Sunday, April 18, 2010

Top Four Founding Fathers

My own personal take on the question of who the greatest Founding Fathers were.  I'm not making any objective statement here, just expressing my own view -- although I do think that my view is right!  Anyway, here's the list, in order of importance:

1)  George Washington.  I know, I know, everybody lists Washington first.  But you know what, he should be at the top of everybody's list.  And for this reason:  he was the indispensable man from the beginning of the Revolution until his death.  From commanding the American army, to presiding over the Constitutional Convention, to being the first president under that Constitution, to stepping away from power when he did, Washington was the only man who could have done what he did.  As Franklin once commented, Washington was "always the tallest man in the room."  True, enough, both physically and in terms of character.

2)  John Adams.  Why is Adams this high on the list?  Is it because of his impassioned defense of American liberty during the run up to the American Revolution?  No.  Is it because of his efforts to secure recognition and financing for the young republic as a diplomat in Europe?  No.  It is because of his actions as the second president, showing that he would stand up to those within his own political party who sought to further narrow interests at the expense of the nation?  Close, but not quite.

Here's why he is the second most important Founder:  he lost his re-election bid for the presidency and (here's the important part) he went home.  He didn't try to fix the election.  He didn't try to throw it into the House of Representatives to damage his political opponents.  He didn't try to hold on to power at the expense of constitutional fidelity.

He went home.  Like Washington, his commitment to the republic transcended a desire for power.  Adams was a deeply flawed man, and his presidency was problematic in serious ways.  But in the end, he got the most important thing right:  service to the nation, rather than to himself.  For all his vanity and ambition, he got that right.  And he went home.  For that, he's the second most important Founding Father.

3)  Alexander Hamilton.  Gordon Wood to the contrary, Hamilton was a great man and it is thanks to him that the United States developed the governmental structures that enabled it to survive and thrive in a world where our future was far from secure.  In a world surrounded by old and established empires, far larger than the United States and ready to prey upon the new republic, Hamilton worked to establish the financial and political resources within the country to enable it to grow and prosper as an independent nation in the rapidly industrializing West.  Hamilton's life was ended early, but even with Aaron Burr's cowardly shot cutting him down before his time, Hamilton's efforts to stabilize the American republic earns him a spot in the pantheon of Founders.

It is to be hoped that some very talented and famous biographer will come along and do for Hamilton what David McCollough did for John Adams.

4)  Thomas Jefferson.  I don't like him.  I don't like reading things that he wrote.  I don't like how he lived his life.  I don't like how he treated his slaves.  I don't like his hypocrisy involving:   slavery, his affair with Sally Hemmings, his fulminations against debt while wallowing in financial insolvency, his devious and snarling animosity to Hamilton, Adams and even Washington.  I don't like his Francophilia, his anarchic Jacobinism, his embrace of the French Revolution while simultaneously defending the privileged position of the Southern squirarchy.  I don't like his rationalist deism, his cut and paste version of the New Testament, his anti-Catholicism, his impoverished understanding of the religious roots of Western civilization.  I.  Don't.  Like.  Him.

So, why is he on my list?  Simple.  He's the guy that made America a continental and global power.  Despite his own political rhetoric, his own animosity to Federalist policy, his own localist dogma, and his personal repulsiveness, he built on the legacies of Washington, Adams and Hamilton to build, in his own words, "an Empire of Liberty."

The Louisiana Purchase took the United States from a regional power, barely able to hold on to the Northwest Territory, and made it a solid continental player.  The Lewis and Clark Expedition archored this continental presence even more firmly into place, while at the same time fostering naturalist studies in the American West.  His determination to stand up to the Barbary Corsairs showed that the United States had the capacity for global power projection via its naval forces.   He shaped our nation in ways that fundamentally changed who we were and are.

But I still don't like him.


Angie Van De Merwe said...


So, George Washington's late fees from the library don't exasperate you? Nor the fact that he wrote a letter to a married woman that he loved?

Thomas Jefferson's donation of books from his personal library after a fire, doesn't impress you? Nor his interest in science? Nor his vorocious reading, and intellectual pursuits? Nor his Declaration of Indpendence?

Thomas Jefferson did base his independence on inalienable rights, which were the foundations of human rights. But, human rights have to be granted by a Creator and not a nation state, to be inalienable...thus, a nation-state cannot make demands above the individual's conscience, or right to liberty. (at least this is my unprofessional opinion. But, aren't you the lawyer? What do you think about this, Mark?)

Brian Tubbs said...

I agree with your choice of GW to top the list. I don't see frankly how anyone could dispute that.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think you should be on our money. That means Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin. Although I don't see how we can skip Madison.

John Adams, I'll never get. Except for his great work in kicking off the revolution, he was the George HW Bush of his time, just kind of there. And kind of a ninny.

Brad Hart said...

I agree with Tom. I'll never understand why Adams gets the attention he does. I'm sure he has David McCullough and HBO to thank for that.

1.) Washington
2.) Jefferson
3.) Franklin
4.) Hamilton

Daniel said...

There is plenty not to like in Jefferson, and your list hits the highlights well. But he was a brilliant light. And, among the "key founders" he was the true Lockean. He was a Whig to the core and worshipped the ideal of the Yeoman Farmer. He was the Founder who actively resisted mercantilism (even banking and wide-spread commerce).

