1784–1786.
Henry Knox served as chief
artillery officer in most of Washington's campaigns. His earliest achievement was the capture of over 50 pieces of artillery, primarily cannons, at New York's Fort Ticonderoga, one of the keys to Washington's capture of Boston in early 1776. Knox became the first
Secretary of War under the U.S. Constitution in 1789.
Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, French Marquis who became a Continental Army general. Served without pay, brought a ship to America, outfitted for war, provided clothing and other provisions for the patriot cause, all at his own expense.
John Marshall served with George Washington at Valley Forge and later would be the first to refer to him as "the Father of his country". Appointed the fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court under John Adams, Marshall defined the authority of the court and ensured the stability of the federal government during the first three decades of the 19th century.
James Monroe, elected to the Virginia legislature (1782); member of the Continental Congress (1783–1786); fifth president of the United States for two terms (1817–1825); Negotiated the Louisiana Purchase along with Robert Livingston.
Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense and other influential pamphlets in the 1770s; sometimes referred to as "Father of the American Revolution". While John Adams strongly criticized Paine for failing to see the need for a separation of powers in government, Common Sense proved crucial in building support for independence following its publication in January 1776.
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.
Crispus Attucks, believed to be of Native American and African descent, was the first of five persons killed in the
Boston Massacre of 1770, and thus the first to die in the American Revolution. Of the deaths at Boston John Adams would later write, "On that night the foundations of American independence was laid."
Black Patriot and slave who served as a spy alongside his owner,
Hercules Mulligan. Cato carried intelligence gathered by Mulligan to officers in the Continental Army and other revolutionaries, including through British-held territory, which was credited for likely saving
George Washington's life on at least two occasions. He was granted his freedom in 1778 for his service.
Angelica Schuyler Church, sister-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, corresponded with many of the leading Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and the Marquis de Lafayette.
Silas Deane, a delegate to the Continental Congress who signed the
Continental Association, became the first foreign diplomat from the U.S. to France where he helped negotiate and then signed the 1778
Treaty of Alliance that allied France with the United States during the Revolutionary War.
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.
First Continental Congress at Prayer, an 1848 portrait by
T. H. Matteson
Continental Congress was convened 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.
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.
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 choose 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.
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.
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.
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. The
Treaty of Paris was drafted in November 1782, and negotiations began in April 1783. The completed treaty was signed on September 3. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay and Henry Laurens represented the United States, while
David Hartley, a member of Parliament, and
Richard Oswald, a prominent and influential Scottish businessman, represented Great Britain.
Franklin, who had a long-established rapport with the French and was almost entirely responsible for securing an alliance with them a few months after the start of 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 were 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.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the
Congress of the Confederation had no power to collect taxes, regulate commerce, pay the national debt, conduct diplomatic relations, or effectively manage the western territories. 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.
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 with over 70 percent (40 delegates) serving in the Congress when the Convention was proposed.
Many delegates were late to arrive, and after eleven 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 and his colleagues 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
Connceticut (or Great) 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.
State ratification conventions
U. S. 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.
New form of government
The Constitution officially took effect on March 4, 1789 (234 years ago) (1789-03-04), 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, Madison's notes on the ratification were not published until after his death in 1836.
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, the three delegates who 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.
Ascending to the presidency
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. Each of them served as a
delegate to the
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:
John Adams began his political career as a town council member in
Braintree outside Boston. He came to wider attention following a series of essays he wrote during the Stamp Act crisis of 1765. In 1770, he was elected to the
Massachusetts General Assembly, went on to lead Boston's Committee of Correspondence, and in 1774, was elected to the Continental Congress. Two decades later, Adams would become the second president of the nation he helped found.
John Dickinson was one of the leaders of the Pennsylvania Assembly during the 1770s. As a member of the First and Second Continental Congress, he wrote two petitions for the Congress to King George III seeking a peaceful solution. Dickinson opposed independence and refused to sign the Declaration of Independence, but served as an officer in the militia and wrote the initial draft of the Articles of Confederation. In the 1780s, he served as
president of Pennsylvania and
president of Delaware
Benjamin Franklin retired from his business activities in 1747 and was elected to the
Pennsylvania Assembly in 1751. He was sent to London in 1757 for the first of two diplomatic missions on behalf of the colony. Upon returning from England in 1775, Franklin was elected to the Second Continental Congress. After signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he was appointed Minister to France and then Sweden, and in 1783 helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris. Franklin was
governor of Pennsylvania from 1785 to 1788 and was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.
