The name on everyone's lips, thanks to the hugely popular musical is "Alexander Hamilton". If you know nothing about American history you'd think that this American founding father has long been celebrated for his achievements BUT he was a personality that had been relegated to the back of history until the musical really brought him into the popular vernacular.
If you haven't had your Hamilton fix be sure to read my full blog on Alexander Hamilton - "Who was Alexander Hamilton?"
This is a follow up to that blog and the question “who were the ‘founding fathers’ of America”?
These seven men have been remembered as playing key roles in the creation of the American nation, hence they are considered to be "founding fathers". These men were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington and of course Alexander Hamilton.
This a very quick run down on what you need to know about the six other men (Hamilton of course being the seventh). You probably have assumed that all of these men went on to become President BUT they didn't! Just four of the men served as President.
The Founding Fathers that Became President:
Probably the most well-known of all of these men, George Washington, was America’s first president, and he is known as a hero of the American revolutionary war. There are monuments to him all over the USA and even around the world so if you haven't heard of him I'd be surprised.
He is a key figure in the Hamilton musical as Hamilton was his secretary during the war years. Washington also appointed him to the role of treasury secretary in the new American union.
Some things you probably didn’t know about Washington:
He was the only American President to be elected unanimously
Washington actively worked to preserve slavery (he was from a Virginian plantation owning family) however towards the end of his life he began freeing the slaves in his possession. Having said that his will stated that they were to be freed upon the death of his wife and Martha lived for another three years after her husband’s death.
He served as US President from 1789 to 1797 and died just two years after he retired.
George Washington set the benchmark for future American presidents and helped mould the young nation. A key factor of his time as President was the neutrality he maintained in foreign affairs, especially in regard to remaining uninvolved in the French Revolution. This is depicted in the musical.
The second American President and key person in the signing of the peace treaty with England.
John Adams spent most of the revolutionary war overseas serving as a diplomat in France and Holland. When he became President, he faced a tense situation with the French due to Washington’s “neutral” stance and though war was averted with the French the US did take part in a naval battle with the French in what became known as the Quasi-War.
The Quasi-War was an undeclared war between the two nations and began when French privateers began attacking merchant ships in American waters. In response the American Navy was reformed, and the “war” took place between 1798 and 1800.
Things you may not know about John Adams:
He was a direct descent of pilgrims that arrived on the Mayflower
Though he was America’s second President, he was the first vice-president
John Adams was the first US President to live in the White House in the new Capital Washington DC.
He Fathered a future president, John Quincy Adams who served the nation as President 1825-1829
Upon his retirement from politics, he remained a proficient writer
Interestingly, he died on the same day as the next man I’m going to discuss, Thomas Jefferson.
The third American President was Thomas Jefferson, and it was he who drafted the original Declaration of Independence and though he wrote that all men were created equal this did not extend to the many slaves he owned.
During Washington’s presidency he was Secretary of State and he also served as John Adams Vice President. He was notably in opposition to Hamilton on many political issues and he even co-founded the Democratic-Republican Party to oppose Hamilton’s Federalist Party.
Some of Jefferson’s main achievements:
He was the first American President to be sworn into office in Washington DC. The previous two had taken place in New York
He oversaw the Louisiana purchase in 1803 where he acquired the entire region from the French for a very small amount and effectively doubled the size of the country.
He instigated the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806 that mapped the vast country.
In 1807 he signed a bill that prohibited the importation of slaves into America
In 1815 Jefferson sold his personal library to Congress to replace the books lost when the British burned the US Capitol during the 1812 war.
He died on 4 July 1826, the same day as John Adams. Unlike Adams though Jefferson is memorialised in more locations across the country such as Mount Rushmore.
The fourth (and final of these founding fathers) to serve as American President.
James Madison served as Secretary of state to Jefferson and also played a key role in drafting the constitution. He also wrote the Federalist papers alongside Hamilton and John Jay.
During his time as President, he oversaw the declaration of war against the British, a war the young nation was not ready to fight. British forces took the capital and burnt it to the ground.
The nation did have a few battle victories and though it can’t be claimed that America won, the nationalistic sentiment the war created helped to bring cohesion to the nation. The Federalists had been against the war and as national sentiment was now so strong in favour of the war the political party actually disappeared.
His time as President is often thought to have been a failure due to the impacts of the war but the long-term impact of the war did help create a nationalistic sentiment and he played such a crucial role in the creation of the Republic that this is nowadays often viewed in a different light.
