Forgotten Founders

By Avery Walker

Every American is likely familiar with the Founding Fathers. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton, for example, are all household names. While it is natural to focus on some of the outstanding figures who became presidents, chief justices, or congressmen, there were fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence, and thirty-nine who signed the U.S. Constitution. Who were all these men, and how did they contribute to shaping the early United States? Here we will look at just two of the many people who played a vital part in the vision that became our great nation.

Gouverneur Morris

Born in the Bronx when New York was still a province of British America, Gouverneur Morris seemed destined to be a leader. His name represented his mother’s heritage: Huguenots by the last name of Gouverneur, meaning “Governor.” It is clear that Gouverneur’s mother had high hopes for him from the very beginning. As part of the upper class, Morris had access to resources and quality education. Enrolling in college at age 12, he was a highly intelligent young man with a fierce belief in independence that often caused him to clash with his family. He quickly rose in leadership, becoming a representative in the New York Provincial Congress. There, he strongly advocated becoming an independent state despite conflicting opinions of his family and mentors. When the British overtook New York City in 1776, his own mother handed the family estate over to the British military for their use. Unswayed, Morris pursued American freedom and became the youngest signer of the Articles of Confederation in 1778. As a member of the Continental Congress, he pushed for military reforms that would improve quality of life for American troops, and was the member who cast the tie-breaking vote retaining George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during a pivotal court-martial trial. Everything was not sunshine and roses for Morris, however, whose belief in a strong central government kept him from re-election in 1779. He spent some time as a lawyer and merchant, and lost his left leg during that time in a devastating carriage accident. Undeterred, Morris persisted in his vision for America by serving in several political roles, and remained a close friend of George Washington. When it came time to draft the United States Constitution, one line springs to mind: “We the People of the United States….” Most historians credit this line to Gouverneur Morris, as well as the writing of the Preamble. He also penned much of the final draft of the Constitution itself. History seems to remember Morris as a compassionate person, as he was a strong early voice for the abolition of slavery. He also seemed to have possessed a sense of humor about his wooden leg, with one story claiming he pulled it off and waved it above his head in order to calm an angry mob during the French Revolution. Morris led a full and exciting life full of ups and downs, mistakes, and achievements, and he served his country well until he died at sixty-four as a result of a rather ill-advised, self-administered medical treatment.

John Dickinson

It has been said that the pen is mightier than the sword, and one man who wielded his inky weapon for the cause of early American freedom was John Dickinson. Born a Quaker and home-educated by an eclectic array of tutors (including many immigrants), John developed a strong sense of justice that led him to the pursuit of law and politics. Though remembered as a rambunctious and intelligent child, John eventually channeled his energy into many important documents that helped shape the founding of America. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania went “viral” in a colonial sense, spreading through newspaper reprints and becoming some of the most important documents to precede the American Revolution. John loved to study, and his deep knowledge of history and natural tendency to be a logic-based, careful thinker caused him to be cautious about ideas of revolution at first. He even refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. This early reticence, however, faded as he became more convinced that a break from British tyranny was necessary. John went on to write the 1774 Petition to the King, the Olive Branch Petition, many negotiations with King George III, and the final draft of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms (a defense of the Colonies’ choice to fight back against unfair treatment by the British government). He has often been called the “Penman of the Revolution,” and even wrote an early patriotic song. John served in many political capacities, including serving as a Continental Congressman and as the President of Pennsylvania and Delaware. Often hailed as an early feminist, Dickinson married a well-educated woman who was also a lover of literature, and who owned the largest personal library at that time. He believed women are created with the same spiritual rights as men, and should be treated as such. He often defended women during his time as a lawyer, and was the one to propose the gender-inclusive wording of the U.S. Constitution. Even though his strong opinions and often air-tight logic caused conflict with other Founding Fathers, he was well-respected even by his rivals. Although extremely wealthy, Dickinson often used his wealth and resources to help others. One of his last acts before his death was to unconditionally free all of the slaves working on his family’s farm—the largest farm in Delaware—while many of the Founding Fathers still retained theirs. It should be no surprise that Dickinson’s legacy lives on in the many institutions named after him throughout Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Although only human, these men and many other individuals whose names have been largely forgotten had a dream of what a free and fair country should look like. May we have the same dedication and courage that they demonstrated as we take the United States of America into the next age and beyond.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *