The Founding Fathers of the United States, or simply the Founding Fathers or Founders, were a group of American revolutionary leaders who united the Thirteen Colonies, led the war for independence from Great Britain, and built a frame of government for the new United States of America upon classical liberalism and republican principles during the latter decades of the 18th century.
The phrase Founding Fathers was coined by Senator Warren G. Harding in 1916. In 1973, historian Richard B. Morris identified seven figures as key Founding Fathers: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington, based on the critical and substantive roles they played in the formation of the country's new government. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin were members of the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were authors of The Federalist Papers, advocating ratification of the Constitution. The constitutions drafted by Jay and Adams for their respective states of New York (1777) and Massachusetts (1780) were heavily relied upon when creating language for the U.S. Constitution. Jay, Adams, and Franklin negotiated the Treaty of Paris that brought an end to the American Revolutionary War. Washington was Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and later president of the Constitutional Convention. All held additional important roles in the early government of the United States, with Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison serving as president, Adams and Jefferson as vice president, Jay as the nation's first chief justice, Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury, and Franklin was America's most senior diplomat and later the governmental leader of Pennsylvania.
The term Founding Fathers is sometimes more broadly used to refer to the signers of the embossed version of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, although four of the key founders - Washington, Jay, Hamilton, and Madison - were not signers. Signers is not to be confused with the term Framers; the Framers are defined by the National Archives as those 55 individuals who were appointed to be delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and took part in drafting the proposed Constitution of the United States. Of the 55 Framers, only 39 were signers of the Constitution. Two further groupings of Founding Fathers include: 1) those who signed the Continental Association, a trade ban and one of the colonists' first collective volleys protesting British control and the Intolerable Acts in 1774, and 2) those who signed the Articles of Confederation, the first U.S. constitutional document.
The First Continental Congress met briefly in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1774, consisting of 56 delegates from twelve of the thirteen American colonies except Georgia. Among them was George Washington, who would soon be drawn out of military retirement to command the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Also in attendance were Patrick Henry and John Adams, who, like all delegates, were elected by their respective colonial assemblies. Other 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 convened on May 10, 1775, it essentially reconstituted the First Congress. Many of the same 56 delegates who attended the first meeting participated in the second. New arrivals included Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, John Hancock of Massachusetts, John Witherspoon of New Jersey, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton of Maryland. Hancock was elected Congress president two weeks into the session when Peyton Randolph was recalled 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 their governance by the British Parliament. The U.S. adopted the Articles of Confederation, a declaration that established a national government with 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. 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 for some including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton was to create a new frame of government rather than amending the existing one. The delegates elected George Washington to preside over the convention. The result of the convention was the United States Constitution and the replacement of the Continental Congress with the United States Congress.
Among the state documents promulgated between 1774 and 1789 by the Continental Congress, four are paramount: the Continental Association (CA) , the Declaration of Independence (DI) , the Articles of Confederation (AC), and the United States Constitution (USC). Altogether, 145 men signed at least one of the four documents. In each instance, roughly 50% of the names signed are unique to that document. Six men signed three of the four documents, and only Roger Sherman of Connecticut signed all of them. The following persons are considered Founding Fathers of the United States of America, even though some may not have actually signed these formative documents:
