The Founding Fathers — is there such a thing?
Who are the Founding Fathers and what do they represent? Is it time to modify their title to reflect their true contribution to our country?
Most of us were taught in our history classes that the Founding Fathers were responsible for the birth of our nation. However, what constitutes the birth of our nation? Is it those who settled here first, the first revolutionaries, the leaders of the Revolutionary War, the writers or signers of the Constitution or, are there others?
Because history is most often recorded and modified by white men, only white men have been identified as responsible for the birth of the United States. This eliminates the contributions by Native Americans, women, African Americans, and even other Europeans…all of whom contributed to our independence either as warriors, leaders, supporters, or advisors. So, where did the term Founding Fathers come from?
The title “Founding Fathers” was first popularized in the early 20th century by Warren G. Harding who used the term in his political speeches from the 1910s — 1920s. As an Ohio Senator, Harding used the term in his keynote address to the 1916 Republican National Convention. According to The Boston Herald on June 8, 1916, the speech included: “No political party ever has builded (sic) or even can build permanently except in conscientious devotion to abiding principles. … the essentials of constructive government and attending progress are abiding and unchanging. For example, we ought to be as genuinely American today as when the founding fathers flung their immortal defiance in the face of old-world oppressions and dedicated a new republic to liberty and justice. We ought to be as prepared for defence (sic) as Washington urged amid the anxieties of our national beginning, and Grant confirmed amid the calm reflections of union restored.”
Harding continued to use the term in his speeches delivered to the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution in 1918 and in his presidential campaign speeches in the 1920s, including his inaugural address on March 4, 1921. The first official citation linked to the title doesn’t occur until 1941 in Kenneth Umbreit’s book, “Founding Fathers: Men Who Shaped Our Tradition”. Many books about the Founding Fathers have followed but the title’s definition is nebulous at best, even if it is to include the attendees of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 or just the Constitution signers. Some definitions include the original revolutionaries such as the Sons of Liberty.[ii]
The problem with these definitions is they may include or exclude people who we see in our own definition of the founders of the United States. For example, those who we often provided the title of “Founding Father” did not actually attend the Constitutional Convention, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Patrick Henry. Only eight signers of the Declaration of Independence attended the Constitutional Convention including: Roger Sherman, George Clymer, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, James Wilson, and George Read, but they get no credit for fathering a nation. Neither did Declaration signer George Wythe , who resigned before the Constitution was finished, nor Elbridge Gerry, who refused to sign get credit.[iii]
I recently took a poll on social media asking people to identify their favorite “Founding Father” with a brief explanation as to why they chose this person. The responses varied from their specific choice to the argument against any of the suggested. Not surprisingly, many listed their favorite Founding Father as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, or Thomas Jefferson. Other votes came in for George Washington, John Hart, Benjamin Rush, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, Samuel Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Nathaniel Hale, James Madison, and Patrick Henry. These results clearly show that the definition of “Founding Father” is subject to individual interpretation.
There were other responses that challenged these typical answers including.
- “Sequoya, because he developed a written language for the Cherokee and was wise enough to realize that they had to accept the Cherokee fate of the white man invasion and helped to keep some degree of cooperation that saved some lives.”
- “The Founder’s copied indigenous philosophy so none of them were original thinkers!”
- “My whole perception of them has changed. I can’t say any of them deserve my admiration.”
- “I am more interested in the Founding Mothers.”
- “John Adams, hands down. As well as Abigail. I admire their loyalty; both to the country and to each other.”
- “Sitting Bull he was here first”
- “Sybil Ludington, who rode through the countryside warning the patriots of the invasion of British soldiers.”
- “I prefer a Founding Mother, Abigail Adams, a woman ahead of her time.”
- “None of them”
- “None because the original founding fathers were native Americans.”
- “None. All illegal occupiers.”
- “Phillis Wheatley, because she’s not a white male landowner.”
- “Unfortunately, I can’t claim any of them in a positive light knowing they didn’t count anyone as recipients of these Rights unless you were a landowning White male.”
- “The one didn’t own slaves.”
Who decides which answers are appropriate, offensive, or wrong?
I would argue that none of us have this right as the title of “Founding Fathers” is a concept that is not universally applied or historically based. How we perceive the founders of our country is based on what we have been taught, not taught, or taught incorrectly. It is also biased by our perspectives that are influenced by our demographics. This is true of most history as historical storytellers share these inherent biases in reporting. That is why we see the birth of our nation with romantic eyes when it was actually a time of terror, bloodshed, and divisiveness.
Our interpretation of unwitnessed history is subject to the recording of that history with biases from that time. For example, someone referenced Sybil Ludington, a young female patriot rider in the spring of 1777 warning of the British, in their comments. The Smithsonian Magazine states that some modern scholars question her role in history because written documentation is sparse, therefore they minimize her impact or question if she actually made the ride.[iv] Could written documentation be sparse because she was a young female and only the oral history of her ride has survived?
Depending on your perspective, you may view the “Founding Fathers” with reverence and ignore their transgressions (if you see any). You may see them as flawed men of their time doing what needed to be done to unify the nation. Others may be more critical of these men, seeing them as occupiers, colonizers, supporters of slavery (business and/or ownership), self-serving, or radicals (the Sons of Liberty could be considered insurrectionists). As humans, can these men be revered and flawed at the same time? Recorded history focuses on making people villains or heroes while few people or events are presented with a balanced view.
We are still left with the question of who are the “Founding Fathers” and whether this is a “legitimate” title. Historian R.B. Bernstein suggests that maybe others could, or even should, be considered as founders including Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, and Deborah Sampson or, notable African Americans such as Richard Allen. The Indigenous were not only here first, but they were instrumental in advising the Founding Fathers on a variety of topics. And what about others that helped the colonists defeat the British? Bernstein credits those who framed our nation’s birth with the words that still bind us today through the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as being our Founding Fathers, regardless of their flaws or the impact of others.[v]
Maybe the problem lies with the term “Founding Fathers” which provides an exclusivity or privilege in recognition of the establishment of the United States. The word “founding” implies that the chosen members were the first to establish the country even though the revolution required contributions from the enslaved, the indentured, the Indigenous, women, children, free African Americans, Quakers, and others. The “birth” of this country began long before the Constitution, at great costs to those who preceded the colonists, especially for the enslaved and indentured brought here to enrich the colonists.
The term “fathers” implies that only white landowning males gave birth to the nation, and we know that birth does not happen by men alone. Therefore, both “founding” and “fathers” seem inappropriate as they are applied. Perhaps this misnomer could be replaced with something more appropriate like the “Original Framers” reflecting those that formalized the infrastructure in writing that binds the country. By acknowledging that we are bound through their words, it does not excuse or ridicule them, it merely acknowledges them as authors and signers of our founding document. How the “Original Framers” are perceived as people, or how their words are interpreted, is up for debate. After all, these men were human — not gods thus making them subject to judgement.
[v] Bernstein, R.B., (2009), The Founding Fathers Reconsidered, Oxford Press, Oxford, England.