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Seven Founding Fathers - An Overview

Politicians are an integral part of “the mysteries of national formations.” Robert A. Ferguson, Reading the Early Republic

America’s founding fathers, the men who engineered a constitutional convention and drafted a new form of government for the loosely-joined states in 1787, succeeded through the force of personal authority.

Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution

Despite never-ending debates of who should or should not be considered a member, some definitions of the Founding Fathers have remained more or less constant in American historiography; thus, in order to sketch the dominant version of the myth, let me name and very briefly introduce those who are most often included in the Founding Fathers canon: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is the oldest member of the Founding Father group and still holds a central place among their ranks as a supposedly multitalented politician, public educator, and scientist, and as a major representative of the American Enlightenment. In his autobiography, which has issued powerful self-representations of the homo americanus and has become a highly canonical text, Franklin fashioned himself as the “good parent” who “treats all Americans as his offspring” (Morgan, Benjamin Franklin 127). Due to his participation in the campaign for colonial unity, he was often referred to as “the first American” (cf. H.W. Brands’s book of the same title). Benjamin Franklin’s self- concocted and self-declared combination of frugality, hard work, community spirit, intellectualism, and democratic participation was highly influential in later mythmaking. He was famously portrayed by Joseph Siffred Duplessis and is commemorated on the one hundred-dollar bill. During his lifetime, the Franklin cult was already international in scope and garnered a substantial transatlantic following. More recently, James Srodes has re-affirmed his centrality by calling him the “essential founding father” (cf. Benjamin Franklin).

Somewhat different are the grounds on which George Washington (17321799), one of the three Virginians in this group, has been elevated as a Founding Father. Washington was commander-in-chief of the Continental Army from 1775-1783 (and as such successful against the British military); he then oversaw the writing of the Constitution in 1787, and was later unanimously voted the first President of the United States (1789-1797). During his presidency many aspects and rituals of the US government were established that are still being practiced today, among them the presidential inaugural address. Washington has often been given the epithet ‘Father of his Country’ and thus holds a particularly prominent place among the founders. In affirmative versions of the founders myth, he is often referred to as “a modern-day Cincinnatus” (Furstenberg, “Washington’s Farewell Address” 122; cf. Wills, Cincinnatus 35-37, 248-9) because he allegedly did not strive for political power and planned to return to his plantation after the war for independence was won. As a Virginian, Washington was also “a staunch advocate of American expansion” (Taylor, Writing 176) and was among those Founding Fathers who owned slaves. Foundational Washington iconography includes the famous portraits by Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart, the biographies by John Marshall (cf. Life), Washington Irving (cf. Life), and Mason Locke Weems (cf. History), as well as the sculptures by Jean Antoine Houdon and Horatio Greenough. Washington’s Birthday is a federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday of February. Karal Ann Marling has comprehensively documented Washingtonia in her book George Washington Slept Here (1988), and Francois Furstenberg has tried to show that the “freely given,” voluntary worship of Washington effectively created a civil religious, national consensus among Americans (In the Name 70).

Like Washington, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was a member of the Virginia planter elite and thus a slaveholder; he served as delegate from Virginia to the Continental Congress and later on became the third President of the United States (1801-1809). On his gravestone, Jefferson allegedly wished to be remembered for three things: as the author of the Declaration of Independence, as the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and as the founder of the University of Virginia. He purchased the Louisiana territory from Napoleon in 1803, thus doubling the size of the US territory, and supported the Lewis and Clarke expedition (1804-06) to explore it. The ideal of Jeffersonian democracy is often described as an agrarian vision of an imagined “empire of liberty,” which is formulated in his Notes on the State of Virginia (query 14). The neoclassical Jefferson Memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C. was completed in 1947, and he is depicted on the rare two-dollar bill. Because of the inconsistencies and contradictions of Jefferson’s contribution to the national founding, Joseph Ellis has called him the “American Sphinx” (cf. his book of the same title). In biographical appraisals, he has been given credit for his contribution and successes by Merrill Peterson (cf. Jefferson Image) and others, yet he has also been cast quite negatively as “the greatest southern reactionary” (Lind, Next American Nation 369) and as an influence on the Ku Klux Klan (cf. O’Brien, Long Affair).

James Madison (1751-1836) is the third Virginian plantation owner in the ranks of the Founding Fathers. As a member of Congress (1780-3), he urged the revision of the Articles of Confederation in favor of a stronger national government. As the primary author of the Constitution, he is often called ‘Father of the Constitution’ and ‘Father of the Bill of Rights.’ In co-authorship with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay he wrote the Federalist Papers. Power must be divided, Madison argued, both between federal and state governments, and within the federal government (checks and balances) to protect individual rights from what he famously called “the tyranny of the majority” (“Advice”). With Jefferson, Madison formed the Republican Party. As the fourth President of the United States (1809-1817), he entered a war against Britain which is often referred to as the War of 1812 (also called ‘Mr. Madison’s War’); it ended inconclusively but was considered a success by Americans and is thus often also labeled the ‘second war for independence.’