His family home, Montpelier which was a plantation farm is now classed as a national monument and though there are memorials to him the number pales in significance to some of the other founding fathers.
The Other Founding Fathers (the guys who didn't become president):
We all know the name Ben Franklin, but did you know that he was never a US President?
Though he was never President his legacy has been long lasting with a role in the establishment of a number of key national institutions and practices. Unlike many who saw success come easier, thanks to their well-known families, Franklin had his work cut out for him.
Born the tenth of seventeen children, to a soap and candle maker, his formal education ended by the age of 10 and by 12 he was an apprentice printer. By the age of 23 though he was a well-established newspaper editor with his Pennsylvania Gazette, and he established a successful printing business becoming one of the wealthiest men on the continent by the 1740s.
His success in business meant that he could step away from the physical task of working and establish himself as a gentleman (a task not available to a man busy all day with work). He was now poised to enter the political sphere and spent much of his time engaging in philosophical and scientific endeavours. Some of his most noted inventions were the odometer, reaching device (aka long arm), bifocal glasses and the lightning rod.
He was one of the men who drafted the US Constitution along with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and two other lesser-known men, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston. He became the first Postmaster General of the USA which was an important role in the shaping of communication across the new nation.
His path into the political spotlight was far from smooth with the English considering him too American while the American’s thought him too English. Later in life, given his love of France, he would be considered with suspicion when he returned to the USA.
These ties did make him a well-established diplomat and saw him serve as Minister to Sweden and France before being appointed President of Pennsylvania (1785-1788). In this role he was effectively the head of the state and in 1790 the role was abolished, developing into the role of Governor.
When it came to his private life, aged 17 he proposed to a 15 year old Deborah Read however her recently widowed mother rejected the union. Seven years later, after her subsequent husband took her dowry and fled to the Caribbean, Deborah married Franklin but as she remained legally married to her first husband this union with Franklin was a common-law marriage.
What was further unusual about the union was that Franklin brought with him a six-month old illegitimate son whose mother remains unknown to this day (having said that some sources suggest that Deborah was his Mother but as he was born out of wedlock secrecy remained around the child's Mother). The couple then had two other children of their own, a son who died of smallpox while still a young child and a daughter who lived to her 60s.
Due to her fear of the ocean, Deborah died without Franklin by her side in 1774 whilst he was in England. Franklin lived to the age of 84 despite constant ill-health including obesity and gout. He died at his Philadelphia home on 17 April 1790.
Probably the least known of the men I’ve been talking about in this blog, John Jay, was the first Chief Justice of the USA and if you are a Hamilton fan you’ll know his name as one of the three men to author the Federalist Papers which defended the new US constitution.
Jay served just shy of six years as Chief Justice before declining another term and retiring.
In stark contrast to Benjamin Franklin, whom I just discussed, John Jay was born into money and thus society. In 1774, aged 28, he married the eldest daughter of the New Jersey Governor William Livingston, Sarah who was just 17 years old. Jay would go on to become the Governor of New York from 1795 to 1801.
He died in 1829 from the results of a probable stroke and was buried in the Jay Family Cemetery in Rye, New York. This cemetery is cared for by descendants of the Jay family today and is closed to the public.
Sources and Further Reading:
The American Presidents Book (New York, Dover Publications, 2009)
Ron Chernow, "Alexander Hamilton", (Penguin Books, 2005)
John Fuller, “Top 10 Ben Franklin Inventions”, How Stuff Works (5 April 2021), < https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/famous-inventors/10-ben-franklin-inventions.htm>
The White House
“George Washington”, The White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/george-washington/
“John ADAMS”, The White House, < https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/john-adams/>
“Thomas Jefferson”, The White House, < https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/thomas-jefferson/>
“James Madison”, The White House, < https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/james-madison/>
“Benjamin Franklin:, Britannica, < https://www.britannica.com/biography/Benjamin-Franklin/Legacy>
“John Jay”, Britannica, < https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Jay>
“George Washington”, History.com Editors (Originally posted 29 October 2009, updated 11 February 2021), < https://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/george-washington>
“John Adams”, History.com editors (originally published 27 October 2009, updated 31 January 202), < https://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/john-adams>
“Thomas Jefferson”, History.com Editors, < https://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/thomas-jefferson>
“James Madison”, History.com editors (published 29 October 2009, updated 30 September 2019), < https://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/james-madison>