Many of the Founding Fathers owned African American slaves and the Constitution adopted in 1787 sanctioned the system of slavery. The Founding Fathers made successful efforts to contain or limit slavery throughout the United States and territories, including banning slavery in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and abolishing the international slave trade in 1807.
The phrase 'Founding Fathers' was coined by Warren G. Harding, then a Republican Senator from Ohio, in his keynote address to the 1916 Republican National Convention. He used it several times thereafter, most prominently in his 1921 inaugural address as President of the United States.
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 in 1787, in Philadelphia. Although the Convention was called to revise the Articles of Confederation, the intention from the outset of many of its proponents—chief among them James Madison and Alexander Hamilton—was to create a new government rather than try to fix the inadequate 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 what is now known as the Federal 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 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.
The ones who lacked congressional experience were Bassett, Blair, Brearly, Broom, Davie, Dayton, Alexander Martin, Luther Martin, Mason, McClurg, Paterson, Charles Pinckney, Strong, Washington and Yates.
Two, Sherman and Robert Morris, signed all three of the nation's basic documents.
Dickinson, Franklin, Langdon, and Rutledge had been governors.
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. Thirty-five had legal training, though not all of them practiced law. Some had also been local judges.
At the time of the convention, 13 men were merchants: Blount, Broom, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Shields, Gilman, Gorham, Langdon, Robert Morris, Pierce, Sherman, and Wilson.
Seven were major land speculators: Blount, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Gorham, Robert Morris, Washington and Wilson.
Eleven speculated in securities on a large scale: Bedford, Blair, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Franklin, King, Langdon, Robert Morris, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Sherman.
Many wealthy Northerners owned domestic slaves: Franklin later freed his slaves and was a key founder of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Jay founded the New York Manumission Society in 1785, for which Hamilton became an officer. They and other members of the Society founded the African Free School in New York City, to educate the children of free blacks and slaves. When Jay was governor of New York in 1798, he signed into law a gradual abolition law; fully ending slavery as of 1827. He freed his own slaves in 1798.
Broom and Few were small farmers.
Eight of the men received a substantial part of their income from public office: Baldwin, Blair, Brearly, Gilman, Livingston, Madison, and Rutledge.
Three had retired from active economic endeavors: Franklin, McHenry, and Mifflin.
Franklin and Williamson were scientists, in addition to their other activities.
A few of the 1787 delegates were wealthy, but many of the country's top wealth-holders were Loyalists who went to Britain. Most of the others 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.
Most of the 1787 delegates were natives of the Thirteen Colonies. Only 9 were born elsewhere: four (Butler, Fitzsimons, McHenry, and Paterson) in Ireland, two (Davie and Robert Morris) in England, two (Wilson and Witherspoon) in Scotland, and one (Hamilton) in the West Indies.
Many of them had moved from one state to another. Seventeen individuals had already lived, studied or worked in more than one state or colony: Baldwin, Bassett, Bedford, Dickinson, Few, Franklin, Ingersoll, Hamilton , Livingston, Alexander Martieno, Luther Martin, Mercer, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, Read, Sherman, and Williamson.
Several others had studied or traveled abroad.
The Founding Fathers had strong educational backgrounds at some of 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
Death age of the Founding Fathers.
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 Houston in 1788; 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, eight in their fifties, and five only 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.
A few prominent Founding Fathers were anti-clerical Christians, such as Thomas Jefferson (who created the so-called "Jefferson Bible") and Benjamin Franklin. Others (most notably Thomas Paine) were deists, or at least held beliefs very similar to those of deists.
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.
Many Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin owned slaves. The Constitution of 1787 indirectly mentioned slavery by counting slaves as 3/5 person in apportioning representation and including a fugitive clause to capture and return runaway slaves. The Founding Fathers, however, did make important efforts to contain slavery. Many Northern states had adopted legislation to end or significantly reduce slavery 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, having failed to pass Congress by one vote. Partially following Jefferson's plan Congress did ban slavery in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 for territory north of the Ohio River. The international slave trade was banned in all states except South Carolina by 1800. Finally in 1807, President Jefferson signed into law a federally enforced ban on the international slave trade throughout all the United States and territories. President Jefferson, in 1804, however, allowed the domestic expansion or 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.
^Letter to Alexander von Humboldt, December 6, 1813 "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government,"
^Letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814 "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own."