|CA (1774)||DI (1776)||AC (1777)||USC (1787)|
|John Alsop||New York||1||Yes|
|Josiah Bartlett||New Hampshire||2||Yes||Yes|
|Gunning Bedford Jr.||Delaware||1||Yes|
|Egbert Benson||New York||0|
|William Blount||North Carolina||1||Yes|
|Simon Boerum||New York||1||Yes|
|David Brearley||New Jersey||1||Yes|
|Pierce Butler||South Carolina||1||Yes|
|Charles Carroll of Carrollton||Maryland||1||Yes|
|Richard Caswell||North Carolina||1||Yes|
|Abraham Clark||New Jersey||1||Yes|
|John Collins||Rhode Island||1||Yes|
|Stephen Crane||New Jersey||1||Yes|
|Jonathan Dayton||New Jersey||1||Yes|
|John De Hart||New Jersey||1||Yes|
|William Henry Drayton||South Carolina||1||Yes|
|James Duane||New York||2||Yes||Yes|
|William Duer||New York||1||Yes|
|William Ellery||Rhode Island||2||Yes||Yes|
|William Floyd||New York||2||Yes||Yes|
|Nathaniel Folsom||New Hampshire||1||Yes|
|Christopher Gadsden||South Carolina||1||Yes|
|Nicholas Gilman||New Hampshire||1||Yes|
|Alexander Hamilton||New York||1||Yes|
|Cornelius Harnett||North Carolina||1||Yes|
|John Hart||New Jersey||2||Yes|
|Joseph Hewes||North Carolina||2||Yes||Yes|
|Thomas Heyward Jr.||South Carolina||2||Yes||Yes|
|William Hooper||North Carolina||2||Yes||Yes|
|Stephen Hopkins||Rhode Island||2||Yes||Yes|
|Francis Hopkinson||New Jersey||1||Yes|
|Richard Hutson||South Carolina||1||Yes|
|William Jackson||South Carolina||1||Yes|
|John Jay||New York||1||Yes|
|Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer||Maryland||1||Yes|
|William Samuel Johnson||Connecticut||1||Yes|
|James Kinsey||New Jersey||1||Yes|
|John Langdon||New Hampshire||1||Yes|
|Henry Laurens||South Carolina||1||Yes|
|Francis Lightfoot Lee||Virginia||2||Yes||Yes|
|Richard Henry Lee||Virginia||3||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Francis Lewis||New York||2||Yes||Yes|
|Philip Livingston||New York||2||Yes||Yes|
|Robert Livingston||New York||0|
|William Livingston||New Jersey||2||Yes||Yes|
|Isaac Low||New York||1||Yes|
|Thomas Lynch||South Carolina||1||Yes|
|Thomas Lynch Jr.||South Carolina||1||Yes|
|Henry Marchant||Rhode Island||1||Yes|
|John Mathews||South Carolina||1||Yes|
|Arthur Middleton||South Carolina||1||Yes|
|Henry Middleton||South Carolina||1||Yes|
|Gouverneur Morris||New York||2[b]||Yes|
|Lewis Morris||New York||1||Yes|
|Thomas Nelson Jr.||Virginia||1||Yes|
|Robert Treat Paine||Massachusetts||2||Yes||Yes|
|William Paterson||New Jersey||1||Yes|
|John Penn||North Carolina||2||Yes||Yes|
|Charles Pinckney||South Carolina||1||Yes|
|Charles Cotesworth Pinckney||South Carolina||1||Yes|
|Edward Rutledge||South Carolina||2||Yes||Yes|
|John Rutledge||South Carolina||2||Yes||Yes|
|Nathaniel Scudder||New Jersey||1||Yes|
|Jonathan Bayard Smith||Pennsylvania||1||Yes|
|Richard Smith||New Jersey||1||Yes|
|Richard Dobbs Spaight||North Carolina||1||Yes|
|Richard Stockton||New Jersey||1||Yes|
|John Sullivan||New Hampshire||1||Yes|
|Matthew Thornton||New Hampshire||1||Yes|
|Nicholas Van Dyke||Delaware||1||Yes|
|Samuel Ward||Rhode Island||1||Yes|
|John Wentworth Jr.||New Hampshire||1||Yes|
|William Whipple||New Hampshire||1||Yes|
|John Williams||North Carolina||1||Yes|
|Hugh Williamson||North Carolina||1||Yes|
|Henry Wisner||New York||1||Yes|
|John Witherspoon||New Jersey||2||Yes||Yes|
The Founding Fathers represented a cross-section of 18th-century U.S. leadership. According to a study of the biographies by Caroline Robbins:
The Signers came for the most part from an educated elite, were residents of older settlements, and belonged with a few exceptions to a moderately well-to-do class representing only a fraction of the population. Native or born overseas, they were of British stock and of the Protestant faith.
They were leaders in their communities; several were also prominent in national affairs. Virtually all participated in the American Revolution; at the Constitutional Convention at least 29 had served in the Continental Army, most of them in positions of command.
Many of the Founding Fathers attended or graduated from the colonial colleges, most notably Columbia (known at the time as "King's College"), Princeton originally known as "The College of New Jersey", Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and the College of William and Mary. Some had previously been home schooled or obtained early instruction from private tutors or academies. Others had studied abroad. Ironically, Franklin who had little formal education, would ultimately establish the College of Philadelphia (1755); "Penn" would have the first medical school (1765) in the thirteen colonies where another Founder, Rush, would eventually teach.
With a limited number of professional schools established in the colonies, Founders also sought advanced degrees from traditional institutions in England and Scotland such as the University of Edinburgh, the University of St Andrews, and the University of Glasgow.
