Who was the most promising person of the Founding Era?


January 1, 2019
by Editors Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

For our first post of the New Year—a time when resolutions are announced, new leaves are turned, and anticipation and hope for a fulfilling life renews, it is appropriate that this month we asked our contributors the following question:

During the Founding Era, which we’ll consider as 1765 thru 1805, who was the most promising person, military or political, whose life was cut short before they could achieve their full potential?

Some names came up frequently, and some obscure but intriguing individuals were recognized. Enjoy these thoughtful responses and best wishes for a very happy New Year to all our readers new and old.

Robert N. Fanelli
Joseph Warren, Carl von Donop, John Andre, John Laurens, Benjamin Franklin Bache? We may not know the person’s name, whose unfulfilled promise failed to shape the destiny of nations. We could say, the Unknown Soldier, of any country involved, though it might have been a humble civilian. A hero who hazarded and lost all in some glorious or pointless action, whose audacity or courage would have later shone brightly? A potential mother or father, life cut short by yellow fever, small pox, or childhood illness, who might have given birth to a hero the caliber of Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, or another Benjamin Franklin? Someone whose light would have brightened the lives of others, on a global scale, or within a simple family?

David O. Stewart
John Laurens of South Carolina. Heir to a great fortune and son of Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress who formed a key alliance with Washington during the Valley Forge winter, John was a talented and passionate disciple of liberty. An admired aide to Washington and devoted friend of Hamilton’s, Laurens was sent on a key mission to France in early 1781, securing naval support for the campaign that led to Yorktown. He returned to America with a huge stash of French silver money to support the Revolution. Most remarkable, he thrice tried to organize a regiment of 3,000 black soldiers, including slaves from Laurens plantations, who would earn their emancipation through military service. Killed in a minor skirmish in 1782, this anti-slavery southerner might have played an outsized role in the new nation.
[Also selected by J. Brett Bennett, Don Glickstein, Nancy K. Loane, Gabe Neville, Tom Shactman, Michael J. F. Sheehan, Eric Sterner, Daniel J. Tortora, William M. Welsch, and Adam Zielinski]

Louis Arthur Norton
John Paul Jones died in 1792 at the age of forty-five. Jones shares the title of “the father of the American Navy” with John Adams and John Barry. The Scottish immigrant was a clever naval tactician, but had a formidable list of enemies. The British considered him a pirate during the Revolutionary War because of his bold engagements in British waters during the Revolution. Largely considered as America’s first naval hero, but he was vain, egotistical, and sometimes brutal to his own men. He aspired to be America’s first admiral and when denied the title, he was awarded it in Russia before his death. If he had lived and had a greater influence on the formation of the United States Navy, it is interesting to speculate what his effect would have been during the Quasi-war with France, the Barbary War, and the War of 1812.

Alec D. Rogers
While Alexander Hamilton or Nathanael Greene would qualify, one could argue that they had already made their most significant contributions before their deaths. So I think the person whose potential was most cut short by his early demise was Dr. Joseph Warren. A leading physician whose pioneering work with smallpox inoculation saved Boston’s rich and poor alike, he was also a great orator and political theorist. His speech commemorating the Boston Massacre established a rhetorical model others would later follow, and his Suffolk Resolves were an early call for military preparedness in response to the Intolerable Acts. Elected as President of the Third Provincial Congress, Warren died bravely on Breed’s Hill a few days later while providing cover for others to retreat during the regulars’ final charge. Had he survived the war, he undoubtedly would have continued to be a great leader in politics and medicine.
[Also selected by John Concannon, Lars D. H. Hedbor, Richard J. Werther, and Derek W. Beck]

Gene Procknow
While the early deaths of Richard Montgomery and Joseph Warren are well chronicled, Maj. Gen. John Thomas of Massachusetts has a stronger claim to be the most promising leader lost early in their Revolutionary careers. In 1775, Washington deemed Thomas “an able and good officer” and “much esteemed.” Even the self-centered Maj. Gen. Charles Lee expressed “the great regard I have for your personal self.” The confidence in Thomas extended to his field officers who lauded his “knowledge and military movements.” Even the irascible John Adams expressed a desire to have Thomas “placed in an honorable command.” Thomas led the Continental Army’s right wing at the siege of Boston including the dangerous nighttime deployment atop Dorchester Heights. When Montgomery died in Quebec, the Continental Congress named Thomas as his replacement. However, before Thomas could make an impact, he died on June 2, 1776. Senior to Gates, history might have been different if Thomas commanded at Saratoga, Camden, and Newburgh.

