Consider the political career of Roger Sherman of Connecticut (1721-1793), a largely self-taught man, devout Calvinist, and lifelong public servant. He was one of only two men who signed all three of the great documents of American organic law: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. He was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses. He was a member of the five-man committee formed to draft the Declaration of Independence and a member of the committee of thirteen formed to frame the Articles of Confederation. At the federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 he delivered more speeches than all but three delegates and was a driving force behind the Great (Connecticut) Compromise. He was a member of the first U.S. House of Representatives (1789-1791) and later of the U.S. Senate (1791-1793), where he played key roles in deliberations on the Bill of Rights and the creation of a national bank.
If any man merits the mantle of “founding father,” surely it is Roger Sherman. Yet few Americans recall, let alone mention, Sherman’s name when enumerating the founding fathers; even among those familiar with his name, most would be hard pressed to describe his role in the founding. Why is it that a man of such prodigious contributions to our country is today an all but forgotten figure?
The same question could be asked about many other patriots— John Dickinson, Elbridge Gerry, John Jay, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, Charles Pinckney, Benjamin Rush, John Rutledge, James Wilson, and John Witherspoon, just to name a few—who labored diligently to establish an independent American republic.
When asked to identify the “founding fathers,” Americans typically respond with a short list of a half dozen or so notables who have achieved iconic status in the American imagination and collective memory.
This is true of even serious students of American history. The small fraternity of “famous founders” typically includes (in no particular order) Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. To this short list, individual historians occasionally add a favorite figure or two. There is, however, a much larger company of statesmen who made salient contributions in thought, word, and deed to the construction of America’s republican institutions. Unfortunately, many among the founding generation, whose contributions and sacrifices were consequential in the creation of a new nation, have slipped into unmerited obscurity, exiles from the elite fraternity of the famous.
Why are some individuals, whose well-documented contributions were valued by their peers and celebrated in their time, largely forgotten in our time? Why are a few founders “famous” and others now “forgotten”? Separating the famous from the now forgotten founders may erroneously convey the notion that the founders were a much more single-minded, monolithic fraternity than they really were. Our understanding of the delicate balance of personalities, perspectives, and experiences so vital to the success of the founding generation is obscured when we train our sights on a select few famous founders and disregard the rest.
As previously noted, for example, the most orthodox Christians among the founders (Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot, Oliver Ellsworth, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Roger Sherman, and John Witherspoon) are rarely counted among the company of famous founders, despite their substantial contributions to the new nation, suggesting, perhaps, that the founders (and, more important, their ideas) were more heterodox than they really were. The contributions of traditional Christian thought to the American founding are, in large measure, diminished in the process.
These distortions, unfortunately, are sometimes translated into modern law and policy. Judicial interpretations of the First Amendment illustrate the potential problems. The U.S. Supreme Court’s near exclusive reliance on the views of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, two purported advocates of church-state separation, to divine the original understanding of the First Amendment, while ignoring the input of others who, in the deliberative process, championed an essential role for religion in public life, has arguably resulted in a distorted construction of the First Amendment.
Mark David Hall has recently documented that, in its recourse to legislative history, the U.S. Supreme Court has given inordinate attention to Jefferson and Madison. The focus on these two Virginians is odd, if not counter-historical, because Jefferson was, at most, only indirectly involved in framing the First Amendment (he was serving as the American Minister to France when the First Congress framed the amendment) and Madison suffered decisive defeats in his efforts to shape the content of the religion provisions. As Cushing Strout observed: “Madison did not carry the country along with Virginia’s sweeping separation of churches from the state: indeed, the country in some degree carried him.”
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