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"How do you Define "Founding Fathers"?" Topic

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Tango0113 May 2022 9:15 p.m. PST

"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…"

From Journal of the American Revolution Blog



doc mcb14 May 2022 7:17 a.m. PST

I would consider anyone who signed the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution a Founder, and to that would add all who served in Congress or state legislatures and ratifying conventions, etc. Tom Paine never held political office but was very influential. Patrick Henry was a Founder although he was a political opponent of most of the big names.

That treats the Founding as a political/constitutional event. More broadly, all who fought for independence should qualify. I think one can legitimately speak of the "founding generation."

The Revolution was a mass-participation event. But the term Founding Fathers is reasonably focused on the men who shaped a novus ordo seclorum which includes the anti-federalists who demanded and got the Bill of Rights.

doc mcb14 May 2022 7:23 a.m. PST

Oh, and the top paragraph citing six names as a "consensus" is absurd. George Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 and demanded and got the Bill of Rights. He was, you will recall, at the Philadelphia Convention but refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked that. He is the "Father of the Bill of Rights" and so a Founding Father. So the original post is seriously incomplete.

doc mcb14 May 2022 7:27 a.m. PST

John Dickinson (November 13 [Julian calendar November 2] 1732[note 1] February 14, 1808), a Founding Father of the United States, was a solicitor and politician from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Delaware, known as the "Penman of the Revolution" for his twelve Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, published individually in 1767 and 1768. As a member of the First Continental Congress, where he was a signee to the Continental Association, Dickinson drafted most of the 1774 Petition to the King, and then, as a member of the Second Continental Congress, wrote the 1775 Olive Branch Petition. When these two attempts to negotiate with King George III of Great Britain failed, Dickinson reworked Thomas Jefferson's language and wrote the final draft of the 1775 Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. When Congress then decided to seek independence from Great Britain, Dickinson served on the committee that wrote the Model Treaty and then wrote the first draft of the 17761777 Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Dickinson later served as president of the 1786 Annapolis Convention, which called for the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Dickinson attended the convention as a delegate from Delaware and signed the United States Constitution.

doc mcb14 May 2022 7:28 a.m. PST

So not too impressed with that blog entry.

Grattan54 Supporting Member of TMP14 May 2022 11:08 a.m. PST

Those involved in the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It cracks me up when some talking head says "The Founding Fathers believed…" as there were many different views among the Founding Fathers. To think Hamilton saw things the same way as Jefferson is silly.

doc mcb14 May 2022 1:16 p.m. PST

Grattan, yes. Of course they saw some things the same; they both wanted an independent America.

However, would you agree that their differences were a process out of which emerged what we enjoy? Hamilton didn't think we needed a Bill of Rights; Jefferson thought it essential.

I like to remind students that the US wrote AT LEAST sixteen constitutions during the Revolution: 13 states, of which at least one, PA, wrote and used two radically different ones, plus the Articles and then the present one. That is a LOT of practice. There were differences, but also a lot of pragmatic experience and experiments.

Bellerophon199314 May 2022 1:39 p.m. PST

Some of the people cited did not get involved in the Constitution – Paine famously was not even invited because he believed in democracy too much, which put him at odds with those aristocrats running the show. Sam Adams didn't show, saying he "smelled a rat"

That's why I find it so funny when people treat it like a holy writ. Even at the time, a lot of the "founding generation" thought it sucked.

Tango0114 May 2022 3:31 p.m. PST



15th Hussar14 May 2022 3:44 p.m. PST

In a "REALISTIC/Practical" sense, I honestly consider Nathaniel Bowditch to be the "youngest" Founding Father…his complete upheaval of nautical astronomy (Celestial Navigation) was a definite benefit to our fledgling Navy during the Barbary & 1812 Wars, along with the fact that he pretty much helped "found" what would one day become MIT.

Grattan54 Supporting Member of TMP14 May 2022 8:25 p.m. PST


Yes the Constitution is a work of compromise and the understanding of the sinful nature of mankind. Many checks and balances. But one can't say (as some do) that all the Founding Fathers believed in limited government. That just isn't true. There is a reason why two opposing political parties emerged fairly soon in the Republic.

doc mcb14 May 2022 8:43 p.m. PST

There I would disagree, to this extent: the FF all DID believe in limited government; the debate was HOW limited. And also limited HOW?

