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Reference group
Founding fathers (act. 1765–1836)
 Founding fathers (act. 1765–1836) by J. Trumbull, 1817 Founding fathers (act. 1765–1836) by J. Trumbull, 1817
are usually identified as the politicians, soldiers, jurists, and legislators who held positions of leadership during the era of the American War of Independence, the confederation period, and the early republic. At a minimum the roster includes the seven figures identified in 1973 by Richard B. Morris, the eminent historian of the revolution: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. These men's length and diversity of service to the new nation, and the first-rank status they achieved, bear out Morris's selection: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison were the first four presidents of the United States, Adams and Jefferson the first two vice-presidents; Jay was the first chief justice of the supreme court; Jefferson and Madison were secretaries of state; Hamilton was the first secretary of the treasury; Washington was commander-in-chief of the continental army; and Franklin, Adams, and Jay were negotiators of the treaty of Paris of 1783 by which the United States confirmed its independence.

But ‘founding fathers’ is a protean phrase whose meaning has varied depending on who has used it and when. Some—most famously Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address of November 1863—focused on the fifty-six delegates to the second continental congress who in July 1776 in Philadelphia's State House (now known as Independence Hall) declared American independence and adopted and signed Thomas Jefferson's amended Declaration of Independence (though Lincoln used the term ‘our fathers’ instead of ‘founding fathers’). The usual term for this category is ‘signers’ [see Signatories of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America]. Others, such as the historian Max Farrand and the political scientist Clinton L. Rossiter, identified the ‘founding fathers’ as the fifty-five delegates representing twelve states (Rhode Island not taking part) at the constitutional, or federal, convention, who met in the same building from May to September 1787 and framed the proposed constitution of the United States; they are more commonly known as the ‘framers’ (for the thirty-nine delegates who signed Signatories of the constitution of the United States of America).

By contrast historians like Robert Allen Rutland, John P. Kaminski, Gaspare J. Saladino, and Saul Cornell insist that ‘founding fathers’ should include all those who either supported or opposed the constitution during the ratification controversy of 1787–8. Other historians, including Alfred H. Young, Gary B. Nash, and Woody Holton, designate not only the usual cadre of élite white males but also the middling and common sorts who served in the American revolution, such as the revolutionary soldier Joseph Plumb Martin (1760–1850); those who voted for or against the constitution during the ratification process, like the Massachusetts farmer and anti-federalist Amos Singletary; and those who helped to bring the new government into existence. Seeking to avoid the phrase ‘founding fathers’, some historians have substituted the term ‘revolutionary generation’—though in fact the founding fathers spanned three or even four generations, from Benjamin Franklin to the treasury secretary and diplomat Albert Gallatin (1761–1849). Meanwhile Linda K. Kerber, Gail Collins, and others have reminded Americans of the role of women in the nation's history, applying the term ‘founding mothers’ to such women as Abigail Adams (1744–1818), Mercy Otis Warren, and the revolutionary soldier Deborah Sampson (1760–1827). Significantly, however, with few exceptions the phrase has not included those who were not white, whether African-American or Native American.

The core meaning of ‘founding fathers’ remains constant, however. It designates those who, by word or deed, helped to found the United States as a nation and a political experiment. The term therefore includes those who sat in the congress that declared American independence—including a delegate like John Dickinson of Pennsylvania who opposed independence and refused to sign the declaration but who fought for the American cause during the revolution. It also encompasses those who fought for the American side, and who subsequently played important roles—as framers or ratifiers, as opponents or subsequent practitioners—in the origins of the constitution and the system of government it outlines.

Independence and the signers

Two events—the declaration of American independence by the second continental congress (July 1776) and the framing of the constitution (May to September 1787) by the constitutional convention—are central to the idea and the accompanying images of the founding fathers.

The declaration of independence was the culmination of more than a decade of political and constitutional controversy between the American colonists and Britain that had begun in the aftermath of the Seven Years' War (1756–63). At issue was the nature and extent of Britain's power over its colonies under the unwritten British constitution. Beginning with the Stamp Act congress of 1765, and continuing with the first continental congress of 1774, inter-colonial assemblies debated and adopted plans of resistance to what they saw as unconstitutional policies violating their rights as British subjects.

