Founding Fathers

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The term "founding fathers" denotes the politicians, soldiers, jurists, and legislators who held leadership positions during the era of the American Revolution, the Confederation period, and the early Republic. Sometimes the term covers only the delegates to the Second Continental Congress (more usually known as "signers"), who in July 1776 in Philadelphia's State House (now known as Independence Hall) declared American independence and adopted Thomas Jefferson's amended Declaration of Independence. More often it means the delegates to the Federal Convention, who met in the same building from May through September of 1787 and framed the proposed Constitution of the United States (more usually known as "framers"), and those who supported or opposed the Constitution during the ratification controversy of 1787–1788. At a minimum, the roster would include the seven key founding fathers named by Richard B. Morris, the eminent historian of the Revolution, in 1973: Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), George Washington (1732–1799), John Adams (1735–1826), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), John Jay (1745–1829), James Madison (1751–1836), and Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804).

But "founding fathers" is a protean phrase whose meaning has varied depending on who has used it and when. Some have used it to identify not only the usual cadre of elite white males but also the middling and common sorts who served in the American Revolution, voted for or against the Constitution, and helped to bring the new government into existence. Some historians have used the phrase "revolutionary generation"—although, depending on whom one includes, the founding fathers spanned three or even four generations, from Benjamin Franklin to Albert Gallatin (1761–1849). Some political writers have sought to remind Americans of the role of women in the nation's history, applying the term "founding mothers" to such women as Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, and Deborah Sampson. Significantly, however, with few exceptions the phrase has not included those who were not white, whether African American or Native American.

The core meaning of "founding fathers" remains constant, whatever the group's membership. It designates those who, by word or deed, helped to found the United States as a nation and a political experiment. Thus, the term includes those who sat in the Congress that declared American independence—even a delegate like John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who opposed independence and refused to sign the Declaration but fought for the American cause in the Revolutionary War. It also encompasses others who fought for the American side in the war, or played important roles, as framers or ratifiers or opponents or subsequent effectuators, in the origins of the Constitution of the United States and the system of government it outlines.

origins of the term

For a term so central to most Americans' understandings of their past, and so productive of legal, political, and historiographical controversy, "founding fathers" has a surprisingly short history—and an unexpected coiner. On 22 February 1918 Warren G. Harding, then a Republican senator from Ohio, was the featured speaker at the Washington's birthday commemoration hosted by the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. Harding intoned, "It is good to meet and drink at the fountain of wisdom inherited from the founding fathers of the Republic." Pleased with how his words were received, Harding revived "founding fathers" in a speech accepting the 1920 Republican presidential nomination. Finally, on 4 March 1921, President Harding told the nation, in his Inaugural Address:

Standing in this presence, mindful of the solemnity of this occasion, feeling the emotions which no one may know until he senses the great weight of responsibility for himself, I must utter my belief in the divine inspiration of the founding fathers. Surely there must have been God's intent in the making of this new-world Republic.

Harding's coinage passed into general usage so swiftly and easily that its origins were soon forgotten. Not until the 1960s, when the speechwriter, journalist, and lexicographer William Safire posed the question to the Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service, was Harding identified as the inventor of "founding fathers." Given Harding's weak historical reputation, this two-word coinage may be his most enduring political and intellectual legacy.

veneration of the founders over time

Even before there was such a term, Americans expressed their reverence for the heterogeneous group of signers, framers, politicians, generals, polemicists, and jurists now known as the founding fathers. The tendency to see the elite national politicians of the 1770s, 1780s, and 1790s as a distinct group worthy of veneration began in the early decades of the nineteenth century. As the leaders of the Revolution and the early Republic retired and began, one by one, to die, their passing sparked growing anxiety among later generations of citizens and politicians. Those who had created the nation's constitutional and political order no longer would be present to guide its development and improvement.

Few captured this unease better than Abraham Lincoln, who in January 1838 delivered his first major political address, "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions," before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln spoke less than two years after the death of the last surviving framer of the Constitution, James Madison, and less than six years after the death of the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, Maryland's Charles Carroll. In his lecture Lincoln challenged Americans to preserve the form of free government created by those whom he hailed as "a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors," whom he dubbed "our fathers."

