I must study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy... in order to give their children the right to study painting, poetry and music.
– John Adams
History has made much of America's Founding Fathers, the midwives to a nation that came out flailing and screeching from its imperial womb with the American Revolutionary War1. They are often referenced and 'consulted' by leaders of today's America, as a concerned parent may ask an obstetrician for advice to help deal with their rebelling teenager. They were mortal, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can say that many of them had no business founding a country. In fact, in the case of several of them, the United States would have been better off if these men had started out founding a township or perhaps a smaller country, and then working their way up to founding a nation like the US.
Centuries after discoverers 'found' America, it was the men who came to be known as the Founding Fathers who helped shape the new Republic. What historians refer to as the 'revolutionary generation' was wide and diverse. It included many men born in America who fought alongside Britain, or who fought tooth and nail against the ratification of the Constitution. The oldest of the revolutionary generation were born in the early 1700s, the youngest in the 1760s. Among them were aristocrats, poor men, slave owners, abolitionists, descendants of well-known families and men not born in America. Only a few of these men became Founding Fathers, and only a few of those became such stuff as currency is made of2.
All Founding Fathers Are Not Created Equal
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
– The Declaration of Independence
No definitive list exists of America's Founding Fathers. Revolutionary standing and distinction was earned through various means. These included:
- Election as a delegate to one of the Continental Congresses
- Drafting and signing the Declaration of Independence
- Performing an important military role in the Revolutionary War
- Oration or writing on behalf of the revolutionary cause3
- Important service in state government during revolutionary times
- Drafting and signing the Constitution of the United States
- Election as a senator or congressman in the early days of the American Republic
- Election as president of the United States, or service in the executive branch in the early days of the Republic
- Staying loyal to America, if not to its governments, throughout one's life4
It is essentially by these criteria, weighted by historians and shaped by the passing of time, that certain Founding Fathers are considered more important than others. The easiest way to divide the Founders is into three tiers.
Tier One — The American Mount Olympus
It's entertaining to consider Benjamin Franklin and George Washington sitting together at the peak of a mountain, with Franklin telling humorous stories and Washington nodding gravely. The honour and revolutionary street cred of these two so far exceeds those of anyone else that they are entitled to their own tier. If the mythology of the American Revolution was compared to Greek mythology, Washington would be Zeus, and Franklin (though it shatters the Olympian metaphor to pieces) might be best compared to Prometheus, the wise old god who was sympathetic to all people.
George Washington alone stands out as the pre-eminent face of the revolutionary generation. He stands head and shoulders above anyone else from that era in historical importance. Franklin doesn't even come close. The fact that Washington was almost universally respected by Americans then (as now) became a uniting force in holding the fledgling nation together. It is no overstatement to say that America would have easily fallen apart if not for George Washington's quiet but steady and strong leadership.
Benjamin Franklin is, in many ways, the quintessential American. Always his own man, he was fighting the British when some of the Constitution's signers were still in diapers. He was one of the first to have a vision of a united and singular nation of America. He helped win the Revolutionary War by bringing the French around as converts to the American cause, through his effusive charm and powers of persuasion. He signed the Declaration and the Constitution, and did just about everything he could to bring about the birth of an American nation. That's not even mentioning his inventions, scientific contributions and writing. George Washington is often thought of as, politically, the first American citizen. Franklin, however, has a strong claim to being, culturally, the first American.
Tier Two — History Buffs Like to Read Biographies About Them
The second group of Founding Fathers really aren't the most superlative Americans. This tier can claim the third US President, the first Vice President, and the President of the Second Continental Congress. These Founding Fathers aren't so much the mythologised visionaries as the men who shaped the visions and brought them into existence.
Foremost among these is John Adams, who has a resumé of colonial and patriot credentials as big as all outdoors. Before serving as the first Vice President and the second President, Adams was an outspoken patriot and an advocate for the young nation in Europe. He had a major role in just about every major colonial event from the time of the Stamp Act in 1765 through the beginning of the 19th Century. Almost no-one holds any affection for the man, though. He worked as hard as any other Founding Father, but he died with far more enemies than friends due to his brash and paranoid manner.
On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson was shy, elusive and brilliant. Despite his shortcomings and errors - and there were many - he is revered today. The second Vice President, the third President, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the first Secretary of State, the second Governor of Virginia, he was no revolutionary slouch.
James Madison is generally considered to be the principal voice behind the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He was not among the most prominent of individuals during the Revolutionary War, but he proved to be a force to be reckoned with as the new American government took shape. He helped to write the US Constitution, then helped to ratify it by contributing to the Federalist Papers and finally amended it by offering what would become the first 10 amendments to the Constitution — the Bill of Rights. He served as the de facto floor leader of the House of Representatives (the first person to do so) and then became the fifth Secretary of State and the fourth President of the United States. If John Adams was more impressive in the days of the Revolutionary War and was disappointingly unimpressive in a governing role, Madison was the exact opposite.