John Jay was a New York delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress and in 1778 was elected
Congress president. In 1782, he was summoned to Paris by Franklin to help negotiate the Treaty of Paris with Great Britain. As a supporter of the proposed Constitution, he wrote five of the Federalist Papers and became the first
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court following the Constitution's adoption. Minister to Spain
Thomas Jefferson was a delegate from Virginia to the Second Continental Congress (1775–1776) and was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. He was elected the
second governor of Virginia (1779–1781) and served as Minister to France (1785–1789).
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:
Inner Temple, is one of the four
Inns of Court in London offering legal studies for admission to the English Bar. William Houstoun, William Paca (also University of Pennsylvania graduate)
West Indies: Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Roberdeau
While the Founding Fathers were engaged in a broad range of occupations, most 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.
Ten founders were physicians: Josiah Bartlett, Lyman Hall, Samuel Holten, James McClurg, James McHenry (surgeon), Benjamin Rush, Nathaniel Scudder, Matthew Thornton, Joseph Warren, and Hugh Williamson.
John Witherspoon was the only minister, although Lyman Hall had been a preacher prior to becoming a physician.
George Washington, a Virginia planter, was a land surveyor before becoming a colonel in the
Benjamin Franklin was a successful printer and publisher and an accomplished scientist and inventor, in Philadelphia. Franklin retired at age 42 to focus first on scientific pursuits and then politics and diplomacy, serving as a member of the Continental Congress, first postmaster general, minister to Great Britain, France, and Sweden, and governor of Pennsylvania.
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.
According to David Sehat, in modern politics:
Everyone cites the Founders. Constitutional originalists consult the Founders’ papers to decide original meaning. Proponents of a living and evolving Constitution turn to the Founders as the font of ideas that have grown over time. Conservatives view the Founders as architects of a free enterprise system that built American greatness. The more liberal-leaning, following their sixties parents, claim the Founders as egalitarians, suspicious of concentrations of wealth. Independents look to the Founders to break the logjam of partisan brinksmanship. Across the political spectrum, Americans ground their views in a supposed set of ideas that emerged in the eighteenth century.
But, in fact, the Founders disagreed with each other....they had vast and profound differences. They argued over federal intervention in the economy and about foreign policy. They fought bitterly over how much authority rested with the executive branch, about the relationship and prerogatives of federal and state government. The Constitution provided a nearly limitless theater of argument. The founding era was, in reality, one of the most partisan periods of American history.
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.
Jefferson left the Continental Congress to return to Virginia to join the fight for religious freedom, which proved difficult since many members of the Virginia legislature belonged to the established church. While Jefferson was not completely successful, he managed to have repealed the various laws that were punitive toward those with different religious beliefs. Jefferson was the architect for
separation of Church and State, which opposed the use of public funds to support any established religion and believe it was unwise to link civil rights to religious doctrine.
Washington was also a strong proponent of religious freedom, once assuring Virginia Baptists worried that the Constitution might not protect their religious liberties, that, "... certainly, I would never have placed my signature to it." Along with Christians,
Jews also viewed Washington as a champion of freedom and 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.
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 that they 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 American 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 criticized the slave trade as well as the institution of slavery. In the pamphlet, Rush argued 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. New evidence suggests Hamilton may have owned a house slave. After the
Jay Treaty was signed, Hamilton advocated that slaves taken in by the British during the Revolutionary War be returned to their masters. 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
The Founding, Reconstruction (often called “the second founding”), and the New Deal are typically heralded as the most significant turning points in the country's history, with many observers seeing each of these as political triumphs through which the United States has come to more closely realize its liberal ideals of liberty and equality.
