How do you define “Founding Fathers”?


December 1, 2015
by Editors Also by this Author


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How do you define “Founding Fathers”?

You can define it either broadly or narrowly. By consensus, most historians limit the narrow definition to six. Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison. A broader definition would include many worthwhile individuals, such as Sam Adams, John Hancock, Joseph Warren, Nathanael Greene etc.

Thomas Fleming


I don’t. I think the term trite, a fortuitous alliteration that has caused great harm. That said, I write about the “Founding Era.” It is interesting to note that the Founding Generation (no alliteration, but that term does have meaning) did not see the “Founding Fathers” as we do now. Adams was despised by half the people, Jefferson by the other half. At first, the men Americans most venerated were military heroes, Washington of course, and many local favorites: in New England, Old Put, the Fighting Quaker, Henry Knox, and the martyred Joseph Warren; in the South, Lighthorse Harry, the Swamp Fox, the Carolina Gamecock. Then, with Jefferson’s ascent to power and the politically inspired veneration of the Declaration of Independence, the 56 “signers.” Not until the 50th Jubilee, when both Adams and Jefferson died on the same day, did Americans begin to feature the small crew we know today.

Ray Raphael


The term has been applied to the first English settlers in North America, to the framers of the US Constitution, and to the “founding generation” that led the United States from the Declaration of Independence onward. The term is, of course, an elitist one, privileging elite leaders over the thousands who contributed to the political mobilization of the rebellion, the war effort, and the establishment of the nation. It’s also a sexist one in that it fails to recognize the contributions of women. Although women were not permitted to fight or to hold office (or even vote or serve on juries), their allegiance, labor, political participation, and military support deserve recognition as being vital to the “glorious cause.” Finally, the term infantilizes succeeding generations, including ourselves. A republican government requires constant vigilance, not hidebound filiopiety about the ancients. Even the “Founders” were mere mortals, after all, and they couldn’t foresee all the problems that came after them.

Benjamin L. Carp


I have a broad and generous definition of the Founding Fathers. Together with the usual suspects, I lump in anyone who helped bring on the American Revolution, win the war that secured independence, and helped establish the American Republic between 1784 and Jefferson’s election as president in 1800. My definition includes, among others, congressmen, state officials, military officers and soldiers, people who served on committees, such as those that enforced the Association, and someone like Esther DeBerdt Reed, a Philadelphian who used her writing and organization skills to raise money and procure clothing for the men in the Continental army.

-John Ferling


I avoid Warren G. Harding’s alliterative term in favor of “the Founders” to open the door for non-patriarchal participants: women and young people. The wealthy white men who were in the Continental Congresses and Constitutional Convention at certain crucial moments (a common definition of “Founding Fathers”) were of course important. But at many points they were being pushed forward by ordinary people. They couldn’t have achieved a mass political movement, independence, and a new republic without the participation of large swaths of the population as soldiers, farmers, laborers, homemakers, and parents raising the next generation. The Founders created a new society, not just a structure of governance, and I include everyone who was involved in that creation within that term.

J. L. Bell


I would define them as the men who made significant contributions to the origination of the United States. That, of course, does nothing more than raise the question of what constitutes a “significant” contribution.

Don N. Hagist


By tradition the term refers to those courageous Revolutionary leaders who produced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787. A better approach might be to include all men and women who gave of themselves, even in some cases life itself, in supporting the cause of liberty. Thus we might also think of the Joseph Plumb Martins and Peter Salems as founding fathers, along with the Martha Washingtons and various Molly Pitchers as founding mothers, which would give us a more inclusive and broadened definition–the Revolution’s Founding Persons.

James Kirby Martin


Anyone who played a significant role in the events leading up to the Revolution, the Revolution itself, the writing of the Constitution, and its implementation through Jefferson’s presidency is, in my opinion, a “Founding Father.” The actual service doesn’t matter; the individual could have been a leader of the Sons of Liberty, a politician at the local, state, or federal level, a military officer, or a diplomat. A “Founding Father” could even be a woman, such as the political writer Mercy Otis Warren.

Jim Piecuch


I have run across the term ‘Founding Fathers’ in several contexts. I even remember being chastised on the Internet for suggesting that maybe a local justice of the peace in New Hampshire might not be enough to gain such lofty status. At that time I had a vague notion that one should be a leading politician during the era of the revolution and Constitutional debate. Obviously the signers of either the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence qualified but no real clarity on who else should be described as a Founder. After my severe thrashing in the world of Facebook, I decided the more politically correct approach would be to simply allow anyone living in the US before 1790. Particularly if some letter or scrap of article could be found to include a quotation convenient for modern politics. And now we get to invoke the Founding Fathers to support or oppose just about any issue capable of political debate.