The second continental congress, which gathered in Philadelphia on 10 May 1775, comprised several dozen delegates from the thirteen colonies of British North America, chosen either by each colony's legislature or by a self-appointed provincial congress meeting in place of that legislature. The delegates formed a cross-section of the colonies' political leadership, ranging from radicals like John Adams and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, and Thomas Jefferson and George Washington of Virginia, to conservatives like Pennsylvania's John Dickinson, John Jay of New York, and John Rutledge of South Carolina. The delegates' social make-up spanned the range of eighteenth-century American society, including members of such powerful local families as the Livingstons (Philip Livingston and Robert R. Livingston) of New York and from South Carolina the Rutledges (John and his younger brother Edward Rutledge), as well as self-made men like Roger Sherman of Connecticut. The delegates spanned two generations, those who (like Sherman and Franklin) had amassed significant political and governing experience during the mid-eighteenth century, and those who (like Adams and Jefferson) had become involved in their colonies' politics when the dispute with Britain defined the American political agenda.

The first battles of the American War of Independence, those of Lexington and Concord (19 April 1775), took place only three weeks before the second continental congress assembled in Philadelphia. The violence of these encounters radically altered the issue confronting congress as to whether the colonies should pursue independence or remain within the British empire. While congress responded to the collapse of colonial governments by authorizing the colonies to frame new constitutions for themselves, it continued to argue over whether independence was feasible and desirable, while closely monitoring the evolution of American public opinion.

In June 1776 the Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced three resolutions calling for American independence, for congress to name diplomats to seek alliances with foreign powers, and for the framing of articles of confederation to bind the colonies together. After three weeks of bitter debate the delegates adopted the resolution declaring independence on 2 July. Two days later they adopted the Declaration of Independence drafted by Jefferson with the aid of Adams and Franklin, and edited by congress. Americans had altered the world with words; this first group of founding fathers—the ‘signers’—wrote their way into history.

Thereafter congress framed the articles of confederation, the first charter of government for the new nation (ratified in 1781), and won independence both on the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena. Even so, just as the outcome of the American bid for independence was not guaranteed, the success of the new nation was not pre-ordained. In particular Americans who thought in national terms, as did Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, feared that the new government might be too weak to preserve the fruits of the revolution. In response to this problem Americans began to consider not a revolution against a distant and oppressive mother country, but a revolution in favour of government.

Founding and the framers

By 25 May 1787 delegates from seven states had assembled in Independence Hall to consider the problems facing the United States under the articles of confederation. Of the seventy-four delegates from twelve states named to attend (Rhode Island's legislature refused to send a delegation) fifty-five took part in proceedings over the next four months, though never more than forty delegates were present at any one time, with the usual attendance being about thirty-six. This body, chaired by Washington with the former revolutionary army officer William Jackson (1759–1828) as secretary, was variously known as the federal convention, the Philadelphia convention, and the constitutional convention.

The fifty-five delegates, known as the framers of the constitution, were a sampling of the new nation's cadre of political and legal leaders. At least thirty-one had been trained in the law and twenty-one had experience as practitioners; nineteen were slave owners and eighteen planters or farmers, while a third of delegates were involved in national and international trade. Many, among them Alexander Martin of North Carolina and Edmund Randolph of Virginia, were serving or had served as state governor or as attorney-general; nearly all had participated in state legislatures, and three-quarters had been delegates to the continental or confederation congress, including Thomas Mifflin and Nathaniel Gorham, who had served as its president. Eight—George Clymer (1739–1813), Franklin, Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814), Robert Morris, George Read, Sherman, James Wilson, and George Wythe—had signed the Declaration of Independence, though Gerry would not sign the constitution.

The delegates fall into five groups, of which the first were national heroes—George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, the two most famous and admired Americans in the world, whose mere presence at the convention bestowed on it the gift of their prestige. The second group was a small and vigorous network of theorists of government, including James Wilson of Pennsylvania, Alexander Hamilton of New York, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, and James Madison of Virginia. These men brought the ideas that the convention would use as raw materials in fashioning its proposals. Next came the elder statesmen of American public life, among them George Mason of Virginia, William Livingston of New Jersey, John Dickinson (now of Delaware), and Roger Sherman. These men brought to the convention their experience and knowledge of the realities of American politics at national and state levels. A fourth grouping—including William Paterson of New Jersey, John Rutledge and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, Luther Martin (1748–1826) of Maryland, and Edmund Randolph—acted as spokesmen for state and local concerns. These men reminded their colleagues of the challenges of accommodating local and state interests in an American constitutional system. A final grouping, including Jared Ingersoll (1749–1822) of Pennsylvania, John Blair (1732–1800) of Virginia, and Jacob Broome (1752–1810) of Delaware, were the ‘quiet men’—a small majority of the delegates who were active in seeking consensus and compromise.

