Founding Fathers of the United States

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy
John Trumbull's famous painting is usually incorrectly identified as a depiction of the signing of the Declaration. The painting actually depicts the five-man drafting committee presenting their work to Congress. Trumbull's painting can also be found on the back of the U.S. $2 bill.[1]

The Founding Fathers of the United States were the political leaders who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 or otherwise took part in the American Revolution in winning American independence from Great Britain, or who participated in framing and adopting the United States Constitution in 1787-1788, or in putting the new government under the Constitution into effect. Within the large group known as "the founding fathers," there are two key subsets, the Signers (who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776) and the Framers (who were delegates to the Federal Convention and took part in framing or drafting the proposed Constitution of the United States). Most historians define the "founding fathers" to mean a larger group, including not only the Signers and the Framers but also all those who, whether as politicians or jurists or statesmen or soldiers or diplomats or ordinary citizens, took part in winning American independence and creating the United States of America.[2] American historian Richard B. Morris, in his 1973 book Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries, identified the following seven figures as the key founding fathers: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.[3]

Warren G. Harding, then a Republican Senator from Ohio, coined the phrase "Founding Fathers" in his keynote address to the 1916 Republican National Convention. He used it several times thereafter, most prominently in his 1921 inaugural address as President of the United States.[4]


Collective biography of the Framers of the Constitution

In the winter and spring of 1786-1787, twelve of the thirteen states chose a total of 74 delegates to attend what we now know as the Federal Convention in Philadelphia. Nineteen delegates chose not to accept election or attend the debates; for example, Patrick Henry of Virginia thought that state politics was far more interesting and important than national politics, though during the ratification controversy of 1787-1788 he claimed, "I smelled a rat." Rhode Island did not send delegates, because of its politicians' suspicions of the Convention delegates' motivations. Of the 55 who did attend at some point, no more than 38 delegates showed up at one time.[5]

These delegates represented a cross-section of 18th century American leadership. Almost all of them were well-educated men of means who were leaders in their communities. Many were also prominent in national affairs. Virtually every one had taken part in the American Revolution; at least 29 had served in the Continental Army, most of them in positions of command. Scholars have examined the collective biography of them as well as the signers of the Declaration and the Constitution.[6]

Political experience

The framers of the Constitution had extensive political experience. By 1787, four-fifths (41 individuals), were or had been members of the Continental Congress. Nearly all of the 55 delegates had experience in colonial and state government, and the majority had held county and local offices.[7]

The 1787 delegates 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.[8] Thirty-five were lawyers or had benefited from legal education, though not all of them relied on the profession for a livelihood. Some had also become judges.[9]

Family and finances

A few of the 1787 delegates were wealthy, but many of the country's top wealth-holders were Loyalists who went to Britain. Most of the others 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.[10]


Brown (1976) and Harris (1969) provide detailed demographic information on each man.

The Founding Fathers had strong educational backgrounds.[11] Some, like Franklin, were largely self-taught or learned through apprenticeship. Others had obtained instruction from private tutors or at academies. About half of the men had attended or graduated from college in the colonies or Britain. Some men held medical degrees or advanced training in theology. For the most part, the delegates were a well-educated group. A few lawyers had been trained at the Inns of Court in London, but most had apprenticed to an American lawyer.

Family origins

Longevity and family life

Death age of the Founding Fathers.

For their era, the 1787 delegates (like the 1776 signers) were average in terms of life spans.[9] Their average age at death was about 67. The first to die was Houston in 1788; the last was Madison in 1836.

Secretary Charles Thomson lived to the age of 94. Johnson died at 92. John Adams lived to the age of 90. A few—Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Williamson, and Wythe—lived into their eighties. Either 15 or 16 (depending on Fitzsimons's exact age) died in their seventies, 20 or 21 in their sixties, eight in their fifties, and five only in their forties. Three (Alexander Hamilton, Richard Dobbs Spaight and Button Gwinnett) were killed in duels.

Most of the delegates married and raised children. 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. Four (Baldwin, Gilman, Jenifer, and Alexander Martin) were lifelong bachelors.


