November 21, 2019
The Founding Fathers
At first, they were called loyal servants. Then they were called traitors. Whether they ever called themselves revolutionaries is uncertain, but today the men who led the establishment of our country are called The Founding Fathers. The phrase itself arose only a century ago. Warren G. Harding referred to “the Founding Fathers” in a 1916 speech to the Republican National Convention and again in his 1921 inauguration speech. Prior to that, they were simply known as the Fathers.
So, who are the Founding Fathers? It could be argued that all who stood up for independence in a prominent capacity deserve the title. Those would include the “Framers” and “Signers” of the Constitution. The National Archives defines the Framers as 55 individuals who were delegates to the Constitutional Convention and helped draft the Constitution. Of those 55, only 39 signed the Constitution. While there are no set criteria on who and how many deserve to be a Founding Father, there are typically seven names that stand out: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.
John Adams was an early advocate for independence and had a reputation for justice as a lawyer. He was on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, secured French military aid to bolster the Revolutionary forces, promoted the need for a naval force, and negotiated the Treaty of Paris. Adams served as the country’s first Vice President and the second President and was the first to live in the White House.
Benjamin Franklin was significantly older than the other Founders. He was already an established publisher (Poor Richard’s Almanack) and scientist (electricity, bifocals), and he was heavily involved in numerous civic projects in Philadelphia. As revolutionary sentiments rose, Franklin found himself to be the elder statesman. After helping draft the Declaration of Independence, Franklin was one of the American Commissioners in Paris, securing French assistance and negotiating the Treaty of Paris. He also played a pivotal role in the Constitutional Convention. Franklin, ironically, was one of the Founders to have not held an elected or appointed office.
Alexander Hamilton is likely the only Founder with his own musical, perhaps because his story is quite dramatic. Emigrating from the British West Indies as a teenager, Hamilton’s hustle and intellect helped him quickly rise in prominence. He soon found himself as Washington’s aide-de-camp during the war. After the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton argued for ratification as the primary author of the persuasive Federalist Papers. He was appointed the first Secretary of the Treasury and pushed to establish a national bank. Hamilton died in a duel with Aaron Burr, his long-time rival and sitting Vice President.
John Jay may not be the first name to come to mind when talking about the Founders, especially since he initially thought reconciling with England was better than war with them. Once war became inevitable, Jay chose independence. A lawyer by profession, Jay drafted New York’s state constitution and was president of the Continental Congress. During the war, Jay was a diplomat to Spain where he tried for three years to earn their financial support and alliance. (Spain entered the war as a French ally, avoiding a direct alliance with the colonies.) He joined Franklin and Adams to negotiate the Treaty of Paris.
After the war, Jay served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation, authored a few of the Federalist Papers, became the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and then served as Governor of New York.
Thomas Jefferson was a prosperous lawyer in Virginia. He served in the Virginia legislature and as its governor. Early on, he believed in the importance of individual rights and thought England lacked authority over the colonies. A gifted writer, he drafted the Declaration of Independence that reflected these beliefs while serving in the Continental Congress. Jefferson succeeded Franklin as U.S. Minister to France, served as Secretary of State under Washington and Vice President under Adams, before becoming the country’s third President. Like several other Founders, Jefferson’s views on liberty were contradicted by his ownership of slaves. After leaving office, he retired to his Virginia plantation, Monticello, and helped found the University of Virginia.
James Madison and Jefferson were close friends. Like Jefferson, Madison grew up on a Virginia plantation. Too sickly for the military, Madison chose a political career, serving in the state legislature. At the Constitutional Convention, he developed the plan for the three branches of government with a system of checks and balances, which was largely adopted. For this reason, Madison is often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution.” Madison also co-authored the Federalist Papers with Hamilton and was a driving force behind the Bill of Rights. During his political career, he served as a U.S. Congressman, as Jefferson’s Secretary of State, and the fourth President.
George Washington is known as the Father of our Country. Ironically, he served for the British in the French and Indian War. As the young surveyor became a prosperous farmer, Washington began to resent the various taxes and restrictions that the British were placing on the colonies. The well-regarded Washington was given command of the Continental Army in 1775. Even though he lost more battles than he won, Washington – with the help of the Continental Navy and the French – prevailed. After the war, he led the Constitutional Convention and became the first President of the United States.
There are many more names that rightfully could be – and sometimes are – added to the list of Founding Fathers. It took the bravery and efforts of countless early Americans to establish our nation, and we celebrate them all.
Did You Know …
The ages of the Founding Fathers on July 4, 1776? Adams – 40. Franklin – 70. Hamilton – 21. Jay – 30. Jefferson – 33. Madison – 25. Washington – 44.