Lincoln's concerns resonated in many ways for decades thereafter, the most critical having to do with the vexed question of how to interpret the Constitution of the United States. As the nation expanded westward, issues of federal constitutional power entwined with various other questions of public policy confronting the United States: governance of the western territories; designing "internal improvements" (such as roads, bridges, and canals) to knit the nation together as a single economic and political unit; and the place of slavery in American life. All these matters raised issues of constitutional power and constitutional limitations, and in turn those issues raised the question of how properly to interpret the Constitution.

original intent

Increasingly, those embroiled in disputes over the scope and extent of powers conferred by the Constitution invoked the words and deeds of those who framed and adopted it as guideposts of authoritative constitutional interpretation. (Even while he was alive, the aged James Madison found his correspondence in the 1830s dominated by appeals for advice and guidance as to what he and his colleagues intended the Constitution to authorize or to prohibit.) Once all the "founders" were gone, polemicists and litigants on both sides of these contests ransacked newly published editions of the writings of such key figures as Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton; James Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 (sold by Madison's widow to the federal government following his death and the mandate of his will, and first published in 1840); and Jonathan Elliot's five-volume Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Constitution (originally published between 1827 and 1830, then revised and enlarged between 1836 and 1859). This hunt for authoritative guidance soon became known as the quest for the Constitution's "original intent" or "original meaning."

In 1857, when Chief Justice Roger B. Taney sought in Dred Scott v. Sandford to hand down an irrefutable, authoritative interpretation of the Constitution on issues of slavery in the western territories, he cast his opinion as a carefully considered, neutral sifting of the intentions of those who created the nation and its constitutional system. And in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln challenged the position staked out by Taney in Dred Scott, he too undertook his own massive research project into the "original intentions" of "our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live" and presented the results in a formidable speech delivered at New York's Cooper Union. The forensic duel between Taney and Lincoln fixed the quest for "original intent" at the core of all subsequent disputes about interpreting the Constitution.

the founders in historical memory

Another reason why Americans' veneration of the founding fathers intensified was the need to create a "usable past" (a phrase coined by the literary historian Van Wyck Brooks in his 1915 book America's Coming of Age) for a young nation. Commemorations of the nation's origins in the Revolutionary War, including such anniversaries as the Declaration of Independence and the anniversaries of the births or deaths of such figures as Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, helped to fix these revered figures in the nation's historical memory. In particular, the deaths on 4 July 1826 of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson appeared to Americans as some sort of divine sign of favor on the American experiment. One of the most powerful reasons for the continuing influence of the founding fathers is that they take on roles in the nation's cultural life played by ancestors in such cultures as Confucian China or Republican or Imperial Rome. Unlike so many nations, whose origins are lost somewhere in the misty past, the United States began as a political entity in a specific time and place, as the handiwork of specific individuals. In other words, the United States is a nation because it chooses to be, and it confers on those who created the nation the cultural roles, functions, and reverence associated with biblical patriarchs or patron saints.

To be sure, within the group known as the founding fathers the historical reputations of individual figures rose and fell with the changing fortunes of American politics and the ideas and principles with which they were identified. Thus, for example, from his death in 1826 until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Thomas Jefferson continued to be as controversial as he had been in life. Some extolled his commitment to liberty, equality, and the rights of man, whereas others denounced him as the intellectual godfather of nullification, secession, and disunion. From the end of the Civil War in 1865 until the era of the Great Depression (1929–1941), Jefferson fell to his lowest historical ebb, due in part to the conclusion of many historians and politicians that he bore a great measure of responsibility for the Civil War and in part to the discovery by biographers and historians of the many inconsistencies between his public and private writings, which some saw as amounting to dishonesty. From the 1930s through the late 1960s, by contrast, Jefferson achieved apotheosis as a symbol of human rights, religious freedom, separation of church and state, and democratic revolution. Beginning in the late 1960s, however, his historical stock started to fall again, with new historical and public attention to issues of race, slavery, and civil rights, and Jefferson's conflicted and sometimes appalling views on the nature of race in general and African Americans in particular.

