The “Founding Fathers” were real men, not those faces chiseled in stone on Mount Rushmore. Or gods from Mt. Olympus. They argued, had political enemies, influential wives, stubborn streaks, debts, and health problems. Just like politicians today! Below are some little known but fascinating facts you may not know about some of the men who were present at the birth of the nation –including some whose names you may not know!
•Known as a talented writer, Jefferson hated having his work edited. He sat and fumed while the Continental Congress debated his draft version of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was especially peeved when the delegates deleted his reference to slavery, “the execrable commerce.”
•Jefferson instructed his slaves to hide the silver at Monticello, during the American Revolution, when the British came after him, led by turncoat Benedict Arnold.
•Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration, July 4, 1826.
There is a wealth of information about Jefferson at Monticello.
•Adams knew that Thomas Jefferson was a good writer and wanted him to be added to the group that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Adams, a wily politician, knew he needed a Virginian on the Committee drafting the Declaration. Adams later said Jefferson was ten times a better writer than he was himself. Eventually Adams became Jefferson’s political enemy, although they would reconcile in their old age.
•Adams was told by his wife Abigail Adams, to “Remember the ladies,” meaning consider giving women rights in the new country being considered. Abigail wrote this to her husband while he was in Philadelphia working towards Independence, and Adams jokingly dismissed that idea, saying “he knew better.”
•Adams believed America would celebrate July 2d as its great independence day –that was the day on which the Congress passed a resolution in favor of independence.
•Like Jefferson, John Adams died on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration.
Read more about John, Abigail and their son John Quincy Adams at Adams National Historic Park.
•Hancock was one of America’s richest men in 1776. Although the son of a poor minister, he had inherited a fortune from his uncle, a shipper and merchant.
•Known for his outsized signature on the Declaration, Hancock was one of two men who signed the finished draft version of the Declaration on July 4th 1776. Most of the others signed the parchment version later.
•Hancock was the first to sign—on an empty page—and forced the others to sign around the edges. He supposedly said it was so that king wouldn’t need his spectacles, but Hancock was a man who thought highly of himself. That is one reason he was disappointed when George Washington was nominated to command the Continental Army. Hancock hoped to get the post, despite little military experience.
•Hancock was one of the few American Patriots who had a bounty placed on his head by King George III. Hancock was the man the British troops were looking for in Lexington in April 1775.
Read more about Lexington and Concord.
•Franklin had little formal education but went from printer’s apprentice to wealthy and world-renowned writer and publisher –and inventor.
•Franklin was the most famous American in the world at the time of the signing of the Declaration due to his success publishing Poor Richard’s Almanac and his later scientific and practical inventions, including the stove that bears his name, bifocals and the lightning rod.
•Some American clergymen thought that Franklin’s lightning rod was “sinful” because it controlled something that they considered divine. But the lightning rod prevented many homes and buildings from being destroyed by fires set by lightning strikes.
•Though he later founded an anti-slavery society, Franklin kept slaves as household servants and took advertising for slave sales in his newspapers
•After Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence and said “Gentlemen we must all hang together,” meaning they should be unanimous and all sign, Franklin supposedly said, “Yes, or we shall assuredly all hang separately.”
•Franklin was so stricken with gout in his old age that he had to be carried to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 on a divan chair by inmates of a nearby jail.
•When Franklin died in April 1790, an estimated 20,000 people attended his funeral. Big crowd. But was about two-thirds of Philadelphia’s entire population back then.
The Benjamin Franklin Memorial at the Franklin Institute has more on this fascinating characters.
•One of the lesser known Founders, Carroll was unique as the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence; he came from Maryland. Many Americans of this era distrusted and disliked Catholics and there were even laws that kept them from holding property and voting in some states.
•Carroll was also the last surviving signer, dying in 1832 at the ripe old age of 95.
•From a wealthy plantation family, Carroll had studied abroad and was a French-speaker. With his cousin, John Carroll, a Catholic priest, and Benjamin Franklin, he went to Canada on a mission to convince Catholic French Canadians to join the American union. Their mission failed.
•Carroll later helped found the B&O railroad (of “ MONOPOLY” board game fame).
Homewood, a Carroll family home, is maintained as a museum by the Johns Hopkins University.
•Another “forgotten Founder,” Wilson is probably the most important signer of the Declaration many of us have never heard of. An attorney from Scotland, he not only signed the Declaration but was instrumental in drafting the Constitution.
•Wilson was attacked by a working class mob during the Revolution because he and fellow signer Robert Morris were suspected of hoarding supplies, such as wheat, to drive up prices. The incident, known as the “Fort Wilson Riot,” shows there were powerful class differences in Revolutionary America.
•Wilson was one of the first Justices appointed to the Supreme Court, but is the only justice ever to be jailed. He lost money in land speculation, and was held briefly in debtor’s prison and later fled from an arrest warrant. He died in shame.
•Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration and an influential clergyman and educator, was a renowned scholar who came to America from Scotland to run the College of New Jersey –later Princeton. His prize students included James Madison and Aaron Burr.
•In addition to teaching a future President and Vice-President, Witherspoon’s Princeton students include many Senators and Congressmen, cabinet officers, Supreme Court justices and state governors.
•Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration from New Jersey, wrote some of the first songs published in America.
•Hopkinson took credit for the design of the United States flag. The evidence is his request for payment of a case of wine.
•Of course, Washington didn’t sign the Declaration because he was busy commanding the Continental Army, a post he had been given in June 1775.
•Washington was a rugged, plainspoken frontiersman who is quoted as telling General Henry Knox to “Shift that fat ass, Harry, but slowly or you will swamp the damn boat,” before crossing the Delaware. (Knox’s account) Forget those hokey prayer vigils at Valley Forge!!
•Washington had the Declaration of Independence read to the troops then occupying New York City on July 9, 1776.
•Washington probably had mixed feelings about July 4th because on that date in 1754, as a young man in command of the Virginia colonial militia, he had been forced to surrender to a French army and sign a document that essentially was a confession of murdering a French diplomat. It was the first and only time he surrendered in his military career.
•False teeth? Yes, Washington only had a single tooth of his own left at his death. Wooden teeth? No. His dentures were made from ivory, bone and even human teeth.
•And the cherry tree tale? Also a legend created after his death. Washington’s father died when the boy was eleven and George Washington rarely mentioned his father.