Before the Constitution was drafted, there was the Continental Congress. The men who took part in those series of legislative bodies were fundamental in molding the new nation. They guided American affairs during the Revolution, negotiated with the foreign allies, and wrote the Declaration of the peace treaty. Are they the Founders of America?
One way to determine the founders is to restrict them to the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Fifty-seven if we count Charles Thomson, the Continental Congress secretary (since his name appears on the printed broadside version of the Declaration).
Counting this way, we have quite a prestigious crop of names: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Morris, John Witherspoon. But some vital names are missing: George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.
And there are some individuals who don’t really belong on such an exalted list: Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire, George Clymer of Pennsylvania, and the Marylander, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who were not even present at the signing of the Declaration, but joined the Continental Congress thereafter and were invited to add their names to the document.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
The Articles of Confederation and The Constitution
Another approach is to count the men who adopted the first American Constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Forty-eight men signed this document. Among them, we can find a number of those who signed the Declaration, such as Sam Adams, Elbridge Gerry, and Roger Sherman. But here again, some big names are missing: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.
Yet another way is to focus on those who signed the Constitution, which adds 40 more names to our list of nominees. We finally get Washington, Hamilton, and Madison as well as Benjamin Franklin and George Read from the Declaration.
But again, some influential names are missing, including Jefferson, who was in Paris as American representative to the Court of Louis XVI. Also missing are John Adams, or his rabble-rousing cousin Sam and 19 delegates to the Constitutional Convention who left before the signing of the document, along with three delegates who outright refused to sign the Constitution.
There are only two names that appear as signers of the Declaration, the Articles, and the Constitution: Robert Morris, the financial wizard of Pennsylvania; and Roger Sherman, the brave old Calvinist from Connecticut. But these two are not exactly the names that spring up to most minds as Founders.
Learn more about Edmund Randolph’s plan.
Abigail Adams: The Missing Founder
Yet, there are people who played significant roles in the founding of the US but whose names do not appear on any Founding documents.
A case in point is Abigail Adams, who always accompanied her husband John Adams and reminded him to, “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” Otherwise, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Other Missing Founders
Also absent from the list of Founders is Thomas Paine, the English-born propagandist of the Revolution, who wrote some of the most influential tracts of the time.
There’s also Mercy Otis Warren who in a lively pamphlet named Observations on the new Constitution and on the Federal and State Conventions disputed the ratification of the Constitution. She maintained that the Constitution was, “doubtful in origin, dangerous in its aspect, and for a time very alarming to the feelings of men, who were tremblingly alive on the smallest encroachment of rights and privileges.”
Another candidate for Founderhood is James Monroe who dropped out of college to join the Continental Army. He was severely wounded at the Battle of Trenton. Monroe is the young officer depicted in Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware standing behind Washington and holding the flag. He opposed James Madison over the Constitution’s ratification, but as fate would have it, he served as the fifth president of the United States.
Another person whose name is not on any signing list is John Marshall. He risked his life as a volunteer in the Continental Army. His struggles and experiences convinced him to subordinate all state and local identities to the cause of the nation.
Those Who Establish and Those Who Administer
Richard B. Morris, the eminent historian of the Founding era, tried to narrow the Founders to just seven of the most distinguished or prominent figures: John Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and John Jay. The problem is that this list is too narrow.
Some might ask, for example, why John Jay who signed neither the Declaration, the Articles, nor Constitution, is on the list? Well, Jay was a co-author of the Federalist Papers, the great commentary on the Constitution that shaped the framework of the future government.
We have to cast our net more widely to reach a satisfactory answer to the question “Who were the founders of the United States?” Perhaps, Abraham Lincoln answered that question in 1861 when he said, “the American experiment in creating a Republic—a Founding if you will—involves two points: the successful establishing, and the successful administering of it.”
Learn more about Alexander Hamilton’s reports.
Time Will Tell
To correctly identify the Founders, we should not restrict ourselves to the limited time frame of the Constitutional Convention and the ratification of the Constitution.
Instead, it’s more appropriate to consider the overall planting time of the republic, from the ambiguities and dislocations at the end of the Revolution and the Articles of Confederation, through the Constitutional Convention, to the great tests of successfully administering and implementing the Constitution in the presidential administrations of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison.
Common Questions About Who Counts as A Founding Father
The Articles of Confederation was signed by 48 men.
Mercy Otis Warren maintained that the Constitution was, “doubtful in origin, dangerous in its aspect, and for a time very alarming to the feelings of men, who were tremblingly alive on the smallest encroachment of rights and privileges.”
Richard B. Morris, the eminent historian of the Founding era, narrowed the field of Founding fathers of America to just seven people: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, and John Jay.