Grattan54 Supporting Member of TMP15 May 2022 10:18 a.m. PST

Disagree. Hamilton did not a limited government. He wanted a strong centralize government. He even hoped to get rid of state governments entirely. Nor do I doubt he is the only one.
Also, we had a constitution that had limited government it was called the Articles of Confederation and it failed. The Constitutional convention was made up mainly of men who wanted a stronger central government. There was a real "fear of the Many" among the FF. Now, I am not saying they wanted what we have today or an absolute government but they did want a stronger government than what we had under the AofC.

doc mcb15 May 2022 11:42 a.m. PST

Most of the Founders distrusted democracy, yes. And Hamilton had few ties and no loyalty to any state, true. But Hamilton deeply admired the British constitution, corruption and all, which is certainly not an unlimited government. Indeed, the parliamentary system Commons is really sovereign was the product of a century of conflct against wannabe absolute monarchs.

doc mcb15 May 2022 11:45 a.m. PST

Btw, I do not agree that the Articles failed. They worked well enough to win the war and get a great peace and solve the northwest land problem brilliantly. Had the 3% impost passed they'd have been able to pay off the debt. That got 12 states approval. They could have kicked out Rogues Island and proceeded.

14Bore15 May 2022 3:36 p.m. PST

I would say all of Continental Congress

Grattan54 Supporting Member of TMP15 May 2022 7:11 p.m. PST

You may have felt they worked and you make some good points. But clearly the men going to the Constitutional Convention did not agree with you. Again, mainly because they saw the articles as being to weak.

Gus Fring15 May 2022 10:43 p.m. PST

The OP hints at the meaninglessness of the phrase "Founding Fathets" when he mentions the "50th Anniversary jubilee."
A lot of our irrelevant nonsense came 50 years after the war, and the 50th anniversary jubilee was a catalyst.
From that period we got:
1. The Betsy Ross flag fiasco. Her grandson or someone trotted out the fiction that she was uniquely responsible for the design of the flag, including the 5 pointed star.
2. Parson Weems and George with the cherry tree.
3. The sudden miraculous appearance of "battlefield flags" (authentic of course) like the Guilford Courthouse and Bedford Minutemen flag.
4. Tim Murphy the deadly sniper at Saratoga. "That General is a fine brave man, and he cannot live!"
5. A whole bunch of etceteras.
6. Could the appreciation of Benedict Arnold as a fighting general come from the need for a heroic Miltonian fall from grace?

I strongly suspect that this hagiography of the "founding fathers" originates from this era, the so-called "Era of good feelings".
As pointed out above, the so-called "founding fathers" were as respected as partisan politicians are today.
Only the longing for a "Golden Age" can confer sainthood on the likes of Jefferson and Hamilton. Had things worked out better for him, the equally cunning and partisan Aaron Burr might be well thought of today.

doc mcb16 May 2022 7:09 a.m. PST

Societies need heroes and create them as necessary. We see the same today.

dapeters16 May 2022 12:26 p.m. PST

+ Gus Fring, our "history" has been about myths taking place of facts. An then we get bent out of shape when the truth is dug up ever so often. Like kids who learn about Santa Claus running around saying that can't be true, as adults we say your revising history.

The sad truth is history is just sad.

doc mcb16 May 2022 12:46 p.m. PST

You are assuming history is the truth. But the line between fact and myth is rarely clear or clean.

History is our collective memory. It defines us, as one's individual memory defines oneself. But it is partial and fallible, just as individual memories are. That is quite APART from our human propensity for deception including self-deception.

It is, however, what we have to work with.

dapeters17 May 2022 1:22 p.m. PST

Not exactly, we have desire to believe things (because they make us feel good about ourselves.) Trying to go angst this does not make one popular. So lot's of folks will try to blur the two because the reality is to much for them.

