| Guide to:|
|Ideas and policies|
|—Samuel Johnson in Taxation, No Tyranny, discussing the Founding Fathers' attachment to slavery.|
The Founding Fathers are a loosely defined group of
teenagers men who were instrumental to the creation of what we now know as the United States of America. Ohio senator (and future president) Warren G. Harding coined the phrase during his keynote speech at the 1916 Republican National Convention. In general, they include the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and those who worked on drafting the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights eleven years later.
America takes its Founding Fathers very seriously, and in many ways to an extreme level. Often to the point where one would say "the Founding Fathers would be ashamed of you" for whatever your politics may be, while rarely actually researching their beliefs and opinions and adapting one's own to match theirs. Assuming they would agree with one's already established beliefs is so much easier — eerily similar to the question, "What would Jesus do?" Unfortunately the left and right are equally guilty of this. The mythologization of the Founding Fathers forms an important aspect to American exceptionalism.
Who is a Founding Father?
There are over 130 people who can be considered to be among the Founding Fathers of the United States, and nobody has heard of most of them (but God help you if you run into one of their spawn at a party in the Hamptons). According to the guy everyone agrees is the best historian on the subject, the seven most important founding fathers were Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. So nobody else mattered.
These seven people were particularly instrumental in the shape the country was to take, but many of the 126 other official Founding Fathers did and said a lot of important things as well.
And who says it's all about the A-List? There were thousands of people across the country who are not officially considered Founding Fathers yet who had great influence. James Iredell is not an official Founding Father but he's hardly just some Carolina cracker. Iredell sat on the very first Supreme Court and wrote the lone dissent in Chisholm v. Georgia, disagreeing with Founding Father A-Listers John Jay, James Wilson and John Blair. Everyone was so mad at the A-Listers that the country just two years later ratified the Eleventh Amendment overturning their ruling. Iredell helped organize the court system of North Carolina, and some manifesto he wrote predated the Declaration of Independence, but said a lot of the same stuff and his dissent became the Eleventh Amendment, more or less. Yet he's B-List, if even.
Citing the founding fathers is tricky with even the A-List founders and their wildly divergent opinions, to say nothing if you start to include B-Listers like Iredell.
For no good reason, here is a short list of the better known Original Daddies:
- George Washington - Slept here, stood up in boats, killed some drunk dudes on Christmas, first President.
- Benjamin Franklin - All-round smart guy, noted womanizer. More of a founding granddad really due to his age. Spent the last years of his life opposing slavery, though he could not get anything done against slave-shagging Jefferson and slave-owning Washington.
- Thomas Jefferson - Scribbled the Declaration of Independence on the back of love letter envelopes. Was out of the country when the Constitution was signed. Later became the first President to have a child with a black woman...whom he owned, of course. Didn't free his slaves in his will as is commonly believed.
- Alexander Hamilton - Appears on the ten-dollar bill, really wanted a strong state and banks, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers. Also has a musical.
- Samuel Adams - Brought the beer, in an eerie presaging of George W. Bush.
- John Adams - Cousin of the above, both best friend and worst enemy of Thomas Jefferson (sometimes simultaneously). Wrote letters to Jefferson you might have to read in school and letters to his wife which you definitely won't read in school. Both he and his son served one term as President.
- James Madison - Wrote the rough drafts of the Constitution; one of the authors of the Federalist Papers.
- Thomas Paine - Stirred the country to war, then wrote the best defense of freedom of religion ever. His pamphlets at some times outsold Shakespeare.
- John Marshall - Pretty much created the American judiciary system as we know it.
- John Jay - First chief justice of the Supreme Court, but not as influential as Marshall; one of the authors of the Federalist Papers.
- Patrick Henry - Known for being the "voice of the revolution," he is also the fundamentalist's favorite founder.
- Aaron Burr - Mostly known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel (which effectively killed both dueling and his political career); also tried to get the Western part of the country to secede.
- John Hancock - Most Americans know him for his large signature on the Declaration of Independence. Silversmith and smuggler.
- George Mason - He wrote both the Fairfax Resolves and the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
Some of the moms
Believe it or not, there were several important founding mothers. Important ladies include:
- Martha Washington - First First Lady.
- Abigail Adams - Kept John Adams grounded. - Is often cited as one of the most important female figures of her time. The fact that the extensive correspondence between her and her husband survives may have aided in that. Said letters deal with politics and related subjects, as well as other things.