Lambert (2003) has examined the religious affiliations and beliefs of the Founders. Some of the 1787 delegates had no affiliation. The others were Protestants except for three Roman Catholics: C. Carroll, D. Carroll, and Fitzsimons. Among the Protestant delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 28 were Church of England (Episcopalian, after the Revolutionary War was won), eight were Presbyterians, seven were Congregationalists, two were Lutherans, two were Dutch Reformed, and two were Methodists, the total number being 49. Some of the more prominent Founding Fathers were anti-clerical or vocal about their opposition to organized religion, such as Thomas Jefferson[12][13] (who created the "Jefferson Bible"), and Benjamin Franklin[14]. However, other notable founders, such as Patrick Henry, were strong proponents of traditional religion. Several of the Founding Fathers considered themselves to be deists or held beliefs very similar to those of deists.[15]

Post-convention careers

The 1787 delegates' subsequent careers reflected their abilities as well as the vagaries of fate.[16] Most were successful, although seven (Fitzsimons, Gorham, Luther Martin, Mifflin, Robert Morris, Pierce, and Wilson) suffered serious financial reverses that left them in or near bankruptcy. 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.


According to Joseph J. 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. "We can win no laurels in a war for independence," Webster acknowledged in 1825. "Earlier and worthier hands have gathered them all. Nor are there places for us ... [as] the founders of states. Our fathers have filled them. But there remains to us a great duty of defence and preservation."[17]

List of the Founding Fathers

Signers of the Declaration of Independence

  • John Adams
  • Samuel Adams
  • Josiah Bartlett
  • Carter Braxton
  • Charles Carroll
  • Samuel Chase
  • Abraham Clark
  • George Clymer
  • William Ellery
  • William Floyd
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Elbridge Gerry
  • Button Gwinnett
  • John Hancock
  • Lyman Hall
  • Benjamin Harrison
  • John Hart
  • Joseph Hewes
  • Thomas Heyward, Jr.
  • William Hooper
  • Stephen Hopkins
  • Francis Hopkinson
  • Samuel Huntington
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Francis Lightfoot Lee
  • Richard Henry Lee
  • Francis Lewis
  • Philip Livingston
  • Thomas Lynch, Jr.
  • Thomas McKean
  • Arthur Middleton
  • Lewis Morris
  • Robert Morris
  • John Morton
  • Thomas Nelson, Jr.
  • William Paca
  • John Penn
  • Robert Treat Paine
  • George Read
  • Caesar Rodney
  • George Ross
  • Benjamin Rush
  • Edward Rutledge
  • Roger Sherman
  • James Smith
  • Richard Stockton
  • Thomas Stone
  • George Taylor
  • Charles Thomson (Secretary, attested to Hancock's signature)
  • Matthew Thornton
  • George Walton
  • William Whipple
  • William Williams
  • James Wilson
  • John Witherspoon
  • Oliver Wolcott
  • George Wythe

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention

Delegates who signed

  • Abraham Baldwin
  • Richard Bassett
  • Gunning Bedford, Jr.
  • John Blair
  • William Blount
  • David Brearly
  • Jacob Broom
  • Pierce Butler
  • Daniel Carroll
  • George Clymer
  • Jonathan Dayton
  • John Dickinson
  • William Few
  • Thomas Fitzsimons
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Nicholas Gilman
  • Nathaniel Gorham
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • Jared Ingersoll
  • William Jackson (Secretary)
  • Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer
  • William Samuel Johnson
  • Rufus King
  • John Langdon
  • William Livingston
  • James Madison
  • James McHenry
  • Thomas Mifflin
  • Gouverneur Morris
  • Robert Morris
  • William Paterson
  • Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
  • Charles Pinckney
  • George Read
  • John Rutledge
  • Roger Sherman
  • Richard Dobbs Spaight
  • George Washington (president of the Convention)
  • Hugh Williamson
  • James Wilson

Delegates who left the Convention without signing

  • William Richardson Davie
  • Oliver Ellsworth
  • William Houston
  • William Houstoun
  • John Lansing, Jr.
  • Alexander Martin
  • Luther Martin
  • James McClurg
  • John Francis Mercer
  • William Pierce
  • Caleb Strong
  • George Wythe
  • Robert Yates