Gus Fring17 May 2022 1:42 p.m. PST

Much of the furor over so-called "Critical Race Theory" is that the haters of it being taught are upset that it just might be true, even partially. That would mean that their "ancestors" may not have been heroic Good Guys after all.
The Founding Fathers were first and foremost politicians. Politicians are not known for being humble and accommodating people. They could be quite vicious and avaricious.
Asking "What would the Founding Fathers think?" is a silly question. Were they any more noble than the Copperheads or Radical Republicans of the Civil War? Were John Hancock the smuggler, Sam Adams or Tom Paine (or Sumter or Marion) nobler than Joe McCarthy or LBJ, because they flourished in the late 18th Century and had something to do with the American Revolution?

dapeters18 May 2022 1:49 p.m. PST

Then there is the other shoes lot's of folks now a days seem committed to erasing the lines when they happen to be pretty clear, because it fits their agenda and narrative.

Tango0118 May 2022 3:38 p.m. PST



doc mcb19 May 2022 8:38 a.m. PST

Gus, I think most of us understand that our ancestors were human with the usual mix of strengths and weaknesses. However, a society needs heroes, who need not be perfect but merely exemplary in particular attributes. I'd be glad to defend any of the Revolutionary figures you named.

doc mcb19 May 2022 8:41 a.m. PST

Sam Adams was not renowned as an orator; he was basically a backroom politician. But he deserves to be remembered if only for this:

If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.
- Samuel Adams

Bill N19 May 2022 10:43 a.m. PST

I would like to agree with you doc mcb, but I cannot. Popular histories of the United States started developing very early in our history. They developed at a time when people were alive who remembered the facts. Those popular histories were a civic opiate for the masses. They were intended to convey the message that we were the good guys and our actions were just. Facts which were inconsistent with this message were ignored. Stories that supported this message were incorporated into the popular histories, even when the factual basis for them was weak. Deception was at the core of these popular American histories.

For the more educated who were thought to be able to handle a history that wasn't black and white there were fact based histories. These fact based histories reflected the biases of those who created them. They were however willing to acknowledge that things were more complicated than popular histories reflected.

I say "histories" rather than history because they could vary from one region to another. They could also change as societal values changed.

What bothers me when talking about how the "Founding Generation" thought of the "Founding Fathers" is the element when. Ben Franklin would probably be among the few Founding Fathers known outside his region by more than just a narrow circle of elites at the start of the AWI. By the end of the war Washington, Greene and a number of others join that list. Going in to the Constitutional Convention I doubt the average American outside their regions would have known who Alexander Hamilton or James Madison were. The split between Adams and Jefferson comes even later.

doc mcb19 May 2022 12:28 p.m. PST

Bill, yes, and it is the same dynamic as with Shakespeare's historical plays. Societies need heroes, but when a nation, a nationality, is being built, they need more than heroes, they need a history, a narrative. It helps if it is based on some fact -- Henry V really did win at Agincourt -- but sometimes myth serves the purpose better. And we won't mention Henry ordering the slaughter of the surrendered French nobles.

History is what the Present find USEFUL to remember about the Past.

Those who tear down our heroes are no more interested in TRUTH than was Parson Weems; they have their own agenda, perhaps a hatred of our nation or of nationalism in general, which is served by dismantling heroic myths.

doc mcb19 May 2022 12:30 p.m. PST

"Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico; in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico; for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico; to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles. Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her."

G.K. Chesterton, ORTHODOXY, chapter 5

Gus Fring19 May 2022 12:34 p.m. PST

I suggest that one should read "Joyleg" by Ward Moore and Avram Davidson.
Sure, it's a sci-fi/fantasy story, but only by stretching the definition to its limits.
It concerns a man, a veteran of the AWI, who is alive in the present day. His secret is that he takes a weekly "soak" in sour mash moonshine.
It seems he is still receiving a pitiful pension from some obscure department.
Two Congress Critters seek him out. One to expose "waste fraud and abuse" in the system for an obvious scam on government money. The other wants to know why this man is receiving such a shockingly tiny pension.
When he is proven to be genuine, both the R and the D want him to praise what they find so wonderful about American history. To their shock and chagrin, he flat out calls ALL of the "Founding Fathers" scoundrels and worse.

Good luck finding a copy. 😄 Mine is a true pulp paperback, and it disintegrates whenever you so much as look at it.

The point is that there is the truth, and there is our cherished mythology. I fail to see how we as a nation benefit from embracing myth, and punishing those who do not embrace the myth. What is the only true answer to "What would the Founding Fathers think about this?" That's it's as relevant of what the Duke of Wellington thought about agriculture.
John Hancock was a smuggler. George Washington was a land speculator. Just think how many Founding Fathers would be in prison today for acting on "insider information" and "conflict of interest".