Alexander Hamilton is probably best known today as the guy on the $10 bill, which is appropriate because his greatest contribution to America is a fiscal one. As the first Treasury Secretary, he tied the states together by uniting their debts and creating a national bank. As the leader of the High Federalist faction, Hamilton pushed for a strong central government and strong economic ties to Britain, rather than France.
John Hancock was the President of the Second Continental Congress, and was the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence5. He was one of the most prominent figures in colonial and wartime government.
John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, a contributor to the Federalist Papers and the principal negotiator of the Jay Treaty, which forged close ties with Britain and its former colonies, despite widespread disapproval, to put it mildly, of the treaty6.
Tier Three — Sometimes, Cities Name High Schools After Them
The number, relative obscurity and general blandness of so many American Founders makes it impossible to cover them all in this entry. However, as previously mentioned, any signer of the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution can be considered a Founding Father.
The Mortality of the Founders
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
Unfortunately, America's Founders are sometimes taken too seriously. They are placed on a pedestal and arranged as in a pantheon. In recent years, history has focused more and more on the Founders as human beings, rather than as gods among men. It's a case of Mount Vernon versus Mount Olympus, or reality versus comforting delusions.
Just like the Bible, one can look at the major documents of early America and point out some fairly ridiculous bits to undermine the rest. Slavery is more or less sanctioned in the Constitution, due to the infamous 'three-fifths compromise' (which said that in order to determine the population of states for Congressional apportionment, a slave would be considered three-fifths of a person). There were some mistakes in the way the Founders set up the government, to be sure, but the fact is that the framework the US Government took was largely the product of playing politics.
The usual explanation as to why the US Congress is set up with two different Houses of Congress is that it was deemed necessary to give equal representation to the states, so that the more populous states couldn't trample over the small states, and to give representation based on population so that Congress wouldn't be undemocratic. This is, strictly speaking, correct. However, like much of history, it all depends on how you look at it. America's Founders did not use their infinite wisdom to make this decision. Rather, they were forced to make it, due to an impasse at the constitutional convention held in Philadelphia in 1787. Had the politics of the moment developed differently, government in the United States might be very different today. Things like the location of the nation's capital and the basic tenets of Federalism were all based on political realities of the time.
America's Founding Fathers were not men with stupendously great foresight. In fact, this misconception is responsible for many faulty arguments against reform in the United States. History should always remember that those who founded America did not intend to have the last word on it.
Feuds and Scandals
America's founding citizens are not only held by modern-day Americans as paragons of wisdom and foresight, but as men displaying unparalleled virtue. Some say the Founders, the framers of the constitution, the veterans of the revolution, would roll over in their graves if they saw the way America's modern political system operates. The negative attacks, the smear campaigns and the scandals would make the Founders sick. But that's not true. They were much worse.
Some of the juiciest political scandals and smears come from the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. They would squabble when they were members of Washington's cabinet (Hamilton as Treasury Secretary and Jefferson as Secretary of State) and their feud did not end until Hamilton died. Hamilton and the Federalists accused Jefferson of everything they could think of. Some accusations had some basis in truth, like the charge that Jefferson had populated his plantation with offspring from his nights with his slaves. Some were not true, (as far as history can tell) such as the allegation that Jefferson had a romantic liaison with a goat. In turn, Jefferson gave a State Department job to a political ally, who used his salary to print an anti-Federalist newspaper (while doing very little actual work for the government). Jefferson and the Republicans jumped on Hamilton's back when his famous extra-marital romance with Maria Reynolds erupted (the first in a long line of major sex scandals in the American government).
John Adams, an angry curmudgeon in his later years (and for that matter, for much of the time during his middle and early years), liked to attack his enemies with whatever he could come up with - whether it had any basis in fact or not. The problem with Adams was that he thought that everyone was his enemy. His correspondence, especially the voluminous exchanges between himself and his wife Abigail, are littered with angry denouncements and attacks on anyone and everyone for a perceived slight to his honour.
Americans are now accustomed to seeing their political figures attacked and degraded in 30-second television advertisements. While this medium did not exist in the time of the Founding Fathers, the combative style was all too common. It's fun to imagine how the scandals of the 1700s would play out in today's media environment. What follows are two imaginary representations of how a political advertisement, in a modern format, would fit in with the scandals of the Revolutionary figures of the 18th Century.
Thomas Jefferson... as Governor he fled while the Redcoats overran Virginia. [Image shown of soldiers with fire at their backs] Do you really want a coward as your President? Also, he had sex with a goat. [Baaah!] Paid for by Friends of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney for President.
Why did George Washington trust Benedict Arnold with an important military command? Is he soft on the British? [Shot of George Washington in front of the British Flag] If George Washington doesn't know who to trust, why should we trust him? Paid for by Minutemen for Truth.