One question that has always interested me is the way historians and the popular culture decide who does or does not qualify as a Founding Father, or to use the more politically correct term, Founder. The pantheon of the "greats" is pretty well established: Washington, followed in train by Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Adams and maybe Hamilton dragging up behind with his fatal stomach wound inflicted by Aaron Burr. Then there's the second tier: Fisher Ames, John Jay, Patrick Henry, Wilson, Dickenson, Morris, etc. And then there are the really major figures of the period who for some reason just are lost in public consciousness: Witherspoon, Thomas Paine, or most tragically, Samuel Adams, who has been reduced in popular imagination to the level of a beer brand. As my grandmother might have said, es ist Schade.
In recent years, in an attempt to be more inclusive of the contributions of women to our fair Republic, attempts have been made to cast Abigail Adams as a Founder -- which isn't all that bad an idea, I think. When I read her letters, I find her a delightful if difficult person, and certainly worthy of a spot in the American imagination. And Thomas Paine is finally starting to get some of the recognition that he is so richly due. The writers here at American Creation often focus on the lesser-known Founders as well, helping along the cause of increasing knowledge of this formative period in our nations history.
Are there any other neglected figures from the Founding Era who deserve more attention, more consideration as Founders? I think so. My thoughts on this point turn to another Adams, one who was just as successful as John, and perhaps more so: John Quincy Adams. President, member of the House of Representatives, abolitionist, diplomat. And it is in the last role that I wonder why he is usually excluded from consideration as a Founder. While just a lad during the outbreak of the Revolution, he served as his father's aide in France. He also served diplomatically as secretary to the American delegation to Russia. In other words, he was in important, if secondary, posts of public duty during the Revolution. He served in the Washington Administration in a diplomatic capacity, and served as Secretary of State under Monroe. So, he was alive during the right time period, he was working on behalf of the revolutionary cause, he had appointments in government after the revolution, and -- critically -- he won election to the presidency. So, why isn't he normally thought of as a Founding Father?
Here's another one for you: John Marshall. Marshall is best known for his tenure as chief justice of the Supreme Court, but he had a career before that. He was an officer in the Continental Army at Valley Forge, and he was a member of the Virginia legislature on several occassions. He was active in the fight to ratify the U.S. Constitution. He was John Adams's secretary of state. Why isn't he considered a Founder?
Granted, should either JQA or John Marshall be included in the top-tier pantheon of Founders? Probably not -- and even if they should, that is unlikely to happen given popular culture. But they usually don't even show up on the Founding Fathers radar screen. Why is that?
I have a theory, but I would like to hear from others first before I provide my own explanation.