The Founding Fathers of the United States of America are the individuals of the Thirteen British Colonies in North America who led the American Revolution against the authority of the British Crown and established the United States of America. The term is also used more narrowly, referring specifically to those who either signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 or who were delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and took part in drafting the proposed Constitution of the United States. A further subset includes those who signed the Continental Association or the Articles of Confederation. During much of the 19th century, they were referred to as either the "Founders" or the "Fathers".
Some historians define the "Founding Fathers" to mean a very large group, including not only the Signers and the Framers but also all those who, whether as politicians, jurists, statesmen, soldiers, diplomats, or ordinary citizens, took part in winning American independence and creating the United States of America. Historian Richard B. Morris in 1973 identified the following seven figures as the key Founding Fathers: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin worked on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were authors of the The Federalist Papers, advocating ratification of the Constitution. Washington commanded the revolutionary army. All served in important positions in the early government of the United States.
The First Continental Congress met briefly in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1774 and consisted of fifty-six delegates from twelve of the Thirteen Colonies that would become the United States of America. The delegates, who included George Washington, soon to command the army, Patrick Henry, and John Adams, were elected by their respective colonial assemblies. Other notable delegates included Samuel Adams from Massachusetts, John Dickinson from Pennsylvania and New York's John Jay. This congress in addition to formulating appeals to the British crown, established the Continental Association to administer boycott actions against Britain. When the Second Continental Congress came together on May 10, 1775, it was, in effect, a reconvening of the First Congress. Many of the same 56 delegates who attended the first meeting participated in the second. Notable new arrivals included Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, John Hancock of Massachusetts, and John Witherspoon of New Jersey. Hancock was elected Congress President two weeks into the session when Peyton Randolph was summoned back to Virginia to preside over the House of Burgesses. Thomas Jefferson replaced Randolph in the Virginia congressional delegation. The second Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon was the only active clergyman to sign the Declaration. He also signed the Articles of Confederation and attended the New Jersey (1787) convention that ratified the Federal Constitution.
The newly founded country of the United States had to create a new government to replace the British Parliament. The Americans adopted the Articles of Confederation, a declaration that established a national government which was made up of a one-house legislature. Its ratification by all thirteen colonies gave the second Congress a new name: the Congress of the Confederation, which met from 1781 to 1789. Later, the Constitutional Convention took place during the summer of 1787, in Philadelphia. Although the Convention was called to revise the Articles of Confederation, the intention from the outset of many–chief among them James Madison and Alexander Hamilton–was to create a new frame of government rather than to fix the existing one. The delegates elected George Washington to preside over the Convention. The result of the Convention was the United States Constitution.
Collective biography of the Framers of the Constitution
In the winter and spring of 1786–1787, twelve of the thirteen states chose a total of 74 delegates to attend what is now known as the Federal Convention in Philadelphia. Nineteen delegates chose not to accept election or attend the debates; for example, Patrick Henry of Virginia thought that state politics were far more interesting and important than national politics, though during the ratification controversy of 1787–1788 he claimed, "I smelled a rat." Rhode Island did not send delegates because of its politicians' suspicions of the Convention delegates' motivations. 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.
These delegates represented a cross-section of 18th-century American leadership. Almost all of them were well-educated men of means who were leaders in their communities. Many were also prominent in national affairs. Virtually every one had taken part in the American Revolution; at least 29 had served in the Continental Army, most of them in positions of command. Several of the latter were instrumental in establishing the Society of the Cincinnati in 1783. Scholars have examined the collective biography of them as well as the signers of the Declaration and the Constitution.
The Framers of the Constitution had extensive political experience. By 1787, four-fifths (41 individuals) were or had been members of the Continental Congress. Nearly all of the 55 delegates had experience in colonial and state government, and the majority had held county and local offices.
- Thomas Mifflin and Nathaniel Gorham had served as President of the Continental Congress.
- The ones who lacked congressional experience were Bassett, Blair, Brearly, Broom, Davie, Dayton, Alexander Martin, Luther Martin, Mason, McClurg, Paterson, Charles Pinckney, Strong, Washington and Yates.
- Eight men (Clymer, Franklin, Gerry, Robert Morris, Read, Roger Sherman, Wilson, and Wythe) had signed the Declaration of Independence.
- Six (Carroll, Dickinson, Gerry, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, and Roger Sherman) had signed the Articles of Confederation.
- Two, Sherman and Robert Morris, signed all three of the nation's basic documents.
- Dickinson, Franklin, Langdon, and Rutledge had been governors.
Occupations and finances
The 1787 delegates 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.
- Thirty-five had legal training, though not all of them practiced law. Some had also been local judges.
- At the time of the convention, 13 men were merchants: Blount, Broom, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Shields, Gilman, Gorham, Langdon, Robert Morris, Pierce, Sherman, and Wilson.
- 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.
- Fourteen owned or managed slave-operated plantations or large farms: Bassett, Blair, Blount, Johnson, Butler, Carroll, Jenifer, Madison, Mason, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Rutledge, Spaight, and Washington.
- Many wealthy Northerners owned domestic slaves: Franklin later freed his slaves and was a key founder of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. 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 signed into law a gradual abolition law; fully ending slavery as of 1827. He freed his own slaves in 1798.
- Broom and Few were small farmers.
- Eight of the men received a substantial part of their income from public office: Baldwin, Blair, Brearly, Gilman, Livingston, Madison, and Rutledge.
- Three had retired from active economic endeavors: Franklin, McHenry, and Mifflin.
- Franklin and Williamson were scientists, in addition to their other activities.
- McClurg, McHenry, Rush, and Williamson were physicians, and Johnson was a college president.
