If asked to come up with a fact or two about the founders of the United States, we tend to rely on the well-worn tales that have lodged in the collective memory. Many schoolchildren will repeat the (almost certainly bogus) story about Washington's cherry tree, while adults wink at the reputation of Benjamin "Good Time" Franklin and his inveterate womanizing.
But there are a lot more interesting -- and factually accurate -- stories out there about the better-known early patriots. And there's also a sizable population of Founding Fathers who we don't even know. In the following pages, we'll discover why Thomas Jefferson was running an estate poorer than Downton Abbey and why your "John Hancock" is so much less valuable than your "Button Gwinnett."
Let's start by solving the biggest mystery: who the Founding Fathers were.
That's right, our first little-known fact about the Founding Fathers is ... who the Founding Fathers are. Indeed, most of us never had a primer about who to include in the group, because none of them self-identified as a Founding Father. (We'll get into the origin of the title later.)
Commonly, we refer to our Founding Fathers as those who were present at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Easy enough, right? Well, when you consider that Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams and John Hancock all weren't present at the convention you might start to rethink the categories.
Accordingly, we tend to include not just those at the Constitutional Convention but also those who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But even that is a pretty select group, and it doesn't encompass all the countless men -- and women -- who helped shape the United States government and ideals during the Revolutionary era.
So, in a way, you can include any revolutionary or activist you want in the mix, and we often do, by referring to Paul Revere or other early American patriots in the group. And that's exactly how we'll define the Founding Fathers in this article, to avoid missing out on some of the most interesting -- or least-known -- early progressives.
Now that we've decided that the Founding Fathers might be more diverse than whoever signed a document or showed up for the Constitutional Convention, let's make good on our assertion. Time to learn about Lemuel Haynes, a true patriot whose writings inspired a much more aspirational -- and forward-thinking -- idea of American freedom.
Haynes was the son of a white mother and African father, and worked as an indentured servant before enlisting in the colonial militia -- many don't realize that more than 5,000 Africans (both slaves and free) fought in the Revolutionary War [source: White House]. A writer and poet, Haynes penned in 1776 an influential essay called "Liberty Further Extended" in response to the Declaration of Independence. A treatise against slavery, Haynes argued that liberty for one group of people justly meant freedom for all.
Haynes went on to become a preacher, where his congregations included both white and black worshippers (not the norm of the day.) But "Liberty Further Extended" is still considered one of the most forceful Revolutionary-era arguments against slavery, and one of the first authored by an African-American.
If you're looking for the archetypal Founding Father, you're probably conjuring someone like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson. Then there's John Adams, George Washington or even Alexander Hamilton -- all seem like perfect candidates for the Most Perfect Founder. But when pledging allegiance to the flag, perhaps you should be summoning up heroic images of Connecticut's Roger Sherman and Pennsylvania's Richard Morris in your head.
Nope, not exactly the name recognition of a Sam Adams. But these two dedicated patriots were the only two guys who signed all the central documents that the U.S. was founded on. They both signed the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of the Confederacy, and Sherman went a step further by also being part of the Continental Association of 1774, which began the process of setting up economic boycotts of Great Britain. Franklin, Adams, Jefferson and the rest? Couldn't be bothered to show up for everything apparently. But we can probably forgive them, as BoltBuses weren't yet around to get everyone up and down the Eastern Seaboard at a moment's notice.
The term "Founding Fathers" often connotes a certain patriotic purity that has somehow been lost in modern times. The Founding Fathers, after all, were entirely loyal to the newly formed United States and certainly believed in creating a more perfect union.
Except those who tried to attack American lands for their own gain, that is.
Apparently, some of our Founding Fathers were more akin to absentee dads, itching to start a second family. William Blount of Tennessee and Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey achieved notoriety for not just their presence at the Constitutional Convention, but later accusations of treason. Blount, it seemed, got himself into a financial mess as a senator after some bad land speculation. He hatched a plan to have Native Americans and frontiersmen in the area attack the lands, hoping that the violence would result in a transfer of the area to Great Britain. It resulted in an impeachment and dismissal, but he was re-elected just a year after, in 1798, to Tennessee's state senate [source: U.S. Senate Historical Office].
Likewise, Dayton was accused of high treason for plotting to be a part of Aaron Burr's plan to conquer Spanish lands in the Southwest to create an independent nation. Dayton wasn't formally tried and instead had a substantial career holding local offices in New Jersey [source: The Robinson Library].
Now that we've met some loyal patriots, let's turn to the de facto father of the United States, George Washington. Big-time military general, first president and the subject of thousands of biographies and studies, Washington tends to pique everyone's interest. But that doesn't mean we still can't learn a thing or two about him. Or, more specifically, his face.
A lot of us have heard that Washington wore wooden teeth -- a persistent myth, turns out. However, Washington wasn't exactly blessed with a set of Hollywood chompers. (Supposedly, he cracked brazil nuts between his teeth, which can't have helped.) By the time he was president, he had a grand total of one natural tooth [source: Etter].