Don N. Hagist
The death of Lt. John Money of the 63rd Regiment of Foot at the battle of Blackstocks was stirring enough to evoke a poem in a British newspaper, the March 17, 1781 edition of the Norfolk Chronicle. This young son of a Norfolk clergyman was just beginning what could have been a long and illustrious military career.

Fresh bloom the laurel by thy sword acquir’d,
Brave, gallant Youth! with love of glory fir’d!
For thee CORNWALLIS weeps, tho’ on his brow
Fair Vict’ry smiles, and tears in conquest flow.
O early lost! who envies not thy fame,
And Death, that gives to thee a deathless name?
Thy hardy vet’rans, oft’ in danger tried,
Point pensive to the field where Money died.
Where, as he saw thee bleeding on the ground,
The rapid Tarleton paus’d, and clos’d thy wound.
Tremble, Britannia’s foes! let the proud Gaul,
And prouder Spaniard, dread a mighty fall,
So young in arms when Britons vengeance pour,
And finish’d Heroes die at twenty four.

Brett Bannor
Alexander Hamilton was to the founding generation what Jackie Robinson was to baseball. It isn’t simply that both men had to overcome their backgrounds to achieve greatness—Hamilton a bastard son born in Nevis; Robinson a victim of the racism of his era. Both men were outstanding in their fields but would likely have achieved far more if their careers weren’t shortened—Robinson’s at the start, Hamilton’s at the end. The color barrier kept Robinson out of the major leagues until he was 28; he nevertheless played superbly and is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Aaron Burr’s bullet cut down Hamilton while he was still in his forties; he still did all the things that got him on the ten dollar bill and the subject of a popular musical. How many more hits would Robinson tally, how many more achievements would Hamilton have logged, if they’d had more time?
[Also selected by Geoff Smock and Dave Kindy]

James Kirby Martin
So many worthy candidates—Joseph Warren, Hugh Mercer, Richard Montgomery, and even Alexander Hamilton among other contenders. Actually, Hamilton already had made mega contributions before his interview at Weehawken. Mercer may have emerged as Washington’s top field general, but can’t say he would have rivaled the likes of the brilliant strategist Nathanael Greene. In the end, it seems like a tossup between Warren with all of his street level leadership potential and Montgomery, a reluctant warrior who could have emerged as a powerhouse political figure with his Livingston family connections. But my choice is Nathanael Greene, who died prematurely in 1786 at the age of forty-three. If Greene had lived into the 1790s, his availability might have been a great aide to President George Washington in having to reckon with so many internal and external threats to the stability of the young American republic.
[Also select by Ken Daigler and Stuart Hatfield]

Nichole Louise
Nathan Hale. He was an intelligent and accomplished young man who could have had a similar career to his friend Benjamin Tallmadge had his life not been cut short by hanging in 1776.

Will Monk
Let’s think outside the box a little, and suggest Pontiac. He led the 1763 revolt in Detroit, and was killed a few years later, but if he had been alive during the Revolution he may have had considerable sway over the western tribes, perhaps affecting the outcome of George Rogers Clark’s victories at Vincennes and Kaskaskia, or affecting the influx of settlers into the Kentucky area, and thus the outcome of the Paris treaty in which Britain gave up its claim to all land east of the Mississippi.

Jason Yonce
Though it’s tempting to say Alexander Hamilton, my vote goes to Maj. Samuel Nicholas, the commandant of the Continental Marines. He was either forty-five or forty-six years old when he died in one of Philadelphia’s string of devastating Yellow Fever epidemics. He fades into obscurity in the historical record after the war and did not live to see the permanent Navy or Marine Corps in 1798. For all that we know, he led what was, for him, a very fulfilling civilian life. So maybe it’s unfair to characterize him as dying before he reached his potential. Still, since the Marine Corps was re-established in Philadelphia it makes me wonder what his role would have been had he still been around in 1798.

Albert Louis Zambone
Phillip Vickers Fithian—a young Presbyterian minister, inveterate diary-keeper, a sort of proto-anthropologist in his keen insight into the Virginia society in which he had served as a tutor. Fithian died of disease while the Continental Army was camped in Harlem after the fall of New York. He had dreamed to his diary of being another John Witherspoon, his teacher at the College of New Jersey. He stands in for all of the obscure, promising young men, future leaders of their communities, who because of the war died long before their time.

