A group blog to promote discussion, debate and insight into the history, particularly religious, of America's founding. Any observations, questions, or comments relating to the blog's theme are welcomed.
We get a lot about certain "key" Founders, especially John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and their copious--and often post-presidential--writings, although much of their stature rests on becoming president after the US government was established by the Constitution, of which neither of them were "Framers." Nor did either actually fight in the Revolution. [Hamilton was a Revolutionary general and was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers; Madison of course is the "Father of the Constitution; and Washington won the war and chaired the Constitutional Convention!]
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.
... 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”?
According to a well-worn axiom, history is written by the victors. The reputations of several important founders have been damaged, one suspects, because they were on the losing side of great debates or controversies, especially the bitter debates over the declaration of American independence and ratification of the proposed national constitution. Consider, for example, the Quaker John Dickinson of Delaware and Pennsylvania (serving both states as the elected chief executive), who championed the cause of American liberties in aseries of brilliant “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” (1767-1768), and who was a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress where he drafted the “Declaration of Rights and Grievances” (October 1765), a member of the First and Second Continental Congresses where he was the principal draftsman of the “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms” (6 July 1775), and one of Delaware’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In 1776, however, he spoke eloquently against and refused to sign the Declaration of Independence because he thought it premature and intemperate, and his reputation and public career suffered for it, despite commendable subsequent service to the nation. It has been said of George Mason that “His opposition to ratification of the federal Constitution— a document whose shape he helped mightily to craft—started his fall from the national memory.” The public standing of other vocal critics of the proposed Constitution was arguably diminished by their controversial stances in this most important national debate, despite the fact that some later became ardent admirers of the charter. Among the critics were Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Elbridge Gerry, Samuel Adams, George Clinton, Luther Martin, and John Francis Mercer. Other founders may have similarly fallen from public favor because of their advocacy of positions and causes that later proved unpopular.
The stature of some founders has risen and fallen with the vagaries of subsequent politics. As political parties emerged in the late eighteenth century and carved out well defined identities in the nineteenth century, partisans often appropriated selected founders as precursor spokesmen for, or ideological models of, their party perspectives, or as avowed opponents of some partisan position. The Jacksonian Democrats of the 1820s and succeeding decades, forexample, described themselves as inheritors of the Jeffersonian tradition and demonized Federalist party stalwarts, such as Alexander Hamilton, John Adams (an especially inviting target because his son, John Quincy Adams, was Andrew Jackson’s immediate foe), and John Marshall, for their opposition to Jeffersonian politics. (The reputations of other prominent Federalists— such as Fisher Ames, John Jay, Rufus King, Gouverneur Morris, and C.C. Pinckney—may have similarly suffered in the wake of their party’s demise and Republican ascendancy at the turn of the century.) Thus, Jefferson’s reputation as a founder flourished and Federalist founders’ reputations floundered as Jacksonianism ascended. The War Between the States and its aftermath prompted a reappraisal of Hamilton’s staunch advocacy of a strong national government, and, in the North at least, Hamilton eclipsed the states-rights Jefferson as a “revered figure in the minds of most Americans.” According to Merrill D. Peterson, “Jefferson’s reputation merely survived the War; Hamilton’s was remade by it.” In summary, political partisans of succeeding generations have promoted or demoted selected founders in the public mind depending on whether a founder’s views and associations advanced or impeded the goals of these latter-day partisans.
Another explanation focuses on certain founders’ unappealing personal traits, quirks or eccentricities, or alleged moral failings. George Mason’s truculent temperament and general aversion to public life almost certainly diminished his profile in the history of the founding era. He was a most reluctant public figure, eschewing the limelight and declining to pursue high office (although reluctantly accepting public office when called). An abrasive, egotistical personality did little to enhance Thomas Paine’s reputation, and pious Americans from his day to the present have reviled him for his heretical views on Christianity. John Adams described the radical pamphleteer as “the lying rascal,” and Teddy Roosevelt denounced him as that “filthy little atheist.”
And so the most influential polemicist of the age, renowned on both sides of the Atlantic, died in relative obscurity in 1809 without a eulogy from his former compatriots in the struggle for American independence. Gouverneur Morris’s well earned reputation as a profligate rake and lecher may have diminished his standing among prudish nineteenth-century Americans. In a very different vein, Aaron Burr’s widely publicized roguish, even “murderous,” and allegedly treasonous conduct has kept him alive in the public memory, but it has also demoted him from the pedestal of a venerated founder.
There is the tragic case of James Wilson, who died in ignominy in 1798 at age 56, fleeing from creditors for failed land speculation. He was buried in an obscure country graveyard in Edenton, North Carolina. Today, Wilson is virtually unknown to the American public, but he was among the most trenchant and influential minds at the Constitutional Convention (making more speeches than any other delegate, save Gouverneur Morris), and he stamped an indelible mark on American legal theory through his influential law lectures and tenure on the U.S. Supreme Court. Robert Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution, a member of the first federal Congress, and the indispensable “financier of the Revolution”—a man who by any measure should be remembered as a founding father—similarly borrowed heavily and failed miserably in western land speculation. He languished for three and a half miserable years in a debtors’ prison and his reputation has never recovered.
Finally, there seems to be an inclination among modern scholars to dismiss, discount,or ignore the views of pious founders whose ideas and actions were shaped by deeply held religious convictions. Trained in the rationalist traditions of the academy, some scholars are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with or closed to religiously informed arguments and rhetoric; thus, they dismiss as serious thinkers or otherwise decline to engage founders whose worldview was profoundly religious. Founders steeped in the rationalist traditions of the Enlightenment are more familiar and accessible, and their exploits are advanced in modern scholarship. John Witherspoon’s faith based perspectives may have scared off more than one secular scholar; moreover, his clerical collar may have symbolically entangled church and state too excessively for modern sensibilities. The profiles of Samuel Adams, Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, John Jay, Elias Boudinot, and Isaac Backus, among others, may have been similarly diminished by modern scholars on account of their profoundly religious identities and perspectives.