Gus Fring19 May 2022 12:57 p.m. PST

Hey! It's still in print, and in much sturdier editions!

doc mcb19 May 2022 2:16 p.m. PST

I fail to see how we as a nation benefit from embracing myth, and punishing those who do not embrace the myth.

But hopefully you do see some use in our common memories, which define us. I would not "punish" those who fail to "embrace the myth" but I hold in disesteem those who try to tear down what other people cherish. And would ask the wreckers, to what end?

Bill N19 May 2022 4:55 p.m. PST

I do not see doc how you say that "history is what the present find useful to remember about the Past" and at the same time complain about the present generation tearing down the heroes of yesteryear. If one generation is entitled to deify its heroes, why is the next generation not entitled to trash those same individuals. This would certainly be in keeping with Jefferson's view that one generation did not have the power to bind the next.

Its only by arguing that there is a timeless, fact based history that exists independent of the popular mythology that for many passes as history that you can make the case for keeping those heroes of yesteryear around.

Bellerophon199319 May 2022 6:09 p.m. PST

Nationalism is dangerous and has never led to anything good. Just ask all of Europe.

Patriotism? Good, absolutely. Nationalism? Burn it in a fire.

doc mcb20 May 2022 9:03 a.m. PST

But how do you have patriotism without a nation? And nations have been the basic building block of the world order for 500 years. Isn't Shakespeare good?

What do you see us being loyal to, if not a nation? The human race in general? Good luck with that.

doc mcb20 May 2022 9:07 a.m. PST

Bill, I think the present tearing down of heroes is not useful but worse than useless. They are entitled to try, and I am entitled to oppose them.

As to universals, it is his character, his integrity and courage and self-restraint that make Washington a hero, not just then but always.

doc mcb20 May 2022 9:11 a.m. PST

According to Polybius, what distinguishes democracy from mob rule is piety, respect for traditional and inherited values. We are well on the way to mob rule, as we have ceased to be pious to any significant extent. Restoring that piety is an important task.

Gus Fring20 May 2022 10:42 a.m. PST

Perhaps "kids today" wouldn't have such disrespect for "history" if they weren't lied to in their early school years, followed by clarification as they learned more in later grades.
Or do you want to suppress the clarifications too? Should students, and the People, be lied to their entire lives?
It seems that you are arguing for approved mythology, rather than actual facts.
Look how well the Catholic Church fared with that approach.

doc mcb20 May 2022 11:17 a.m. PST

Can you give me an example of myths in this context? I'm involved now in building curricula for US history for middle school, and I don't think we are doing any mythology. But we DO select topics and facts, for age appropriateness and also because we expect students will take US again in high school.

At the younger grades, elementary especially, we want stories of heroes. So Harriet Tubman, yes; John Brown murdering people and committing treason, not so much. And Tubman's association with Brown not at all. Those complexities can come when students are more mature.

doc mcb20 May 2022 11:24 a.m. PST

We do, for middle school, begin to give students some concepts and vocabulary for debating ethical/moral issues. Does intent matter more, or does outcome? Are unjust actions justified in a just cause? Hard to discuss Brown or, say, Nat Turner, unless some such concepts are available.

Gus Fring20 May 2022 4:21 p.m. PST

Stop trying to make it look "complicated". You sound like Jack Nicholson. "The Children" can handle a lot more truth than you think.

Would you allow "The Children" to watch 1776? With a Founding Father like Rutledge defending slavery? With the Continental Congress tying itself in knots evading doing anything meaningful? How "politics" rears its ugly head?
I sympathize if you wish to spare The Children from hearing William Daniels sing.

Okay. Shove "I cannot tell a lie" down their throat. But don't be surprised when after the Innocents learn the truth that they turn on it.
You seem more like a propagandist than a real teacher.

doc mcb20 May 2022 4:33 p.m. PST

I would show 1776, yes, and certainly "Molasses to Rum to Slaves" -- with lyrics printed so they can follow it.

I would use 1776 without hesitation in a high school class. (edited for length, it is at least an hour too long).

In middle school I'd use shorter bits of it, probably. Class time is always my most precious scarce commodity.

