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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”