10 Little-known Facts About the Founding Fathers

By: Kate Kershner  | 
founding fathers painting
This painting shows Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Benjamin Franklin presenting the first draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress. Less than a week later, on July 4, 1776, the colonial delegates signed the document. John Parrot/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

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 may 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 article, 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.


10: Who's Your Daddy?

Founding fathers
American general George Washington presides over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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 the 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.

9: Lemuel Haynes

Founding fathers
Not everyone was over the moon about the Declaration of Independence. Lemuel Haynes, among others, voiced substantial criticism of the document and its failure to include freedom for all people. Tom Ipri/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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 enslaved 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.

8: Washington and Jefferson, Franklin and Adams ... Sherman and Morris

Founding fathers
Roger Sherman was a Revolutionary-era VIP, though he's not remembered as one of the superstars like Thomas Jefferson or John Adams. He is the only person to sign all four great state papers of the United States: the Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Picryl

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.


7: It Stands to Treason

Founding fathers
Copy of "Acts Passed at the First Congress of the United States of America" signed by Constitutional Convention delegate William Blount, on display at the East Tennessee History Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. Wikimedia Commons (CC By 3.0)

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: Stewart].

6. Tooth Is Stranger Than Fiction

Founding fathers
This replica of a set of dentures made for President George Washington, with a copy of a letter from him to his dentist, Mr. Greenwood, thanking him for his attentiveness, is dated Feb. 20, 1795. SSPL/Getty Images

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].

5: Brother, Can You Spare a Nickel?

Founding fathers
Monticello, the famed estate of Thomas Jefferson, would not provide much financial relief when it was needed. Kean Collection/Getty Images

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 (about $464,000 today) for a friend in 1818, the friend died and left the unpaid amount in Jefferson's name [sources: Monticello, CPI].


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 over $3 million today [source: Monticello, CPI].

4: Who Found the Founding Fathers?

Founding fathers
It was U.S. President Harding who would coin the enduring phrase "Founding Fathers" to describe the people who helped shape the U.S. during the Revolutionary era. He's pictured here with his wife Florence in 1921. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

3: XO, Gwinnett

Founding fathers
William Temple, dressed as Button Gwinnett, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, waits in line to enter Stephens Auditorium at Iowa State University, for the Republican Party debate Aug. 11, 2011, in Ames, Iowa. Scott Olson/Getty Images

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 June 2022, a signed Gwinnett document was purchased, completing a set of signed Gwinnett documents worth a total of $1.4 million. The last Button Gwinnett document to sell at auction fetched nearly $700,000 in 2012 at Sotheby’s [source: ARTFIXDaily]. For comparison, an example of John Hancock's signature sold for $10,745 in 2016 [source: Nate D. Sanders Auctions].


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."

2: Sore Luther

Founding fathers
Luther Martin, as painted by William A. Wilmer. Had you ever heard of Martin before reading this article? © Stapleton Collection/Corbis

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].

1: Abigail Adams

Founding fathers
If you're going to hold an expanded view of the Founding "Fathers," you may as well invite Abigail Adams to the party. © Bettmann Collection/Corbis

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].

Founding Fathers FAQ

Who was the last Founding Father to die?
James Madison was the last Founding Father to die.
What does Founding Father mean?
Commonly, we refer to the Founding Fathers as those who were present at the 1787 Constitutional Convention and those who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but this term also includes many other revolutionaries and activists.
Did the Founding Fathers have slaves?
It is true that many Founding Fathers had slaves at one point including Jefferson and Washington.
Who were the Founding Fathers and why?
The Founding Fathers have had multiple definitions over the years. Commonly, in the U.S., we refer to our Founding Fathers as those who were present at the 1787 Constitutional Convention and those who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but this term also includes many other revolutionaries or activists.
Why are they called the Founding Fathers?
The first use of the phrase Founding Fathers was by Warren G. Harding in his 1920 acceptance speech at the Republican convention. The phrase became widely known in 1941 when historian and lawyer Kenneth Bernard Umbreit published his book "Founding Fathers: Men Who Shaped Our Tradition."

Lots More Information

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.