Although he is considered one of the key Founding Fathers, John Adams (1735-1826) never became the object of any large-scale national individual personality cult, which he seems to have anticipated himself:

The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical Rod, smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod - and henceforth these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War. These underscored lines contain the whole Fable, Plot, and Catastrophe. (qtd. in Ferguson, Reading 1)

Adams was a lawyer, a political theorist, and the author of “Thoughts on Government,” which early on promoted “a checked, balanced, and separated form of government” (Bernstein, Founding Fathers 51) and suggested a bicameral legislature anchored in the Constitution. As delegate for Massachusetts to the Continental Congress he nominated George Washington as commander-in-chief and supposedly prompted Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. He served as Washington’s vice president and later became the second President of the United States. Adams is often considered in relation to various famous family members - his wife, Abigail Adams, his son John Quincy Adams, who was the sixth President of the United States, and his great-grandson Henry Adams, a historian and novelist.

Like Franklin and Adams, John Jay (1745-1829) was from the North and the delegate to the First Continental Congress from New York; he also drafted New York’s first state constitution. At first, Jay was, in John Stahr’s view, somewhat of a “reluctant democrat” (John Jay xiii) and apparently always favored a strong national government. Next to being one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, he wrote the voluminous pamphlet Address to the People of the State of New York. As head of the Federalist Party, Jay became Governor of the State of New York (1795-1801), and in this function effected the abolition of slavery in this state. Jay also was involved in what is often referred to as the Jay Treaty (1794), which, for a while, secured peace between the US and Britain. In contrast to other Founding Fathers, Jay has no monument or memorial on the National Mall dedicated to him. It has been repeatedly noted that Jay’s legacy has been somewhat overshadowed by that of other Founding Fathers and that he is often “forgotten and sometimes misrepresented” (Stahr, John Jay xiii) due in part to his less than exciting lifestyle; Stahr quips somewhat polemically: “He did not die in a duel, like Hamilton, or sleep with a slave, like Jefferson” (ibid. xiv).

Alexander Hamilton (1755/57(?)-1804) is, according to Gore Vidal, “the one true exotic” (Inventing 17) among the national founders. Born and raised in the West Indies, Hamilton came to North America for his education (he attended King’s College, now Columbia University). He was a delegate to the Congress of the Confederation from New York, a delegate to the 1786 Annapolis Convention to revise the Articles of Confederation, and one of New York’s delegates at the Philadelphia Convention that drafted the new constitution in 1787. Hamilton wrote most of the Federalist Papers and is often considered a nationalist who emphasized a strong central government. In his political maneuvering, Hamilton has often been cast as authoritarian, even “monarchizing,” and has been considered by his political opponents as a “closet Caesar” (Knott, Alexander Hamilton 215). Hamilton resigned from office in 1795 but remained influential in politics; he supposedly helped Jefferson defeat Adams in the 1800 presidential elections and had a notorious rivalry with Aaron Burr, who eventually killed Hamilton in a duel. Foreign born, and, we can assume, without the proper habitus of either the Southern planters or the New England intellectuals, Hamilton has often been considered the odd one out among the inner circle of the Founding Fathers - a mere “upstart,” an immigrant of illegitimate birth, even “un-American” (ibid. 7; 11). Jefferson once noted that there was a somewhat “faintly alien [...] odor of (his) character and politics” (qtd. in ibid. 230). He has been memorialized in paintings by John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale, outdoor statues by Carl Conrads (1880), William Ordway (1893 and 1908), and Adolph A. Weinman (1941) in Manhattan as well as a statue in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, and, most recently, the PBS production Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton (2011).

From these short biographical sketches we can already gather, first, that most sources on the founders have a tendency to affirm the Founding Fathers myth and to contribute to their mythologization (even when they are scholarly publica?tions); and second, that the founders had pronounced differences in background and upbringing, in political vision and experience, in temperament and in career. These differences suggest that their group identity is anything but stable. Benjamin Franklin had a clear sense of the differences among them when he reminded his peers: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately” (Works Vol. 1 408). Franklin’s admonishment to “hang together” and to pursue the independence of the colonies as a common cause reveals what was perceived as the danger of factionalism at the time. What many of the elite of the founders indeed had in common is that they were authors - of farewell speeches, pamphlets, constitutions, declarations, bills, essays, autobiographies, letters, etc. - who engaged in at times heated debates and exchange. In the historical context, Robert Ferguson notes:

In the 1770s the Founders are competing propagandists who trade in treason for an uncertain cause and a mixed audience. Confused and divided, they face enormous problems in deciding what to say to whom and when. Neither the British nor the French but factionalism is and remains their clearest enemy. Indeed, the possibility of collapse through internal dissension continues to haunt both political considerations and the literary imagination for generations. (“‘We Hold’” 4)

Based on their writings on republicanism and constitutionalism, Hannah Arendt lauds “the thoughtful and erudite political theories of the Founding Fathers” (On Revolution 16) and their “deep concern with forms of government” (ibid. 50). This political myth has provided a cohesive national discourse for the United States at a time when it still was characterized by strong local and regional interests. Still, the conflicts among the Founding Fathers and their different political trajectories have led Robert Levine to suggest in hindsight that there was “no single ‘American ideology’” or “national narrative” at the time of the founding (Dislocating 67).

 
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