Family and finances
A few of the 1787 delegates were wealthy, but many of the country's top wealth-holders were Loyalists who went to Britain. Most of the others 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.
Brown (1976) and Harris (1969) provide detailed demographic information on each man.
- Most of the 1787 delegates were natives of the Thirteen Colonies. Nine were born elsewhere: four (Butler, Fitzsimons, McHenry, and Paterson) in Ireland, two (Davie and Robert Morris) in England, two (Wilson and Witherspoon) in Scotland, and one (Hamilton) in the West Indies.
- Many of them had moved from one state to another. Seventeen individuals had already lived, studied or worked in more than one state or colony: Baldwin, Bassett, Bedford, Dickinson, Few, Franklin, Ingersoll, Hamilton , Livingston, Alexander Martin, Luther Martin, Mercer, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, Read, Sherman, and Williamson.
- Several others had studied or traveled abroad.
The Founding Fathers had strong educational backgrounds at the colonial colleges or abroad. Some, like Franklin and Washington, were largely self-taught or learned through apprenticeship. Others had obtained instruction from private tutors or at academies. About half of the men had attended or graduated from college. Some men held medical degrees or advanced training in theology. Most of the education was in the colonies, but several were lawyers who had been trained at the Inns of Court in London.
Longevity and family life
For their era, the 1787 delegates (like the 1776 signers) were average in terms of life spans. Their average age at death was about 67. The first to die was Houston in 1788; the last was Madison in 1836.
Secretary Charles Thomson lived to the age of 94. Johnson died at 92. John Adams lived to the age of 90. A few—Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Williamson, and Wythe—lived into their eighties. Either 15 or 16 (depending on Fitzsimons's exact age) died in their seventies, 20 or 21 in their sixties, 8 in their fifties, and 5 in their forties. Three (Alexander Hamilton, Richard Dobbs Spaight and Button Gwinnett) were killed in duels.
Most of the delegates married and raised children. 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. Four (Baldwin, Gilman, Jenifer, and Alexander Martin) were lifelong bachelors. Many of the delegates also had children conceived illegitimately.
Franklin T. Lambert (2003) has examined the religious affiliations and beliefs of the Founders. Of the 55 delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, 49 were Protestants, and two were Roman Catholics (D. Carroll, and Fitzsimons). Among the Protestant delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 28 were Church of England (or Episcopalian, after the American Revolutionary War was won), eight were Presbyterians, seven were Congregationalists, two were Lutherans, two were Dutch Reformed, and two were Methodists.
Historian Gregg L. Frazer argues that the leading Founders (Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Wilson, Morris, Madison, Hamilton, and Washington) were neither Christians nor Deists, but rather supporters of a hybrid "theistic rationalism".
The 1787 delegates' subsequent careers reflected their abilities as well as the vagaries of fate. Most were successful, although seven (Fitzsimons, Gorham, Luther Martin, Mifflin, Robert Morris, Pierce, and Wilson) suffered serious financial reverses that left them in or near bankruptcy. 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.
Slaves and slavery
Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin owned slaves (though Franklin later became an abolitionist). Alexander Hamilton was an abolitionist. 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. Thomas Jefferson, in 1784, 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 of 1787, 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.
According to the historian Joseph J. 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," Webster acknowledged in 1825. "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."
Lists of Founding Fathers
Signatories to key historical documents
|The following abbreviations are used in the table below:|
CA = Continental Association (1774) • DI = Declaration of Independence (1776)
AC = Articles of Confederation (1777) • USC = United States Constitution (1787)
The following individuals are also referred to in cited reliable sources as having been fathers or founders of the United States.
- Abigail Adams, advisor, wife, and mother of presidents.
- Ethan Allen, military and political leader in Vermont.
- Richard Allen, African-American bishop.
- John Bartram, botanist, horticulturist and explorer.
- Egbert Benson, politician from New York.
- Elias Boudinot, New Jersey delegate to Continental Congress.
- Aaron Burr, Vice President under Jefferson.
- George Rogers Clark, army general.
- George Clinton, New York governor and Vice President of the U.S.
- Tench Coxe, economist in Continental Congress.
- Albert Gallatin, politician and Treasury Secretary.
- Horatio Gates, army general.
- Nathanael Greene, army general.
- Nathan Hale, captured U.S. soldier executed in 1776.
- James Iredell, advocate for Constitution, judge.
- John Paul Jones, navy captain.
- Henry Knox, army general, Secretary of War.
- Tadeusz Kościuszko, Polish army general.
- Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, French army general.
- Henry Lee III, army officer and Virginia governor.
- Robert R. Livingston, diplomat and jurist.
- William Maclay, Pennsylvania politician and U.S. Senator.
- Dolley Madison, spouse of President James Madison.
- John Marshall, fourth Chief Justice of the United States.
- George Mason, revolutionary writer who refused to sign Constitution.
- Philip Mazzei, Italian physician, merchant and author.
- James Monroe, fifth President of the United States
- Daniel Morgan, military hero and Virginia Congressman.
- James Otis, Jr., Massachusetts lawyer and politician.
- Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense.
- Andrew Pickens, army general and SC congressman.
- Timothy Pickering, U.S. Secretary of State from Massachusetts.
- Israel Putnam, army general.
- Edmund Randolph, first United States Attorney General.
- Comte de Rochambeau, French army general.
- Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, wife of Alexander Hamilton
- Thomas Sumter, SC military hero and congressman.
- Haym Solomon, financier and spy for Continental Army.
- Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, Prussian officer.
- Joseph Warren, doctor, revolutionary leader.
- Mercy Otis Warren, political writer.
- Anthony Wayne, army general and politician.
- Noah Webster, writer, lexicographer, educator.
- Thomas Willing, banker.
- Paine Wingate, oldest survivor, Continental Congress.