Mark D. said...

Washington was far from perfect, but his various foibles don't rise to the level of Jefferson's.

Adams was a great man for the simple reason that I noted: he walked away from power. This was simply not done in the world at that time. Washington did it of his own free will, by declining to run for a third term. But Adams gave up power when he didn't want to. He wanted to remain president. But he went home when the electors declined to re-elect him. That was completely unusual at the time. Adams' willingness to go home, to give up power peacefully, was absolutely a turning point in the history of our then-young republic. That puts him in the pantheon.

Franklin was a tough call. If I had 5 spots on my list, he would have been #5, but I only had room for 4, so I picked the ones I did.

Brian Tubbs said...

Defending John Adams...

1) I believe Adams was the most influential voice for independence in the Continental Congress.

2) Adams was one of the most tireless and selfless laborers for the cause during the American Revolution, serving on close to two dozen committees and being willing to leave family and farm and trapse through Europe looking for money and support.

3) To be sure, Adams was a mediocre President, but he had a TOUGH act to follow. Had Jefferson followed Washington, he too would have been a one-termer. It was good for Jefferson that he lost in 1796.

4) Still, even mediocre Presidents have their accomplishments, and Adams had his. He is largely responsible for maintaining peace with France and he did pull the rug out from under Hamilton (who did kind of go off the deep end after GW died).

5) Adams was a man of unquestioned integrity.


6) The reason McCullough and HBO highlighted him is because he's among the most HUMAN and truly INTERESTING of the Founders. You can't deny that. He's as REAL as they come. And his marriage to Abigail was the real deal. A truly great marriage.

7) Abigail Adams

Now, the bad...

1) The Alien & Sedition Acts

2) His vanity and temper (but again, no one's perfect)

Anonymous said...

My list would be different,

1. Alexander Hamilton - Starting during the Revolutionary War and until Washington's death, Hamilton was his right hand man. He was also a mastermind during the Revolutionary War and commanded his own troops quite skillfully, once defeating a British unit without firing a shot. He also worked with Hercules Mulligan to spy on the British, using Cato. He wrote to congress for Washington as necessary, using his skillful writing to get from congress what they could. He continued to be Washington's right hand man up until his death. As Washington's right hand man, Hamilton basically got whatever he wanted. Between Hamilton and 2 others, they were supposed to write 25 federalist papers, but instead wrote 85, with Hamilton writing 60 of them. During the Quasi war, Hamilton urged John Adams to take control of Florida and Louisiana, but Adams ignored him. I'm not sure if it would of been good or bad had we done that. Of course he also created the banks, incurred all of the revolutionary war debts to become a stronger nation etc. etc. A lot of people ask what would of happened if Hamilton hadn't been shot by Aaron Burr, however I ask, what would of happened if he didn't have an affair with Mrs. Reynolds. I think if he doesn't have an affair with Mrs. Reynolds, my guess is he becomes president from 1801-1809, and does great things. Of course the duel with Aaron Burr would not happen, we would probably take Louisiana and Florida by force, and would of had even a stronger economy. Of course this is just a guess.

2. George Washington for being the general that wins the war and takes Hamilton's advice and steps down after 2 terms as president.

3. Benjamin Franklin for his Ambassadorship to France (without which we wouldn't of had the French support and would of lost the war, even if Jefferson was there earlier I don't think it would of been enough without Franklin). Also for his words of wisdom during many conventions, and creating many modern city amentities in Philadelphia that became commonplace, libraries etc. As well as his inventions.

A lot of other founding fathers helped a lot, without John Adams, who knows if we would of even declared our independence? Thomas Jefferson helped with France some, and bought the Louisiana Purchase. James Madison is the father of the amazing and incredible U.S. Constitution, and was an okay president. But they aren't top 3 material in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Rather than "if he wasn't killed by aaron burr," I like the idea of what if he didn't have the Reynolds Scandal, but also wonder, what if John Laurens didn't die? I bet him and Hamilton would of teamed up and been an unstoppable force. I think Hamilton then becomes president in 1787, and who's to say he stops after 2 terms? in 1787 he only would of been 41, who knows how many terms he could of served. I wonder how any of these things would of changed America.

Anonymous said...

1 Jefferson - Created the declaration of independence, Louisiana purchase
2 Adams - Convinced the delegates to declare independence, picked washington to lead the army, kept us out of war during his presidency, helped write the declaration of independence, helped franklin get france into the war.
3 franklin - heped write the declaration, got france into the war
4 washington - led the army, won the war, didn't become a king when he could have

hamilton sucked. he was basically the first democrat who wanted unlimited government power and big banks instead of freedom and states rights.

Anonymous said...

Without Sam Adams there would be no revolution ...., Sam number 1 !

Anonymous said...

John Adams had to be persuaded by Sam Adams numerous times .... Rebellion was Sams idea, not Johns, John was against it at first

Anonymous said...

Where is John Marshall?

Anonymous said...

"It is to be hoped that some very talented and famous biographer will come along and do for Hamilton what David McCollough did for John Adams."

I'm here because of the Hamilton musical, and reading this paragraph from the past gave me legit goosebumps. A very talented and famous biographer PLUS a genius lyricist will tell Hamilton's story well.