Who Are the Founding Fathers? | U.S. History Review
Historian Richard Morris, in his 1976 book, lists seven: Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Jay, Adams, Madison, and Hamilton. He limits his list to these due to the positions they held within the colonies and new country, both official and unofficial. The Encyclopedia Britannica has a slightly longer and different list; so it’s important to remember that the “founding fathers” were not a tight-knit self-conscious organization, but rather a group of highly influential people whose efforts have lasted throughout the years. As such, “founding fathers” is not a proper noun and should not be capitalized.
We’ve selected ten for this video that we believe are important figures for you to be aware of. Let’s begin with the oldest of them all, Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin was born in Boston in 1706 and died in 1790. He was a polymath (a person who is highly knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects), inventor, and held a number of positions within government. He was Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, first United States Postmaster General, first United States Minister to France (a position we would now call ambassador), first United States Minister to Sweden, and after serving the united colonies, was the sixth President of Pennsylvania. He was an advocate for education, hard work, and self-government, standing opposed to political and religious authoritarianism.
Born a full 16 years later, early Boston revolutionary and member of the Sons of Liberty, Samuel Adams was born in 1722 and died in 1803. He opposed the British Stamp Act, which enacted a tax on stamp sales in the colonies to finance the British fight against encroaching French and Indian forces. The rallying cry “no taxation without representation” came out of this opposition movement. He assisted with drafting the Articles of Confederation, which precluded the Constitution, as well as the Massachusetts Constitution. He would later serve as the fourth governor of Massachusetts.
Born in 1725, George Mason was a Virginian delegate to the Constitutional Convention but conscientiously decided not to sign the document, partially due to a lack of a bill of rights, which James Madison would later introduce. The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, were based upon Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights. He served in several Virginia conventions and legislative bodies but declined to serve in the Continental Congress. He died in 1792.
George Washington was born in Virginia in 1732, and died in 1799. He served in the British Army before the revolution and then commanded the Continental Army, defeating the British several times and allowing the war for independence to succeed. An advocate of republicanism, Washington refused to become an American king and stepped down after serving two terms as the first President of the United States.
John Adams was born in Massachusetts in 1735 and died in 1826. He was trained as a lawyer and practiced in the Boston area until he was swept up in the revolutionary fever led by his cousin, Samuel Adams. He served in the Continental Congress, the body responsible for deciding to secede from Great Britain. His influence in creating and signing the Treaty of Paris significantly helped pave the way for colonial independence. He went on to serve as the first vice president under George Washington, and then as the second president. His seminal Thoughts on Government laid the framework for the three branches of what would become the American government: executive, legislative, and judicial, rejecting the unicameral (single body) forms of government, fearing their tendency towards tyranny.
Known as the main author of the Declaration of Independence, Virginian Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 and died in 1826. He strongly favored individual rights and republicanism, and argued in favor of stronger state’s rights against the central government’s powers. He served as Governor of Virginia, the second Vice President of the United States, and the third President of the US, succeeding John Adams.
The lesser-known author of some of the Federalist Papers, John Jay was born in 1745 and died in 1829. Along with Hamilton, he supported a strong central government and aligned with the Federalist Party. He served in a number of diplomatic positions, was appointed by George Washington to be the first Chief Justice of the United States, and later became the second Governor of New York.
Another Virginian, James Madison, was born in 1751 and died in 1836. He took a lead in drafting what would become the United States Constitution, at the time favoring a stronger national government, but later in life preferred stronger state governments, eventually ending in the philosophical middle. He co-authored the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions along with Thomas Jefferson, proposing that states have the power to nullify unconstitutional laws in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts signed into law by President Adams.
Alexander Hamilton was born in 1755 and died in 1804. He is most well known for his advocacy of a strong executive branch and central government and formed the Federalist Party around these ideals, standing opposed to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who started the Democratic-Republican Party, which tended towards more agrarian ideals and a less strong central government. Hamilton was also one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers. An advocate for a national bank, Hamilton also served as the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, founded the Coast Guard, and started a newspaper.
Yet another Virginian, John Marshall, was born in 1755 and served as the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, as well as the fourth Secretary of State. He died in 1835. Some argue that his leadership in the Court over the course of 34 years cemented its position as a coequal branch of government. He took the position that federal law trumps state law and held to a wider reading of the enumerated powers given to Congress in the Constitution, but also thought that the courts should serve as a check against unconstitutional laws.
Those were ten of the major founding fathers of America, but, before we go, it’s worth mentioning a few “founding mothers,” as well.
Born in Massachusetts Bay in 1728, Mercy Otis Warren was an avid reader as a child, and went on to become a writer and polemicist during the revolution. She published an early history of the American revolution in 1805. She corresponded with many influential public figures of the time, including Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George and Martha Washington, and Abigail and John Adams, who spoke highly of her abilities.
Born in 1744, Abigail, the beloved wife, confidant, and advisor to John Adams, exerted much influence to the cause of independence and new country through her extensive correspondence and support to her husband. She died in 1818.
Born in North Carolina in 1768, Dolley married James Madison in 1794 and served by his side when he was Secretary of State and as First Lady. She was especially focused on hospitality and social life within the burgeoning capital city. She died in 1849.
By now, you should have a better picture of why these men and women were crucial in our early development and formation as a nation. Of course they were all flawed and made mistakes. But, their valiant efforts led to the creation of one of the best and most just governments the world has seen. Far from being outdated and “old-fashioned,” their timeless arguments and analysis ground us in our national history and can shed light on current events and are well worth your careful attention.
Thanks for tuning in and we hope you’ll watch more of our videos explaining other important facets of early American history and browse our website for more study guides and test prep covering hundreds of tests and certifications from Mometrix, the World’s #1 Test Preparation Company!