Several like Jay, Wilson, John Williams and Wythe were trained as lawyers through apprenticeships in the colonies while a few trained at the Inns of Court in London. Charles Carroll earned his law degree at Temple in London.
Franklin, Washington, John Williams and Wisner had little formal education and were largely self-taught or learned through apprenticeship.
The great majority were born in the Thirteen Colonies, but at least nine were born in other parts of the British Empire:
Many of them had moved from one colony to another. Eighteen had lived, studied or worked in more than one colony: Baldwin, Bassett, Bedford, Dickinson, Few, Franklin, Ingersoll, Hamilton, Livingston, Martin, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, Read, Sherman, and Williamson. Several others had studied or traveled abroad.
The Founding Fathers 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.
In 1977, historian Caroline Robbins examined the status of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and concluded:
There were indeed disparities of wealth, earned or inherited: some Signers were rich, others had about enough to enable them to attend Congress. ... The majority of revolutionaries were from moderately well-to-do or average income brackets. Twice as many Loyalists belonged to the wealthiest echelon. But some Signers were rich; few, indigent. ... The Signers were elected not for wealth or rank so much as because of the evidence they had already evinced of willingness for public service.
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.
Several of the Founding Fathers had extensive national, state, local and foreign political experience prior to the adoption of the Constitution in 1787. Some had been diplomats. Several had been members of the Continental Congress.
Nearly all of the Founding Fathers had some experience in colonial and state government, and the majority had held county and local offices. Those who lacked national congressional experience were Bassett, Blair, Brearly, Broom, Davie, Dayton, Martin, Mason, McClurg, Paterson, Charles Pinckney, and Strong.
Franklin T. Lambert (2003) has examined the religious affiliations and beliefs of some of the Founders. Of the 55 delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, 28 were Anglicans (i.e. Church of England; or Episcopalian, after the American Revolutionary War was won), 21 were other Protestant, and two were Roman Catholic (Daniel Carroll and Fitzsimons; Charles Carroll was Roman Catholic but was not a Constitution signatory). 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, notably Jefferson. Historian Gregg L. Frazer argues that the leading Founders (John Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Wilson, Morris, Madison, Hamilton, and Washington) were neither Christians nor Deists, but rather supporters of a hybrid "theistic rationalism". Many Founders deliberately avoided public discussion of their faith. Historian David L. Holmes uses evidence gleaned from letters, government documents, and second-hand accounts to identify their religious beliefs.
The Founding Fathers were not unified on the issue of slavery. Many of them were opposed to it and repeatedly attempted to end slavery in many of the colonies, but predicted that the issue would threaten to tear the country apart and had limited power to deal with it. In her study of Jefferson, historian Annette Gordon-Reed discusses this topic, "Others of the founders held slaves, but no other founder drafted the charter for freedom". In addition to Jefferson, Washington and many other of the Founding Fathers were slaveowners, but some were also conflicted by the institution, seeing it as immoral and politically divisive; Washington gradually became a cautious supporter of abolitionism and freed his slaves in his will. Jay and Hamilton led the successful fight to outlaw the slave trade in New York, with the efforts beginning as early as 1777. Conversely, many Founders such as Samuel Adams and John Adams were against slavery their entire lives. Rush wrote a pamphlet in 1773 which criticizes the slave trade as well as the institution of slavery. In the pamphlet, Rush argues on a scientific basis that Africans are not by nature intellectually or morally inferior, and that any apparent evidence to the contrary is only the "perverted expression" of slavery, which "is so foreign to the human mind, that the moral faculties, as well as those of the understanding are debased, and rendered torpid by it." The Continental Association contained a clause which banned any Patriot involvement in slave trading.
Franklin, though he was a key founder of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, originally owned slaves whom he later manumitted. While serving in the Rhode Island Assembly, in 1769 Hopkins introduced one of the earliest anti-slavery laws in the colonies. When Jefferson entered public life as a young member of the House of Burgesses, he began his career as a social reformer by an effort to secure legislation permitting the emancipation of slaves. 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 helped secure and signed into law an abolition law; fully ending forced labor as of 1827. He freed his own slaves in 1798. Hamilton opposed slavery, as his experiences in life left him very familiar with slavery and its effect on slaves and on slaveholders, although he did negotiate slave transactions for his wife's family, the Schuylers. Many of the Founding Fathers never owned slaves, including John Adams, Samuel Adams, and Paine.
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. In 1784, Jefferson 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, 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.