^Quoted in The New England Currant (July 23, 1722), "Silence Dogood, No. 9; Corruptio optimi est pessima." "And it is a sad Observation, that when the People too late see their Error, yet the Clergy still persist in their Encomiums on the Hypocrite; and when he happens to die for the Good of his Country, without leaving behind him the Memory of one good Action, he shall be sure to have his Funeral Sermon stuff'd with Pious Expressions which he dropt at such a Time, and at such a Place, and on such an Occasion; than which nothing can be more prejudicial to the Interest of Religion, nor indeed to the Memory of the Person deceas'd. The Reason of this Blindness in the Clergy is, because they are honourably supported (as they ought to be) by their People, and see nor feel nothing of the Oppression which is obvious and burdensome to every one else."
^LaGumina, Salvatore. The Italian American experience: an encyclopedia, page 361 (Taylor & Francis, 2000).
^Unger, Harlow (2009). James Monroe: The Last Founding Father. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN0-306-81808-6.
^Kann, Mark E. (1999). The Gendering of American Politics: Founding Mothers, Founding Fathers, and Political Patriarchy. ABC-CLIO. p. xi. ISBN978-0-275-96112-1.
^"Founding Father Thomas Paine: He Genuinely Abhorred Slavery". The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (48): 45. 2005. doi:10.2307/25073236.edit
^Hall, Max. Harvard University Press: a history, page 138 (Harvard University Press 1986).
^Burstein, Andrew. "Politics and Personalities: Garry Wills takes a new look at a forgotten founder, slavery and the shaping of America", Chicago Tribune (November 09, 2003): "Forgotten founders such as Pickering and Morris made as many waves as those whose faces stare out from our currency."
^ abRafael, Ray. The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Founding Fathers: And the Birth of Our Nation (Penguin, 2011).
^Schwartz, Laurens R. Jews and the American Revolution: Haym Solomon and Others, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 1987.
^Kendall, Joshua. The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture (Penguin 2011).
^Wright, R. E. (1996). "Thomas Willing (1731-1821): Philadelphia Financier and Forgotten Founding Father". Pennsylvania History63 (4): 525–560. doi:10.2307/27773931.edit
^"A Patriot of Early New England", New York Times (December 20, 1931). This book review referred to Wingate as one of the "Fathers" of the United States, per the book title.
^The New Yorker, Volume I, page 398 (September 10, 1836): "'The Last of the Romans' — This was said of Madison at the time of his decease, but there is one other person who seems to have some claims to this honorable distinction. Paine Wingate of Stratham, N.H. still survives."
Richard B. Bernstein, Are We to Be a Nation? The Making of the Constitution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987).
R. B. Bernstein, The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Richard D. Brown. "The Founding Fathers of 1776 and 1787: A Collective View," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 33, No. 3 (Jul. 1976), pp. 465–480 online at JSTOR.
Henry Steele Commager, "Leadership in Eighteenth-Century America and Today," Daedalus 90 (Fall 1961): 650–673, reprinted in Henry Steele Commager, Freedom and Order (New York: George Braziller, 1966).
Joseph J. Ellis. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History.
Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).
Jack P. Greene. "The Social Origins of the American Revolution: An Evaluation and an Interpretation," Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 88, No. 1 (Mar. 1973), pp. 1–22 online in JSTOR.
P.M.G. Harris, "The Social Origins of American Leaders: The Demographic Foundations, " Perspectives in American History 3 (1969): 159–364.
Mark E. Kann; The Gendering of American Politics: Founding Mothers, Founding Fathers, and Political Patriarchy (New York: Frederick Praeger, 1999).
Adrienne Koch; Power, Morals, and the Founding Fathers: Essays in the Interpretation of the American Enlightenment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1961).
Frank Lambert. The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. (Princeton, NJ> Princeton University Press, 2003).
Martin, James Kirby. Men in Rebellion: Higher Governmental Leaders and the coming of the American Revolution, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1973; reprint, New York: Free Press, 1976).
Morris, Richard B. Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).
Robert Previdi; "Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America," Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 29, 1999
Rakove, Jack. Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2010) 487 pages; scholarly study focuses on how the Founders moved from private lives to public action, beginning in the 1770s
Cokie Roberts. Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation (New York: William Morrow, 2005); popular
Gordon S. Wood. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (New York: Penguin Press, 2006)