I have a rather standard assignment to critique a film in terms of historical accuracy. In fact, I'll post it.

doc mcb20 May 2022 4:34 p.m. PST


If "history is what the Present finds useful to remember about the Past," then a Hollywood film probably counts. But can a film be GOOD history? Yes and no.

History can never be the "truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," because it is written and read by human beings. History is our collective memory, and memory is inexact and fallible. But the truth "what really happened" is the STANDARD by which history is measured as better or worse; the closer to the truth, the better.

Images and sounds have great power, often more so than the printed page. But does this make films dealing with historical subjects better than books? or far more dangerous? I like to use films in my teaching, because we need to "equip our imaginations" to understand times and places not our own. A movie can give us a good picture of what things looked like, and to an extent what things felt like. If you want to understand D-Day, the Normandy invasion, then watching the first 30 minutes of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is essential. But . . .

There are several characteristics of Hollywood films that seem unavoidable and which limit their effectiveness as history:

The first is that films are ENTERTAINMENT. Sometimes important topics are intrinsically boring; how did Federal fiscal and monetary policy in the 1920's create the conditions for the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression? You probably won't see a Hollywood flick examining that topic; films will show unemployed men and starving children, because those images have emotional impact.

The second is that films are SHORT; two hours or maybe three is a long movie, but a pretty short time to spend studying an important topic. Movies ALWAYS LEAVE THINGS OUT. They must. And in light of their nature as entertainment, what they leave out is the most boring but not necessarily the least important part of the story. When you watch a film about a historical topic, always ask: what part of the story have they left out?

Third, movies almost always compress both time and people. A film such as LUTHER covers a man's life over many years within two hours on the screen. It shows only key episodes, and while the important events may have happened years apart, in the movie they come minutes apart. Also, there is a limit to how many characters an audience can keep up with; if there were three or four characters in the historical event who played similar roles, the film will generally compress them into one.

Finally, Hollywood knows that people expect certain things. Vikings really didn't wear horned helmets, but they have to in a Hollywood film, because otherwise nobody knows they are Vikings. Knives (or Buffy's wooden stake) are most effectively wielded underhand, but in films they are almost always used overhand, because that is what people expect because that is what films show.

Teachers may wish to assign papers evaluating one or several related films as history: if your main knowledge of the people and events depicted is what Hollywood shows you, would you be well-informed, poorly informed, or MIS-informed? The first part asks you what the film covers versus what it leaves out; the second asks whether what is shown is accurate or inaccurate or even misleading. To evaluate a film as history, it is necessary to know a good bit of the larger historical narrative within which the film is set. This is what is required for this type of paper.

doc mcb20 May 2022 4:38 p.m. PST

I have had students do comparative papers on 1776 and the Lincoln film about passing the 13th amendment. That is a TOUGH assignment and I challenged a few top students with it.

doc mcb20 May 2022 4:39 p.m. PST

When I turn into a "real teacher" I'll let you know.

doc mcb20 May 2022 4:43 p.m. PST

But I would like to see examples of what myths you are concerned about?

Gus Fring20 May 2022 6:43 p.m. PST

Myths? I think I already mentioned a few. I'll add some.
George Washington never told a lie.
Betsy Ross designed the flag. Which by the way was never used as a "National flag" in the field. Rush had a good run with that one. But at least the funds raised went to a good cause. Or, did they?
All of the Founding Fathers were God fearing Christians. Not a Deist among them. Catholics, Congregationalists, Anglicans, Quakers, Presbyterians, Moravians, etc all had Kumbaya singalongs.
Loyalists were all despicable Tories.
That's just a start. I'm sure you can come up with a few more that The Children must be taught.
I'm sure that you asking me for "myths" was just a rhetorical question. 😄You certainly have a few.
The Kids can handle the truth, but I despair for the adults.

doc mcb20 May 2022 8:01 p.m. PST

I do not know of -- and really cannot imagine -- any history curriculum that includes any of that. Certainly no class of mine ever would. I think you are afraid of monsters in the closet, or under the bed.

Show me an actual history text that includes any of that. Betcha can't.

Gus Fring20 May 2022 8:47 p.m. PST

It's what I was taught in the 50s, doc. And in Public School.
Sorry, but that was a long time ago, and I feel no responsibility to cite authors.

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