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. Among them was Henry, who in response to questions about his refusal to attend was quick to reply, "I smelled a rat." He believed that the frame of government the convention organizers were intent on building would trample upon the rights of citizens. Also, Rhode Island's lack of representation at the convention was the result of 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.
Only four (Baldwin, Gilman, Jenifer, and Martin) were lifelong bachelors. Many of the Founding Fathers' wives--such as Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Sarah Livingston Jay, Dolley Madison, Mary White Morris and Catherine Alexander Duer--were strong women who made significant contributions of their own to the fight for liberty.
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. Washington, who became known as "The Father of His Country", had no biological children, though he and his wife raised two children from her first marriage and two grandchildren.
Subsequent events in the lives of the Founding Fathers after the adoption of the Constitution were characterized by success or failure, reflecting the abilities of these men as well as the vagaries of fate. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe served in the highest U.S. office of President. Jay was appointed as the first Chief Justice of the United States and later was elected to two terms as governor of New York. Hamilton was appointed the first Secretary of the Treasury in 1789, and later Inspector General of the Army under President John Adams in 1798.
Seven (Fitzsimons, Gorham, Luther Martin, Mifflin, Robert Morris, Pierce, and Wilson) suffered serious financial reversals that left them in or near bankruptcy. Robert Morris spent three of the last years of his life imprisoned following bad land deals. 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 of the Founding Fathers were under 40 years old at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776: Hamilton was 21 and Gouverneur Morris was 24. The oldest was Franklin at 70. A few Founding Fathers lived into their nineties, including: Charles Carroll, who died at age 95; Thomson, who died at 94; William Samuel Johnson, who died at 92; and John Adams, who died at 90. The last remaining Founders, also poetically called the "Last of the Romans", lived well into the 19th century. The last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence was Charles Carroll, who died in 1832. The last surviving member of the Continental Congress was John Armstrong Jr., who died in 1843. Three (Hamilton, Spaight, and Gwinnett) were killed in duels. Adams and Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826.
Several Founding Fathers were instrumental in establishing schools and societal institutions that still exist today:
Articles and books by 21st-century historians combined with the digitization of primary sources like handwritten letters continue to contribute to an encyclopedic body of knowledge about the Founding Fathers.
Ron Chernow won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Washington. His bestselling book about Hamilton inspired the blockbuster musical of the same name. Both Peter S. Onuf and Jack N. Rakove researched Jefferson extensively.
According to Joseph 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.
Joanne B. Freeman's area of expertise is the life and legacy of Hamilton as well as political culture of the revolutionary and early national eras. Freeman has documented the often opposing visions of the Founding Fathers as they tried to build a new framework for governance, "Regional distrust, personal animosity, accusation, suspicion, implication, and denouncement--this was the tenor of national politics from the outset."
Annette Gordon-Reed is an American historian and Harvard Law School professor. She is noted for changing scholarship on Jefferson regarding his relationship with Sally Hemings and her children. She has studied the challenges faced by the Founding Fathers particularly as it relates to their position and actions on slavery. She points out "the central dilemma at the heart of American democracy: the desire to create a society based on liberty and equality" that yet does not extend those privileges to all."
David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 book, John Adams, focuses on the Founding Father, and his 2005 book, 1776, details Washington's military history in the American Revolution and other independence events carried out by America's founders.
The Founding Fathers were portrayed in the Tony Award-winning 1969 musical 1776, which depicted the debates over, and eventual adoption of, the Declaration of Independence. The stage production was adapted into the 1972 film of the same name. The 1989 film A More Perfect Union, which was filmed on location in Independence Hall, depicts the events of the Constitutional Convention. The writing and passing of the founding documents are depicted in the 1997 documentary miniseries Liberty!, and the passage of the Declaration of Independence is portrayed in the second episode of the 2008 miniseries John Adams and the third episode of the 2015 miniseries Sons of Liberty. The Founders also feature in the 1986 miniseries George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation, the 2002-03 animated television series Liberty's Kids, the 2020 miniseries Washington, and in many other films and television portrayals.
Several Founding Fathers--Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison--were reimagined in Hamilton, a 2015 musical inspired by the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, with music, lyrics and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The musical won eleven Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In their 2015 children's book, The Founding Fathers author Jonah Winter and illustrator Barry Blitt categorized 14 leading patriots into two teams based on their contributions to the formation of America - the Varsity Squad (Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, John Adams, Madison, Jay, and Hamilton) and the Junior Varsity Squad (Sam Adams, Hancock, Henry, Morris, Marshall, Rush, and Paine).
The following men and women also advanced the new nation through their actions.