- Betsy Ross - Designed the American flag, at least according to legend; evidence for this is noticeably absent.
- "Molly Pitcher" - The wife of an officer who took over her husband's post after he was wounded.
- Dolly Madison - Main rival of Hostess Twinkies, until Hostess Brands bought them out in the 1990s. Dolley Madison, on the other hand, saved much of the White House's art during the War of 1812 (damn Canadians).
“”Surely the people who wrote and signed the Constitution of the United States of America can be trusted to tell us what it means. Original letters written in their own words give us a much truer understanding of their intentions than third party commentaries written a hundred years later.
The quote above is true if you assume that these 130 people all believed the same things; that the Founding Fathers were an intellectual monolithic entity that knew exactly the effect of all their words; that no debate nor compromise was involved in the writing of the Constitution; and that wording was not purposefully vague because they could not agree on their meanings at the framing.
This line of reasoning should lead you to question why the founding fathers even felt the need for a Supreme Court (and the ability to add and repeal amendments to the Constitution), since everyone knew what the document said and meant. Simply cracking the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers should dispel this notion rather quickly. And just a couple of examples of the divisions between the founders: The Bill of Rights itself (tacked on to please the Anti-Federalists) and the Three-Fifths Compromise. There are also the rather unsavory facts about how the founders immediately began to violate the Constitution after they had been elected into office, e.g. John Adams' signing the Alien and Sedition Acts and Thomas Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana territory from the French.
In reality, it was just pure luck that they could stop bickering for long enough to keep the country together. The country was rallied around two sides: the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. After the somewhat authoritarian presidency of John Adams, followed by 28 years of Jeffersonian Republicans, which caused an effective one-party state from 1812 to 1824. It was sheer luck that the country never fell apart. If it weren't for the threat of Britain and the natives which we intended to steal all the land from, they probably would've failed. So in reality, the US government back then was enough to make the modern US look like a monolithic voting bloc. In addition to this, some states had real diplomatic tensions. For example, Virginia and Ohio would've probably gotten really mad over the Ohio River.
So you've dug up some Founding Father who wrote something that backs up what you think, and this is great. Because now whatever belief you hold is shared by the monolithic Founding Fathers and you can pull out your quote to prove you are right. For example, here's a tidbit from lexicographer Noah Webster that would surprise some people:
“”An equality of property... constantly operating to destroy combinations of powerful families, is the very soul of a republic... Let the people have property, and they will have power -- a power that will for ever be exerted to prevent a restriction of the press, and abolition of trial by jury, or the abridgement of any other privilege.
|—Noah Webster (yes, the dictionary guy), "proposing" socialism before Marx was even born.|
Here's how to overcome some pitfalls. In the unlikely event somebody in earshot has read a book and says "How can you say that? These men were immediately arguing in the Supreme Court about what they meant in the Constitution!" you should say that was all just pencil sharpening, and tell them to stop with the evil liberal claptrap.
If you cite the Founding Fathers' "original intent," it's possible that someone will point out that there were Founding Fathers who thought and wrote the exact opposite things that you're claiming. History calls some of this nonsense "Federalist v. Anti-Federalist"; "Big State v. Little State"; and "Federalism v. Republicanism." To win, just say that particular Founding Father was an idiot everyone actually hated. Say that "the Founding Fathers believed X and Founding Father Y wrote this in a letter" and the implication is that they all believed as Founding Father Y, whose ideas were cheered and adopted by everyone! Argument won, because you get to say, whoever you are arguing with over whatever position, that it is originalist.
Proponents of the legal doctrine of originalism often make references to these 130 men and what they thought about stem cell research, automatic weapons, segregation, and the humor of George Carlin. Interestingly the family values of Ben C-Note Benjamin Franklin are rarely if ever cited.
Deists, Christian soldiers or Satanic atheists?
While fundamentalist Christians like to claim that all these men were devout Christians, in truth, most were deists (in the classical sense where an individual's relationship with God is impersonal), though their individual religious stances were as varied as night and day. Above all, however, they held secularist viewpoints, strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, and had strong opinions in favor of insulating religious matters from state interference — and vice versa.