The delegates had been chosen under two clashing mandates. Some were charged with pursuing the mandate defined by the Annapolis convention of 1786, a gathering of twelve delegates from five states who had proposed a general convention to render the general government adequate to the needs of the union. Others were charged with pursuing the narrower mandate approved by the confederation congress on 21 February 1787 of proposing amendments to the articles of confederation that, when adopted by all thirteen states, would render the general government adequate to the needs of the union.

Working behind closed doors the delegates first decided to scrap the articles of confederation and chose to frame a new constitution. Their work was based on a set of resolutions framed by James Madison and his colleagues from Virginia, with the backing of Pennsylvania delegates. This ‘Virginia plan’ proposed a national government with legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The point of conflict was the mode of representation in the new congress of the United States: would it abandon the principle of equal representation for all states, large or small, that had governed the confederation, or would it be apportioned according to population, wealth, or some other measure? Based on a proposal made by the Connecticut delegates, Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth (and known as the Connecticut or great compromise), the convention split the difference, with the house of representatives apportioned by population and the senate comprising two senators from each state. A later compromise, to satisfy delegates from slave states, modified the rule of representation to include—in addition to all free inhabitants—three-fifths of all slaves residing within each state. These compromises displeased some delegates, notably Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, but they were accepted as the unpalatable but necessary price of adopting the proposed constitution.

As the convention progressed the delegates' goal shifted from framing the best possible form of government to the best form of government with a chance of winning adoption. The delegates declined to impose their handiwork on the American people; instead they built into the constitution a new mechanism, ratification, for bringing it into effect (article VII) and a new, improved method of constitutional revision, the amending process (article V). This made it harder to change the constitution than to make an ordinary law, but not so hard as to prevent the document from being amended. The delegates also decided not to add a bill of rights to the constitution. Most believed with Roger Sherman that such a measure was not necessary; they also feared that wrangles and arguments over a bill of rights would extend the convention's life for weeks.

On 17 September 1787 thirty-nine delegates adopted and signed the constitution before sending it to the confederation congress, which deliberated on the document for three days before conveying it to the states. The states (except Rhode Island) elected ratifying conventions that were charged with debating the constitution and then either accepting or rejecting it. Ratification by nine states would put the new constitution into effect as the government of the United States. Many delegates to the federal convention took part in the argument over ratification; most backed the constitution but a few, including George Mason, and John Lansing junior (1754–1829?) and Robert Yates (1738–1801) of New York, argued against. The battles over the constitution raged in state legislatures, in ratifying conventions, and in the public press. The national paper war was the first chapter in a discourse that has continued to shape the constitution and help to define its purposes, meaning, and effect. One by-product of this argument was The Federalist, a series of eighty-five essays written for New York city's newspapers in which, under the pseudonym Publius, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison explained and defended the constitution. The series, also known as The Federalist Papers, became the first great treatise on the constitution and one of the greatest American contributions to political theory. When, in June and July 1788, New Hampshire, Virginia, and New York became the ninth, tenth, and eleventh states to ratify the constitution, the new nation's constitutional and political life began a new chapter. American politics and law thereafter developed within the matrix of the constitution, and the founding fathers continued to play leading roles in that process. In March 1789 delegates from the eleven states to have ratified the constitution gathered in New York to form the first United States congress, followed in April by the inauguration of Washington as president and Adams as vice-president; five months later Jay was named chief justice and Hamilton appointed secretary of the newly created treasury department.

Cultural significance of the founding fathers

For a term so central to most Americans' understandings of their past, and so rich in controversy, ‘founding fathers’ has a surprisingly short history and an unexpected coiner, the then Ohio senator Warren G. Harding, who developed the phrase in a series of speeches between 1918 and his inauguration as president of the United States in March 1921. Harding's phrase passed into general usage swiftly and easily. Given his weak historical reputation, this two-word coinage may be his most enduring political and intellectual legacy.