Matthew Reardon
When you ask most people about Polish contributions in the American Revolution, they inevitably point towards Kosciusko or Pulaski, both of whom served the American cause and made major contributions not only to eventual American victory, but the future United States army.  Fewer people know of Count Grabowski, the young Polish nobleman who served on the British side. Upon his arrival in America in 1777, Grabowski caught the attention of many British officers, including Sir Henry Clinton, who selected Grabowski to be his aide-de-camp. Grabowski participated in Clinton’s expedition up the Hudson River to aid Burgoyne. In his first and only action, Grabowski led the British grenadiers in the attack on Fort Montgomery. There, he was killed as he climbed over the ramparts of the fort. Being of Polish ancestry and a student of the American Revolution, I would have loved to see his future contributions. I often wonder if they would have matched those of Kosciusko or Pulaski.

Robert S. Davis
John Adams wrote that had Archibald Bulloch (d. February 22, 1777) of Georgia stayed in the Continental Congress, he would have been one of the architects of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, Bulloch returned to Georgia to serve as the first chief executive under the state constitution. While he lived, he pulled together all of the state’s political factions. His untimely death, some believe by poison, caused those factions to turn on each other and bring down the state government.

John L. Smith Jr.
Maj. Gen. Richard Montgomery’s great potential came to a frozen end in a Quebec City snowdrift at the age of thirty-nine. He was a respected and battle-hardened commander who was charged with leading the American invasion of Canada in 1775. In spite of meager financial and logistical support from Congress, he conquered Montreal and nearly took, with the assistance of Col. Benedict Arnold, the capital city of Quebec. Though that Quebec Province capital was not taken, Montgomery’s offensive still served to divert valuable resources from British use in the lower colonies. Overall, it also delayed the execution of Britain’s Hudson Highlands strategy (of splitting New England off from the rest of the colonies) by at least a year. General Montgomery’s potential to the war effort would never be known because of his early, valiant death. But it’s very conceivable that it would’ve been great for America.

Ray Raphael
Too many young lads died, not only in battle but from war-related diseases. Their lives were certainly cut short, and we can’t even guess their full potential. We should acknowledge their loss, and the world’s. In September 1776, when the Reverend Ammi R. Robbins was making his rounds among patients in the Continental Army, he came upon “one very sick youth from Massachusetts.” This fellow (his name and age were not reported) asked the reverend to save him because he felt he was not fit to die. “Do, sir, pray for me,” he pleaded. Then he added: “Will you not send for my mother? If she were here to nurse me I could get well. O my mother, how I wish I could see her; she was opposed to my enlisting: I am now very sorry. Do let her know I am sorry!” He died, and that was that. Life extinguished, unfulfilled.


  • May this layman historian suggest Major Patrick Ferguson, who fell at Kings Mountain. He developed a breach loading musket and rifle and the British army experimented with it. His death led to the shelving of that concept for 80 years. His breach loader could fire 5 times the rate of a muzzle loading musket, was more accurate, and could even be fired in rainy conditions. Had he lived, I’m sure he would have pushed the idea. It was as revolutionary as the Gatling gun in our Civil War and the machine gun in WW I.

  • I’d have to go with Joseph Warren. Some say the American Revolution ended when Washington took command of the Continental Army (it becoming then simply a war for independence). Had Warren survived Breeds Hill he may have been able to keep the “revolutionary” aspects of it alive.

  • Lots of good choices but mine would have been Josiah Quincy (pronounced quinzey) of Boston. Alot of good potential.

  • Another young British officer killed at 24, Major Francis Peirson who had risen to the substantive rank of Major whilst commanding a home regiment, which even by 18th century standards was a rapid rise. More remarkable though his leadership during the defence of Jersey in 1781 when the young man boldly took command of the beleaguered garrison after the garrison commandant Major Corbet was captured. A desperate situation arose that even the most veteran soldier could have lost control of. As evidenced when Corbet (29 years Peirson’s senior) quickly offered the island’s surrender. Peirson with coolness above his years years organised the island’s defenders and led a counterattack, outflanking the French force occupying the island’s town. Peirson was killed leading the counter attack but his courageous and dynamic leadership is fittingly immortalised in John Singleton Copley’s painting the Death of Major Peirson

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