Scholars such as
Eric Foner have recently expanded the theme into full-length books. Black abolitionists played a key role by stressing that freed blacks needed equal rights after slavery was abolished. Biographer
David Blight states that
Frederick Douglass, "played a pivotal role in America's Second Founding out of the apocalypse of the Civil War, and he very much wished to see himself as a founder and a defender of the Second American Republic." Constitutional provision for racial equality for free blacks was enacted by a Republican Congress led by
Charles Sumner and
Lyman Trumbull. The "second founding" comprised the
15th amendments to the Constitution. All citizens now had federal rights that could be enforced in federal court. In a deep reaction, after 1876 freedmen lost many of these rights and had second class citizenship in the era of lynching and
Jim Crow laws. Finally in the 1950s the U.S, Supreme Court started to restore those rights. Under the leadership of
Martin Luther King and
James Bevel, the
Civil Rights movement made the nation aware of the crisis, and under
President Lyndon Johnson major civil rights legislation was passed in 1964, 1965, and 1968.
Historians who wrote about the
American Revolution era and the founding of the United States government now number in the thousands. Their 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. Shaffer 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 the founding of the United States and its founders were written by
Jeremy Belknap, author of his three volume work, The history of New-Hampshire, published in 1784.
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, which is acclaimed for its literary style, documentary evidence, and first-hand knowledge of major figures during the early
Rufus Wilmot Griswold authored Washington and the Generals of the Revolution, a two-volume work, in 1885.
Articles and books by these and other 20th- and 21st-century historians, combined with the digitization of primary sources such as handwritten letters, continue to contribute to an encyclopedic body of knowledge about the Founding Fathers:
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.
Jack P. Greene is an American historian who specializes in colonial-era American history.
According to American historian
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 symbols of past greatness. For the generation of national leaders coming of age in the 1820s and 1830s, such as
Daniel Webster, and
John C. Calhoun, the founders represented 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.
Founders Online, a searchable database of over 184,000 documents authored by or addressed to George Washington, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams (and family), Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison
^Westcott, Reed (n.d.).
"Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington". George Washington's Mount Vernon (mountvernon.org). Retrieved January 23, 2023. Hugh Henry Brackenridge was a Scottish-born Pennsylvanian preacher, politician, writer, and jurist, who – though not strictly a Founding Father himself – was intimately familiar with several founders, James Madison in particular.
^Letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814. "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own."
Bowling, Kenneth R. (1976). "Good-by "Charle": The Lee-Adams Interest and the Political Demise of Charles Thomson, Secretary of Congress, 1774–1789". The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 100 (3): 314–335.
Brown, Richard D. (July 1976). "The Founding Fathers of 1776 and 1787: A Collective View". The William and Mary Quarterly. 33 (3): 465–480.
Buchanan, John (April 2007). "Founding Fighters: The Battlefield Leaders Who Made American Independence (review)". The Journal of Military History. 71 (2): 522–524.
Chaffin, Robert J. (1999). "The Townshend Acts crisis, 1767–1770". In Jack P. Greene;
J.R. Pole (eds.). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell.
Gordon-Reed, Annette (January 2000). "Engaging Jefferson: Blacks and the Founding Father". The William and Mary Quarterly. Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. 57 (1): 171–182.
Burnard, Trevor. "The Founding Fathers in Early American Historiography: A View from Abroad." William and Mary Quarterly 62#4 (2005), pp. 745-76
Dreisbach, Daniel L. Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (2017)
Encyclopedia Britannica, Founding fathers : the essential guide to the men who made America (2007)
Joseph Ellis in the introduction page 1 states: "The following 10, presented alphabetically, represent the 'gallery of greats' that has stood the test of time: John Adams, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Marshall, George Mason, and George Washington. There is a nearly unanimous consensus that George Washington was the Foundingest Father of them all." --The book has short bios of 46 "founding Fathers" (and mothers). see
online complete text
Fischer, David Hackett. African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals (2022)
excerpt; also see
Mason, Matthew. "A Missed Opportunity? The Founding, Postcolonial Realities, and the Abolition of Slavery." Slavery & Abolition 35.2 (2014): 199-213.
Moreland-Capuia, Alisha. "The Role of Fear in the Founding of the United States: A Historical and Philosophical Perspective." in The Trauma of Racism: Exploring the Systems and People Fear Built (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2021) pp. 13-33.
Newman, Richard S. and Roy E. Finkenbine. "Black Founders in the New Republic" William and Mary Quarterly (2007) 64#1 pp. 83-94
Newman, Richard S. Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers (2008).
Previdi, Robert. "Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America," Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 29, 1999