The Founding Fathers of the United States 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".
- Collective biography of the Framers of the Constitution
- Political experience
- Occupations and finances
- Longevity and family life
- Post convention careers
- Slaves and slavery
- Signatories to key historical documents
- Other founders
Some historians apply the term "Founding Fathers" to a larger group of people, 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 became 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 the Constitutional 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 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.
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.
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. 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.
Brown (1976) and Harris (1969) provide detailed demographic information on each man.
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 Button Gwinnett in 1777; 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, 28 were Church of England (or Episcopalian, after the American Revolutionary War was won), 21 were Protestants, and two were Roman Catholics (D. Carroll, and Fitzsimons). 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.
A few prominent Founding Fathers were anti-clerical Christians such as Thomas Jefferson, who constructed the Jefferson Bible, and Benjamin Franklin.
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, well familiar with slavery and its effect on slaves and on slaveholders. 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."
The last remaining founders, also called the "Last of the Romans", lived well into the nineteenth century.
Signatories to key historical documents
The following individuals signed one or more of the four "historical documents of the United States" (Continental Association (CA), Declaration of Independence (DI), Articles of Confederation (AC), and the United States Constitution (USC)):
The following individuals are also referred to in cited reliable sources as having been fathers or founders of the United States.