Benjamin Franklin edited out Thomas Jefferson's initial line in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be sacred..." and changed it to: "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." So much the worse for the theory of a Christian source for the founding document. Instead of elevating rights as sacred revealed truths, the patres patriae held up rights as purely intellectual axioms. Thomas Jefferson said that the Declaration of Independence was "an expression of the American mind". Now, if he had said it was "an expression of the American faith", like the Religious Right currently claims (and retrojects into the document), they might have a point.
Conservatives counter that no matter how unorthodox Thomas Jefferson was in regards to religion (he was, after all, the man who wrote the Jefferson Bible), he, along with the other founders, most certainly believed that God was the source of our human rights. But in that event, the word "God" becomes meaningless, because the God of Christianity (and Judaism, and Islam) grants no rights in the various scriptures. There are only bald assertions by a group of men coming out of the Enlightenment period that a vague fuzzy deist God established the rights, and this is held as a matter of unquestioned "self-evident" truth.
Other examples of non-Christian behavior include Washington, who would often get up and walk out of church rather than take Communion and who, contrary to his popular image, disappointed contemporary theologians with his lack of enthusiasm in preaching the Christian faith.
At least one fundamentalist group, the Society for the Practical Establishment and Perpetuation of the Ten Commandments, recognizes that most of the Founding Fathers were not Christians in the sense that we would recognize them today. Of course, it then jumps to the conclusion that the Founding Fathers were inspired by Satan, that democracy is evil and ungodly, and that we should overturn the Constitution and replace it with a theocracy. QED.
Dispassionate unbiased outsider view
True-blue British patriot-imperialists regarded those rash and careless enough to sign up for Independence - regardless of their undoubted intellectual accomplishments and alleged religio-moral fiber - as self-evidently[citation NOT needed] traitorous oath-breakers and disloyal criminal stirrers who fully deserved nothing less than getting strung up from the nearest tree. (Which would undoubtedly have happened had not a visiting naval force of cheese-eating surrender-monkeys kept the British off the Continentals' backs by declaring war on the UK and tying up most of its army and navy overseas. Oh, and that time they saved the bacon of George Washington, the colonial so-called general, at Yorktown in 1781.)
- Who Owns the Founding Fathers?, Tufts University
- "If The Founding Fathers Were Alive Today, They’d Be Too Fascinated By A Garbage Disposal To Do Anything", The Onion (of course)
- Later Johnson, Harvard College Library
- David McCullough brings 'John Adams' to life, CNN
- How Old Were the Leaders of the American Revolution on July 4, 1776?, Slate
- Address Accepting the Republican Presidential Nomination, UC Santa Barbara
- List of Founding Fathers on Wikipedia
- Richard B. Morris in his 1973 book Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries.
- As in, your third-party commentary?
- Read 'em all: The Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers
- An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution, University of Chicago
- Thomas Jefferson Sneaks Back into Texas Textbooks, Good.is
- "Rand Paul's America", FrumForum
- FCC v. Pacifica, FindLaw
- The Declaration and the self-evident benefits of editing, FIU
- Waldman, Steven. Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty. (Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York, 2009)
- Benjanmin Franklin apparently realised this, allegedly stating in all seriousness: "We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." He would have known what happened to the fellow-rebels and to the bones of Oliver Cromwell after the Restoration of 1660. Compare: Conway, Stephen (2002) . The British Isles and the War of American Independence (Reprint ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 142-143. ISBN 9780191542572. https://books.google.com/books?id=ghkm8IxFCQIC. Retrieved 2016-10-08. "Isaac Fletcher of Cumberland expressed sharp criticism of the Americans in his diary, describing them as 'the enemy' and one of their army commanders as 'the rebell general'.[...] He concluded that the New Englanders were a 'wicked people', and hoped that they would feel the full force of God's wrath. [...] Some of the clergy of the church of England were still more critical of the colonists" 'If they were all put to the Sword, I will not condemn the Severity', wrote the Revd John Butler. [...] [T]he archbishop of York [...] was dubbed in one cartoon of the time as 'General Sanguinaire Mark-ham' for his advocacy of the most bloody means to put down the rebellion."
- Dull, Jonathan R. (2015) . The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787. Princeton Legacy Library. Princeton. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. ix. ISBN 9781400868131. https://books.google.com/books?id=2WF9BgAAQBAJ. Retrieved 2016-10-08. "In the belief that military history is an essential component of diplomatic history I have studied the French navy as the means by which French diplomacy won its greatest (and most costly) victory of the eighteenth century, the achievement of American independence."