Wayne Lynch


Even though I dislike that term as too stodgy, I don’t find the substitutes of “Founders” or “Framers” much better. Regardless, I consider that collection of “Founding Fathers” primarily as all the delegates and document signers who took on ultimate responsibility back when the whole thing started. The common thread was that they were all treasonous rebels who put their lives and fortunes on the line for “the Cause”. Their A-List names would range from George Washington all the way down through the names we all know still in our history books. But I would also include such brave and inspiring souls as James Otis Jr., James Warren, Thomas Paine, Nathan Hale, Paul Revere, certainly Greene, Knox, Morgan, Lafayette, and yes – even Abigail Adams, who provided valuable advising to her often-obnoxious husband.

John L. Smith, Jr.


“Founding Fathers” is not a defined group of people but a concept that refers to a wide range of extraordinary people who initiated a revolutionary process, which created something special in the annals of nation building.

Gene Procknow


To me, “Founding Fathers” refers to the people who shaped and/or signed any of the following: the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, or Constitution. But I also count as founders the Americans who were key influencers of political developments, military matters, and social life during this period.

Daniel J. Tortora


I think the founding fathers (and mothers) came in the 17th century. Their reasons for leaving Europe helped shape the way things were/are done here. To my mind, what many today consider the “founding fathers” were the grandkids of the generation that did the really heavy lifting and the attitudes of these earlier settlers laid the groundwork for resistance.

Kim Burdick


“Founding Fathers” is perhaps best defined as an outdated, gendered reference to the individuals who have traditionally been deemed as having made the most significant contributions to the resistance to Britain, the War for Independence, and the Constitution. It might also be defined as describing a cottage industry for some book publishers and journalists-turned-historians. It is far more common now to see the decidedly lower-case “founders,” which can be used as a much more inclusive term. That is no small consideration when one considers just how much the scholarship of the last forty years has uncovered about the important roles that individuals and previously ignored groups played in the founding of the United States. That is, there has been a radical democratization of the definition of “founder,” the overall point of which has been to argue that, contrary to nearly two centuries of American history culture, resisting Britain, declaring independence, winning the war, and establishing the federal Constitution was not primarily the achievement of a small cadre of canonized “Founding Fathers” but of an entire society. For those interested in this question, we did an entire episode at The JuntoCast on trying to understand the term “founder.”

Michael D. Hattem


  • While I agree the term “Founding Fathers” is probably past its prime, I am consistently perplexed as to why Samuel Adams receives so little recognition.
    Even the beer company using his name features Paul Revere on its label rather than Samuel. To someone looking at the political organization and actions in the time frame of 1765 to 1775, it appears to me Samuel (and I really do want to call him Sam but recognize the criticism I would get from real Historians) was the Lenin of the American Revolution.

  • Samuel Adams’s reputation suffers from two things. He’s seen primarily as a state figure because he never held office in the federal government. His long service in the Continental Congress is less visible, in part because much of it was on committees. Secondly, historians in the early 1900s started to see Adams as an inveterate rabblerouser, a malcontent driven by personal resentments. In effect, he suffered by being too forward in the Revolutionary struggle.

    We see this in Samuel Adams’s characterization in HBO’s miniseries “John Adams.” Samuel spends the first episode as John’s too-radical foil, untrustworthy for always insisting that the royal authorities are up to no good. Then when John comes over to that position himself (which could be read as suggesting Samuel was right all along), Samuel does a quick fade into the background at the Continental Congress. His time is over, it’s implied. Two more decades of political service slide by unnoticed.

    1. While Samuel Adams’ contribution to the cause can not be denied, I think (in mine humble opinion) I find a great deal of his Sons of Liberty actions reprehensible; beating old veterans in the street because, at 70, they would not alter thier alliegience to the King (after having served him for 70 years, and despite hardly being a threat) is pure gangsterism. Tarring and feathering too; people forget the tar is not room temperature…Yes, many others did it, but he was bloody proud to say he was one of the first.