As Jefferson rose, Alexander Hamilton fell, and as Jefferson fell, Hamilton rose, their reputations rising and falling as functions of partisan and sectional conflict. All but forgotten, save as the leading author of The Federalist, in the years preceding the Civil War, Hamilton rose spectacularly in the late nineteenth century, as many politicians and scholars hailed him as the father of modern industrial, urban America. Again, as Jefferson rebounded in the era of the New Deal, Hamilton fell, dismissed as an apologist for wealth, power, and privilege—despite the arguments of such polemicists as Herbert Croly in The Promise of American Life (1909) and such politicians as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the best goal of American public life was to use Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends. Yet again, as Jefferson fell in the 1990s, Hamilton rose anew, as historians and journalists rediscovered him as a consistent and coherent advocate of vigorous national constitutional power and a tough-minded realist at home and abroad.

At the same time, however, historians in the middle and late twentieth century began to reconsider the centrality of the group known as the founding fathers to the era in which they lived and worked. The rise of social history, with its attention to the social, economic, and private lives of ordinary men and women, helped to shunt aside the profession's former preoccupation with "great dead white men." So, too, the growing attention to the histories of Native American nations and peoples and the history of both free and enslaved African Americans raised key questions about the founding fathers' lives and achievements. Some historians have taken this matter to extremes, rejecting attempts to study the lives, thoughts, and deeds of the founding fathers as reactionary. Other historians, while continuing to study such men as Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, and Aaron Burr, have restored them to their historical and political contexts. Key political figures, these historians argue, did not act in splendid isolation, but rather within a shifting field of expectations by and reactions from the people. They operated in the political realm in large part by reference to what they hoped or feared popular reaction to their policies and conduct might be.

Meanwhile, controversies over the jurisprudence of "original intent" ebbed and flowed throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. At first, conservative jurists used original-intent arguments to block such measures as federal regulations of interstate commerce or a federal income tax. In response, such historians as J. Allen Smith and Charles A. Beard criticized the antidemocratic cast of thought of the framers of the Constitution, pointing out that they might have framed the document to enshrine their own economic interests rather than as a high-minded exercise in constitutional statesmanship. Later, from the 1940s through the 1970s, liberal jurists and scholars sought to ground arguments for strict separation of church and state in the intent of the framers. In the mid-1980s the pendulum swung back, as Attorney General Edwin Meese III called for a "jurisprudence of original intent" that would anchor freewheeling judges to the text of the Constitution interpreted solely in the light of its origins. In response, constitutional scholars and historians such as Martin S. Flaherty, Jack N. Rakove, and James H. Hutson argued that original-intent jurisprudence fails on two grounds. First, it does not take account of the inadequacies of the historical evidence of original intent. Second, it fails to consider the historical and intellectual contexts of the origins of the Constitution and the ways in which those contexts differ significantly, often radically, from those of the present. Nevertheless, Rakove has argued, the advice of those who framed the Constitution, argued over its adoption, and put it into effect is valuable to us for two reasons: First, the framers were "present at the creation," and their discussion therefore sheds light on the origins of the constitutional system. Second, the framers were among the most learned and profound political and constitutional thinkers that this nation has produced; thus, even if we reject the binding force of original-intent jurisprudence, their wisdom often has persuasive value.


The founding fathers draw renewed attention not only from scholars but from Americans from all walks of life. Major constitutional crises, triggering acerbic dispute over whether and how "original intent" can resolve such crises, intersect with a sense of public uncertainty as to the lessons that the usable past ought to teach. In 1941, with the United States on the brink of entering World War II, the novelist and critic John Dos Passos observed in The Ground We Stand On: "In times of change and danger, when there is a quicksand of fear under men's reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present." Dos Passos's words apply equally as well to the state of mind of the American people in the wake of Bush v. Gore (2000) and the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001. In this era, many Americans questioned the constitutional system's ability to respond to grave national problems. Looking back into the nation's history, many Americans saw in John Adams a figure of reassuring toughness and in Alexander Hamilton a forthright, realistic champion of national interests in a hostile world. Despite sharp differences between scholarly and popular understandings of the era of the Revolution and the making of the Constitution, the appeal of a mythologized cadre of founding fathers became, once again, irresistible.

See alsoAdams, John; American Character and Identity; Constitution, Ratification of; Constitutional Convention; Continental Congresses; Declaration of Independence; Fame and Reputation; Federalist Papers; Franklin, Benjamin; Hamilton, Alexander; Historical Memory of the Revolution; Jefferson, Thomas; Madison, James; Presidency, The; Washington, George .


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R. B. Bernstein

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Founding Fathers

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