Related Articles

  • ARTFIXDaily. "Extremely rare Button Gwinnett signed document completes record $1.4 million Declaration collection." June 29, 2022 (June 30, 2022). https://www.artfixdaily.com/artwire/release/767-extremely-rare-button-gwinnett-signed-document-completes-record-14
  • American Experience. Abigail Adams "Remember the Ladies Letter (1776)." PBS.org. Aug. 26, 2005. (June 30, 2022) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/adams/filmmore/ps_ladies.html
  • CPI Inflation Calculator. (June 30, 2022) https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1827?amount=107000
  • CPI Inflation Calculator. (June 30, 2022) https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1800?amount=20000
  • Crawford, Alan Pell. "Uncouth, Unheeded." The Wall Street Journal. Sept. 22, 2008. (June 30, 2022) http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB122204297442161385?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB122204297442161385.html
  • Deaton, Stan. "Button Gwinnett (1735-1777)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. Jan. 23, 2004. (June 30, 2022) http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/button-gwinnett-1735-1777
  • Etter William M. "Wooden Teeth Myth." MountVernon.Org. (June 30, 2022) http://www.mountvernon.org/educational-resources/encyclopedia/wooden-teeth-myth
  • Haselby, Sam. "The legend of the 'Founding Fathers'." Boston Globe. July 4, 2010. (June 30, 2022) http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2010/07/04/the_legend_of_the_founding_fathers/
  • Haynes, Lemuel. "Lemuel Haynes Calls for Universal Liberty," excerpted from "Liberty Further Extended." Pearson Education. 2010. (June 30, 2022) http://wps.ablongman.com/long_carson_aal_1/27/6981/1787191.cw/content/index.html
  • Jacob, Mark and Benzkofer, Stephan. "10 things you might not know about the Founding Fathers (and Mothers)." Chicago Tribune. July 3, 2011 (June 30, 2022). http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-07-03/opinion/ct-perspec-0703-things-20110703_1_slave-ship-signer-betsy-ross
  • Kidd, Thomas. "The Top Five Forgotten Founders." Patheos.org. July 3, 2012. (June 30, 2022) http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2012/07/the-top-five-forgotten-founders/
  • Monticello.org. "Debt." (June 30, 2022) http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/debt
  • Mt. Vernon Ladies' Association. "Dentures." MountVernon.org. (June 30, 2022) http://emuseum.mountvernon.org/code/emuseum.asp?style=text&currentrecord=1&page=search&profile=objects&searchdesc=dentures&quicksearch=dentures&sessionid=AEFD9519-50A3-455A-A530-98787ED07D31&action=quicksearch&style=single&currentrecord=2
  • Nate D. Sanders Auctions. "John Hancock Autograph Letter Signed Raises $10,745 at NateDSanders.com." Sept. 21, 2016. (June 30, 2022). https://natedsanders.com/blog/2016/09/john-hancock-autograph/#:~:text=A%20visually%20stunning%20example%20of,Sold%20for%20%2421%2C963.
  • The National Archives. "America's Founding Fathers." The National Archives and U.S. Records Administration. (June 30, 2022) http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_founding_fathers.html
  • The National Archives. "Signers of the Declaration of Independence." The National Archives and U.S. Records Administration. (June 30, 2022) http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_signers_gallery_facts.pdf
  • National First Ladies' Library. "Abigail Adams." FirstLadies.org. (June 30, 2022) http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=2
  • Richards, Phillip M. "Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833)." The Heath Anthology of American Literature. (June 30, 2022) http://college.cengage.com/english/lauter/heath/4e/students/author_pages/eighteenth/haynes_le.html
  • The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. "George Washington — The Portrait." (June 30, 2022) http://www.georgewashington.si.edu/portrait/face.html
  • Stewart, David, O. "Burr, Ogden and Dayton: The Original Jersey Boys." Smithsonian Magazine. Aug. 11, 2011. (June 30, 2022). https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/burr-ogden-and-dayton-the-original-jersey-boys-51406588/
  • United States Senate. "The Expulsion Case of William Blount of Tennessee (1797)." Senate.gov. (June 30, 2022) http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/expulsion_cases/Blount_expulsion.htm
  • White House Kids. "Lemuel Haynes." WhiteHouse.Org. (June 30, 2022) http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/kids/dreamteam/lemuelhaynes.html