Delegates who refused to sign

Other Founders

See also


  1. Key to Trumbull's picture
  2. R. B. Bernstein, The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  3. Richard B. Morris, Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).
  4. Bernstein, Founding Fathers Reconsidered, prologue (which collects all citations for Harding's uses of the phrase or variants thereof between 1912 and 1921).
  5. See the discussion of the Convention in Clinton L. Rossiter, 1787: The Grand Convention (New York: Macmillan, 1966; reprint ed., with new foreword by Richard B. Morris, New York: W. W. Norton, 1987).
  6. See Brown (19764); Martin (19739); "Data on the Framers of the Constitution," at [1]
  7. Martin (1973); Greene (1973)
  8. Greene (1973)
  9. 9.0 9.1 Brown (1976)
  10. Greene (1973).
  11. Brown (1976); Harris (1969)
  12. Letter to Alexander von Humboldt, December 6, 1813 "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government,"
  13. Letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814 "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own."
  14. Quoted in The New England Currant (July 23, 1722), "Silence Dogood, No. 9; Corruptio optimi est pessima." "And it is a sad Observation, that when the People too late see their Error, yet the Clergy still persist in their Encomiums on the Hypocrite; and when he happens to die for the Good of his Country, without leaving behind him the Memory of one good Action, he shall be sure to have his Funeral Sermon stuff'd with Pious Expressions which he dropt at such a Time, and at such a Place, and on such an Occasion; than which nothing can be more prejudicial to the Interest of Religion, nor indeed to the Memory of the Person deceas'd. The Reason of this Blindness in the Clergy is, because they are honourably supported (as they ought to be) by their People, and see nor feel nothing of the Oppression which is obvious and burdensome to every one else."
  15. See, e.g.,, Jim Peterson (2007) "The Revolution of Belief: Founding Fathers, Deists, Orthodox Christians, and the Spiritual Context of 18th Century America Robert L. Johnson, "The Deist Roots of the United States of America"
  16. Martin (1973)
  17. Joseph J. Ellis; Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. (2001) p. 214.
  18. Unger, Harlow (2009). James Monroe: The Last Founding Father. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0306818086. 


  • American National Biography Online, (2000).
  • Richard B. Bernstein, Are We to Be a Nation? The Making of the Constitution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987).
  • R. B. Bernstein, The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  • Richard D. Brown. "The Founding Fathers of 1776 and 1787: A Collective View," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 33, No. 3 (Jul., 1976), pp. 465–480 online at JSTOR.
  • Henry Steele Commager, "Leadership in Eighteenth-Century America and Today," Daedalus 90 (Fall 1961): 650-673, reprinted in Henry Steele Commager, Freedom and Order (New York: George Braziller, 1966).
  • Joseph J. Ellis. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History.
  • Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).
  • Jack P. Greene. "The Social Origins of the American Revolution: An Evaluation and an Interpretation," Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 88, No. 1 (Mar., 1973), pp. 1–22 online in JSTOR.
  • P.M.G. Harris, "The Social Origins of American Leaders: The Demographic Foundations, " Perspectives in American History 3 (1969): 159-364.
  • Mark E. Kann; The Gendering of American Politics: Founding Mothers, Founding Fathers, and Political Patriarchy (New York: Frederick Praeger, 1999).
  • Adrienne Koch; Power, Morals, and the Founding Fathers: Essays in the Interpretation of the American Enlightenment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1961).
  • Frank Lambert. The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. (Princeton, NJ> Princeton University Press, 2003).
  • Martin, James Kirby. Men in Rebellion: Higher Governmental Leaders and the coming of the American Revolution, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1973; reprint, New York: Free Press, 1976).
  • Morris, Richard B. Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).
  • Robert Previdi; "Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America," Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 29, 1999
  • Rakove, Jack. Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2010) 487 pages; scholarly study focuses on how the Founders moved from private lives to public action, beginning in the 1770s
  • Cokie Roberts. Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation (New York: William Morrow, 2005); popular
  • Gordon S. Wood. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (New York: Penguin Press, 2006)

External links