Long before Harding coined the term Americans had expressed their reverence for the heterogeneous group whom we know as the founding fathers. This veneration has changed over time, however: from the anxious reverence of the first several decades of the nineteenth century, to the complacent ancestor-worship apparent from the end of the Civil War to the mid-twentieth century, to the return of historical controversy concerning their achievements, and shortcomings, since the final decades of the twentieth century. Another reason for the centrality of the founding fathers in American life is the country's origin as a political experiment devised at a particular time by identifiable founders. This act confers on those who created the nation the cultural roles, functions, and reverence associated with biblical patriarchs or patron saints. Coupled with these shifting perspectives is the continued and often sharp controversy over how to interpret the constitution by reference to the founding fathers' original intentions. This controversy has evolved with the constitutional system, the development of new issues of constitutional governance, and the persistence of such issues as the separation of church and state, the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches over issues of war and peace, the growing significance of issues of race and equality, and the role of the judiciary in American life.

One further reason that the term ‘founding fathers’ took hold is the iconography that brought the phrase to life. In this context the most important artist was the Connecticut-born painter, soldier, and diplomat John Trumbull. Acutely aware of the historical significance of the events he witnessed, Trumbull vowed to memorialize them in large paintings presenting dozens of well-realized portraits in miniature and recreating vital historical moments. His most famous painting, The Declaration of Independence, has become an icon in American culture. It includes portraits of forty-two of the fifty-six delegates to the second continental congress, and depicts the congress's president, John Hancock (seated), receiving the draft Declaration of Independence from its five-member drafting committee, (from left to right) John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, with the congress's secretary, Charles Thomson, standing at the table to Franklin's left. The aged Jefferson was so pleased with the work that he urged Trumbull to publish elaborate engravings for élite consumers and simpler, cheaper engravings for a wider audience. In addition to its placement in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in 1826, Trumbull's painting has often appeared on postage stamps and paper money, most recently (beginning in 1976) on the back of the two-dollar note. Later paintings of the federal convention include the 1823 woodcut (attributed by some to Amos Doolittle) published in Charles Goodrich's History of the United States of America; Junius Brutus Stearns's Washington as Statesman at the Constitutional Convention (1856; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond); Howard Chandler Christy's mural Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States (1940; Capitol Building, Washington, DC), and Louis S. Glanzman's Signing of the Constitution (1987; Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia), commissioned by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Of course, one problem with Trumbull's, and later, collective depictions of the founding fathers is that they present static, solemn depictions of events that were in truth fraught with conflict, emotion, and vehement disagreement. Paintings of the convention suggest that the delegates engaged in calm and mutually respectful deliberation with no sign of the ideological, economic, social, religious, or personal sources of conflict and dispute that often made themselves felt in their deliberations.

R. B. Bernstein


D. Adair, Fame and the founding fathers: essays, ed. T. Colbourn (1974) [1999 repr.] · R. B. Bernstein, Thomas Jefferson (2003) · R. B. Bernstein, The founding fathers reconsidered (2009) · F. D. Cogliano, Thomas Jefferson: reputation and legacy (2006) · H. S. Commager, The search for a usable past, and other essays in historiography (1967) · W. F. Craven, The legend of the founding fathers (1956) · M. S. Flaherty, ‘History “lite” in modern American constitutionalism’, Columbia Law Review, 95 (1995), 523–90 · J. B. Freeman, Affairs of honor: national politics in the new republic (2001) · N.-S. Huang, Benjamin Franklin in American thought and culture, 1790–1990 (1994) · M. Kammen, A season of youth: the American revolution and the historical imagination, new edn (1988) · M. Kammen, A machine that would go of itself: the constitution in American culture (1986) · M. Kammen, The mystic chords of memory: the transformation of tradition in American culture (1991) · S. F. Knott, Alexander Hamilton and the persistence of myth (2002) · D. R. McCoy, The last of the fathers: James Madison and the republican legacy (1989) · C. A. Miller, The supreme court and the uses of history (1969) · R. B. Morris, Seven who shaped our destiny: the founding fathers as revolutionaries (1976) · J. L. Pasley, A. W. Robertson, and D. Waldstreicher, eds., Beyond the founders: new approaches to the political history of the early American republic (2004) · M. D. Peterson, The Jefferson image in the American mind (1960) [new edn, 1998] · J. N. Rakove, Original meanings: politics and ideas in the making of the constitution (1996) · J. N. Rakove, ed., Interpreting the constitution: the debate over original intent (1990)


J. Trumbull, group portrait, oils, 1817 ([The Declaration of Independence]), United States Capitol, Washington [see illus.]