He did wear dentures, made from ivory, gold, lead -- and even some real human and cow teeth [source: Mount Vernon Ladies Association]. But that glamorous grill proved to be extremely uncomfortable, causing his mouth to bulge out painfully. It caused so much discomfort that Washington regularly took laudanum (a tincture including opium) to ease the pain [source: Smithsonian Institute].
From owning slaves to fathering illegitimate families with said slaves, Jefferson has grown into one of the most debated public figures of the Revolutionary era. But Jefferson's biggest headaches throughout his own lifetime probably weren't attacks of moral conscience. Instead, they seemed to be the quite crushing debt that he incurred from a boatload of sources.
For one, Jefferson might not have been entirely fiscally responsible; he spent a great deal on luxuries like wine and household amenities. It also didn't help that his father-in-law, John Wayles, transferred a huge debt burden to Jefferson after Wayles' 1774 death. To make matters worse, after endorsing a $20,000 note for a friend in 1818, the friend died and left the unpaid amount (about $345,000 in today's cash) in Jefferson's name [sources: Monticello, Sahr].
And let's not forget that Jefferson ran a farm that wasn't exactly a cash cow. He had land, he had slaves, but he didn't have a steady flow of ready income [source: Monticello]. All this resulted in the sale of much of his land and property, including Monticello, after his death. His nephew cited a debt of $107,000 after Jefferson's passing, equivalent to one or two million dollars today [source: Monticello].
As we said earlier, the term "Founding Fathers" has become a bit of a catchall. But if the Founding Fathers themselves weren't making satin baseball jackets emblazoned with "FF Forever" on the back, how did the expression spring up?
It wasn't uttered by George Washington or Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century. In fact, it wasn't coined until well into the 20th century. Warren G. Harding's 1920 acceptance speech at the Republican convention marked the first use of the phrase [source: Haselby].
"It was the intent of the founding fathers to give to this Republic a dependable and enduring popular government," Harding said.
It was 1941 before the phrase became more widely known, when historian and lawyer Kenneth Bernard Umbreit published his book "Founding Fathers: Men Who Shaped Our Tradition" [source: Haselby]. It entered the American lexicon and stayed put.
John Hancock, of course, was famous for signing his name obtrusively on the declaration so King George III could read it without glasses. As a result, his name has become synonymous with "signature."
So you'd think that John Hancock's signature would be the most valuable of all the Founding Fathers, but it turns out the honor belongs to a real wild card. If you can get your hands on the signature of Button Gwinnett, a delegate from Georgia, you might be set for life. The candidate for Declaration of Independence Signer with the Cutest Name, Button Gwinnett died in 1777 from a wound during a duel [source: Deaton]. That makes his signature rare, and in 2012 the Georgian's signature was expected to bring in up to $800,000 at auction [source: Caldwell]. For comparison, John Hancock's signature would have brought in anywhere from $6,000 to $75,000 in 2009 [source: Vujovich].
So next time you're at the bank, impress your teller by suavely explaining why you insist on endorsing a check with your "Button Gwinnett."
If you're looking for a Founding Father who really doesn't fit the mold, you should become more familiar with Luther Martin. The Maryland Constitutional Convention delegate wasn't really well-known, even among his peers at the convention. He was also drinking brandy, apparently, throughout the event -- a vice that followed him throughout life [source: Reynolds].
But he was passionate and didn't hesitate to express strong views. From a small state himself, the lawyer found the idea of the Virginia Plan (where both houses would have proportional representation based on state population) totally anathema. For three hours, Martin railed against the plan during the convention, and eventually walked out altogether when he thought that the Constitution was going to allow for much stronger central (rather than state) government.
He went on to become Maryland state attorney general for a combined total of more than 30 years. Another legal highlight: He was also part of a team who successfully defended Aaron Burr against treason charges. But he kept up his drinking, and ended up dying destitute in 1826. He was buried in an unmarked grave in New York City [source: National Archives].
As we've taken pains to point out, "Founding Father" is a pretty fluid term. And if we're generously including anyone with an early influence on the founding of America, we have every reason to put Abigail Adams on the list.
Adams is famous for advising her husband to "remember the ladies" as he helped form the United States government. But she went even farther than that, cautioning her husband that they "will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation" [source: American Experience]. Her letters are considered some of the earliest examples of modern feminist writing.
John Adams' wife wasn't just whispering in her husband's ear, however. She was also appointed by the Massachusetts Colony General Court to a panel charged with questioning women who had been accused of Tory sympathies or actions -- the first "political" appointment of a first lady [source: National First Ladies' Library].
Folk hero Johnny Appleseed planted apple trees across the U.S. in the mid-1800s. Find out if any of Appleseed's trees are still alive at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Little-known Facts About the Founding Fathers
I'm embarrassed to say that before starting the article, I had no idea what exactly it took for one to get into the elite club of the Founding Fathers. A powdered wig and a signature on some important document? A military background during the Revolution and attendance at some boring meetings? Turns out that both the answer -- and those who we can safely call Founding People -- proved to be a lot more diverse, and interesting.
*Did you guess which document famously begins "We the people ... "? The answer, as you undoubtedly knew, is the Constitution.
- Who said it: Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton?
- Did Betsy Ross really make the first American Flag?
- How Revisionist History Works
- 10 Things You Didn't Know About the U.S. Constitution
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