      In his stead, I would put forward Dr Warren, who not only served the Sons in a bit more peaceful, or at least less barbaric way, was the driving force behind Committees of Correspondence, which spread to other colonies. When time came for a fight; Warren, a Major General, had the sense to forego the chance of glory and fought as a Private soldier, a fate which cost him his life June 17th, 1775. I think his last words were “Dammit Old Put Im a Doctor, not a Soldier”

      1. When did Samuel Adams claim proudly to have participated in tar-and-feathering? Why is he, who proposed and led the Boston Committee of Correspondence, less important in that group than Dr. Warren? (And I assume those last words for Warren are facetious.)

      2. Adams’ declining popularity could also be explained by his health problems in the 1780s and his reluctance to support the Federal Constitution, at first. Recall, George Mason, perhaps one of the greatest champions of constitutional rights, was an Anti-Federalist, and the falling out that occurred between him and Washington over ratification sullied his standing in the eyes of many historians that continues to this day.

        As for tarring and feathering, if memory serves me correctly, wasn’t this practice a deliberate exaggeration by the Sons of Liberty to stoke fears in tax collectors, and by loyalists propagating the lawlessness of rebel mobs? I recall reading years back how the precise number of confirmed cases of tarring and feathering was so low that it appears the several printed images of the time and a handful of stories (some never confirmed) embellished the reality of them actually occurring with any measurable consistency. We do know for certain, however, that the scene in the John Adams HBO miniseries showing both Adams’ and John Hancock witnessing (and inciting) such an act never happened.

    2. It seems like the most popular group of men to be considered “Founding Fathers” are those who were active on a national scale after the signing of the Constitution, and those who left a large body of written work behind. Those who worked locally (such as Elbridge Gerry), or didn’t leave a large body of written words behind (e.g. Samuel Adams) seem to get relegated as secondary characters.

    3. Adams was not quite unnoticed in the next two decades. In 1786, acting as counselor to Gov. James Bowdoin in the early stages of what history calls “Shays’ Rebellion,” he was unrepentant in advocating the use of force against the protesting farmers: “In monarchies the crime of treason and rebellion may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.”

      So much for discussion and negotiation in the new republic. I have to agree with Michael Sheehan’s assessment, Adams’ actions were reprehensible both in condoning the vicious treatment of old veterans and, later, in wanting to inflict death on debt-pressed farmers.

  • I’ve long hated the term “Founding Fathers”. I think it’s both elitist and sexist, and trying to pin down an answer of exactly who qualifies as a Founding Father is impossible. Either we end up with a group of people that’s far too narrow, or one that’s impossibly wide.

    Founding generation might be a better term, but then we run into the same issue. Do we count Stamp Act protesters? If so then we’re actually talking about three or four generations, rather than a single founding generation.

    I like Founding era best of all as a description.

  • Thank you J L Bell for pointing out that we have Warren G Harding to thank for “Founding Fathers.” How many times have I heard contemporary politicians exclaiming that “all the Founding Fathers” would agree or disagree with whatever issue they are pushing? Really?

    “Founders” is a useful shorthand term. It’s the Big League but there were many valuable players in the Minors….

  • Nathaniel Greene is the most important Founding Father next to Washington. Serving on committees and orating at the Continental Congress are great but the war was won on the battlefield. Without Greene’s Southern campaign its unlikely Britain would have recognized America’s independence. Its too bad Greene doesnt get the recognition he deserves.
    As far as ‘Founding Fathers’ being sexist—its easy to tell this is a 21st century conversation.

  • Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address takes a different view:

    What is the frame of government under which we live?

    The answer must be: “The Constitution of the United States.” That Constitution consists of the original, framed in 1787, (and under which the present government first went into operation,) and twelve subsequently framed amendments, the first ten of which were framed in 1789.

    Who were our fathers that framed the Constitution? I suppose the “thirty-nine” who signed the original instrument may be fairly called our fathers who framed that part of the present Government. It is almost exactly true to say they framed it, and it is altogether true to say they fairly represented the opinion and sentiment of the whole nation at that time. Their names, being familiar to nearly all, and accessible to quite all, need not now be repeated.

    I take these “thirty-nine,” for the present, as being “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live.”

  • Um … Patrick Henry? People want to complain about Samuel Adams being neglected by history, but Patrick Henry is the proverbial “red-headed stepchild” when it comes to recognition! He did more than give pretty speeches! He owns a great deal of the responsibility for pushing through the Bill of Rights among other things. He was a great man and a good man. But I guess nobody will know it until a catchy musical is written about him that takes no effort to absorb.

  • In considering “Founding Fathers,” what is to be done with people like Patrick Henry, a leading light in the road to Revolution but a fervent opponent of the Constitution? Founding Father? There were, of course, others similarly situated.

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