Thursday, July 9, 2009

Who gets to be a Founder?

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?

Any ideas?

I have a theory, but I would like to hear from others first before I provide my own explanation.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Jim Allison runs a very honest shop, altho I disagree with his conclusions. He came up with an objective points system

and rates them herewith. Obviously not perfect, but it's still useful:

James Madison 364
Roger Sherman 295
James Wilson 276
Rufus King 272
Elbridge Gerry 214
Edmund Randolph 154
George Mason 131
Alexander Hamilton 125
Gouverneur Morris 119
John Rutledge 112
Caleb Strong 100
George Read 94
John Marshall 90
John Vining 87
Ben Franklin 81
Fisher Ames 81
James Monroe 69
James McHenry 63
Thomas Jefferson 61
Samuel Adams 59
Patrick Henry 55
John Q. Adams 54
John Adams 49
Oliver Ellsworth 49
Benjamin Rush 48
John Jay 40
John Randolph 34
Joseph Story 32
Henry Lee 29
John Hancock 24
John Witherspoon 22
Noah Webster 9

Brad Hart said...

I couldn't agree more on Samuel Adams. It's a shame...a DAMN shame that he has been reduced to the "minimal" role assigned to him in our modern era. This wasn't the case for his contemporaries. They'd be pissed to see Sam Adams reduced the way he has been.

I've written and argued on this blog that Samuel Adams should be included in the top tier, "key founders" category. His role was massive, and I am glad to see that he is currenly winning our poll as of this moment!

bpabbott said...

I like Jim Allison's list as well. He developed an analytic and objective system of ranking. As Tom points out it is not perfect, but Jim's approach diminishes the subjectivity toward individuals and replaces it with a subjectivity as to what actions/roles by individuals qualify one as "a founder".

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Functionalism is a major contributor as to who get to be what in society. The problem is, it does limit other options, if all are not included, and it may dissolve alliances, as well. But, it is pragmatic, in orgaization structuring.

Every human being desires to be considered part of the conversation about whatever is important to them. In our Republic, we speak in many ways, throught voting, petitioning, writing, educating, ptotesting, etc.

Because slavery has been outlawed, because all men are considered equal under law, Americans recoil over the thought that their government would secretly subvert these rights.

A Founder sought to protect these rights by formulating a system that would represent the public while balancing power amongst least this is what I think...and it was the desire to make a "more perfect union" that drove them to meet and discuss what "should be" to guide the nation on a new course...

jimmiraybob said...

After viewing the list I'm compelled to advocate for George Washington. He may not have done much, but he was there. :)

47th Problem of Euclid said...

The city of Cambridge, MA has voted to make Prince Hall a Founding Father, and they are building a monument for him in Cambridge Commons.

King of Ireland said...

I have also wondered a lot about why the "anti-federalists' are not mentioned much? Most cite the Federalist Papers when they talk about the Constitution. I almost never hear anything about the anti-Federalists papers. If it was not for themI am not so sure we would have ever gotten the Bill of Rights.

Food for thought.

Tom Van Dyke said...

True dat, King. Elbridge Gerry and George Mason [#s 5 and 7] refused to sign the constitution for lack of a bill of rights, and Roger Sherman, #2, was a driving force behind the 9th and 10th Amendments.

Mark D. said...

About the anti-federalists, in a very real way their triumph in getting a Bill of Rights included in the Constitution is evidence that they won the argument regarding the Constitution's nature. While we all remember and read the Federalist Papers, the basic argument underlying that series of pamphlets was that the Constitution didn't need a Bill of Rights because of the nature of its grant of authority to the federal government. But that argument didn't fly, and thus a promise of a Bill of Rights had to be made in order to get the Constitution ratified.

Given that, why aren't the anti-federalists given more credit and attention?

King of Ireland said...

"Given that, why aren't the anti-federalists given more credit and attention?"

I think because if people actually read their writings and the things they warned about, they would seek a revolution get things back to the way things should

Tom Van Dyke said...

In fairness, the Federalists counterargued that to even begin to enumerate rights would leave the list incomplete and leave the people and the states vulnerable to the central government's encroachment, Leviathan-like.

The Federalists believed [or at least argued] that the Constitution would only give the central government authority on a very limited number of issues.

Ha. Silly them. No wonder the brilliant Roger Sherman argued for the 9th and 10th Amendments.

And silly him, thinking they'd be respected. They are the Forgotten Amendments, only brought up by people we call today "cranks."

But on the danger of the central government becoming a Leviathan that controls every facet of our lives, they were all correct. Leviathan is not only alive, but if you've been paying attention, is lately enjoying a growth spurt.

King of Ireland said...


I am glad they enumerated the rights they did. When Leviathan comes the only thing that saves a people that have fallen asleep is how hard it is to get around specific rights.

People jump up and down about the Heller decision as if it was a validation of gun rights. It was for the individual. But they way it was written seems to eliminate what I feel was the original purpose of the amendment:

Give the people a means through their state governments to stop the usurpation of the Federal government. It was assumed the the Federal government would have the power to protect the people from the usurpation of the State government with the army. I think it is Federalist 28 maybe 27.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It was assumed the the Federal government would have the power to protect the people from the usurpation of the State government with the army.

The feds go into the state, against the state, with their army?

Now it happened under Ike in Little Rock when the desegregation order came down, but I think that was the first time and what led to the "states' rights" movement.

I think the Founders and ratifiers envisioned anything but.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, except for Reconstruction, of course. Oooops.

But the

took care of that---for 75-odd years, anywayz...