The Top 5 Forgotten Founders

The Top 5 Forgotten Founders July 3, 2012

When Americans speak of the “Founding Fathers,” they usually have a group of about six men in mind: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, James Madison, and John Adams, for sure, and maybe Alexander Hamilton or Samuel Adams. These Founders are endlessly fascinating, but if all we do is focus on this short list, we get a skewed view of the Revolution.

I recently contributed an essay on Patrick Henry to Mark David Hall and Gary Gregg’s America’s Forgotten Founders (now in its 2nd edition, from ISI Books), which introduces readers to some of the lesser-known Founding Fathers. As I also discuss in my biography, Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots,  Henry is probably one the best known of those forgotten Founders, but he is not quite in the top tier of those we remember. Perhaps Henry has lost some fame because of his bitter political rivalry with Madison and Jefferson in the 1780s, which culminated in Henry’s opposition to the Constitution. Some Americans have a hard time understanding how the great Patriot Henry could have become an Antifederalist.

In any case, in honor of the Fourth of July, here’s my personal list of the top five forgotten Founding Fathers, leaders I wish more Americans knew. Since I’ve already discussed him, I’ll leave Henry off, even though he’s my personal favorite. Anyone who participated in politics or the military during the Revolution could be on the list.

John Witherspoon: a Scots Presbyterian minister, president of Princeton, and teacher of James Madison, Witherspoon was elected to serve in the Continental Congress, and signed the Declaration of Independence (the only clergyman to do so). The best book on Witherspoon is Jeffry Morrison, John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic.

Lemuel Haynes: born in Connecticut to a white mother and black father, Haynes worked as an indentured servant prior to enlisting in the Massachusetts militia, and then the Continental Army. Haynes also experienced evangelical conversion and came under the tutelage of local Calvinist pastors. Shortly after the Declaration of Independence, Haynes wrote “Liberty Further Extended,” possibly the most powerful argument against slavery from the Revolutionary era. In the 1780s, Haynes began a thirty year pastoral career in Vermont, and was likely the first African American to pastor a largely white congregation. The standard biography of Haynes is John Saillant’s Black Puritan, Black Republican: The Life and Thought of Lemuel Haynes.

Roger Sherman: another devout evangelical from Connecticut, Sherman was the only Patriot to sign all four of the great American founding documents: the Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Mark David Hall has a major new book on Sherman coming out this fall, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic.

David Avery: converted under George Whitefield’s preaching, Avery worked as a pastor in Vermont until the outbreak of the Revolution, when he became one of George Washington’s key chaplains. He prayed over American troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and crossed the Delaware with Washington on Christmas night of 1776. I discuss Avery at length in God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution.

John Zubly: the wildcard of the list, this Swiss Presbyterian pastor of Savannah, Georgia, became perhaps the most fascinating American Loyalist of the Revolution. Zubly led Georgia’s protests against British taxes, and represented the colony in the Second Continental Congress, but as a matter of principle, he balked at the prospect of violent revolution. He left the Congress, lost his church, and for a time hid out in South Carolina’s Black Swamp before becoming Georgia’s most active Loyalist writer. The standard introduction to Zubly and his writings is Randall Miller, ed., A Warm and Zealous Spirit: John J. Zubly and the American Revolution, A Selection of His Writings.

Who would you include on the list of Forgotten Founders? Happy Fourth of July!

"Who says we are a secular nation? You and atheists? Where did you get that? ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."
"Personal attack. Once you run out of reason fuel and facts, you engage in personal ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."
">>>"Read your responses to my comment and see whom is truly the one making 'personal ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Very good article, Thomas. Thanks for your scholarship on these influenctial people.

  • thank you Tom!

  • I would add Samuel Rutherford. Although he was a little early his writings paved the way for Locke, who paved the way for our founding fathers.

  • Philip Jenkins

    The AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE has a lengthy piece on Fisher Ames as a forgotten founder, “Died on the 4th of July”:

  • thanks, Philip–another good choice!

  • Jonathan Yeager
  • Allen is perhaps a bit too young to fit here, but definitely someone more Americans should know!

  • I actually discussed Witherspoon last year on the fourth. Shared this post on my own blog. I totally think that it’s important not to lump all of the founders into one mold as if they were a monolithic bunch of evangelicals as some do or a bunch of Deists as others seem to.

  • Mike

    I would add Crispus Attucks.

  • Jack Sawyer

    John Jay, who at age 29 was the youngest delegate to the 1774 Continental Congress. He was one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers, and he was appointed by George Washington as the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Jonathan Parnell, at the Desiring God blog, on John Witherspoon.

  • very good choice — up there with Henry as one of the nearly top-tier Founders.

  • good choice, although we know so little about his biography other than one extremely important fact: first person killed by the redcoats in the crisis (Boston Massacre, 1770)

  • Bob

    In a list of the top ten, Thomas Paine would be #s 1 thru 6. He had the intellect to see through the control mechanisms of both church and state. Certainly THE revolutionary idea of the times, and one very few of the rest could embrace for more than expedient reasons. Still true today.

  • Gregg Frazer

    Besides the fact that he died more than 100 years before the Founding, Rutherford was not an American. Although it is popular in come circles to make this claim, there is no actual evidence of which I’m aware that he influenced Locke. I’d like to see some if anyone has it. Does Locke ever credit or mention Rutherford? Locke’s and Rutherford’s arguments are quite different.

  • Gregg Frazer

    I meant “some” circles [typo].

  • Philip Jenkins

    Of course, if you want the real founder of the United States and the creator of American independence, that would be King Louis XVI of France (and his general staff).

  • boo! hiss!

  • Casini

    Gotta be Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress

  • Cameron Cloud

    Although he doesn’t qualify as a founder, I have recently been impressed with the influence Samuel Davies had in the years leading up to the revolution – not the least of which was his impact on Henry. Unfortunately, most people are as unfamiliar as I was about the part he played in religious toleration and the thinking of the time.

    Also, it is disappointing that Samuel Adams is often considered a lesser light of the Revolution and is more identified today with the brewery than his substantial role in Independence.

  • Michael Harper

    Ever read Tench Cox? He would make mince meat of todays politicians!

  • Don Sweeting

    George Whitfield

  • Terry Braswell

    Irish born Charles Thomson: Secretary of the Continental Congress and a scholar. In his retirement he produced the first American made Bible translation.

  • Samuel Taschereau

    I would certainly include Richard Henry Lee. (I may be slightly biased – he’s in my family tree.)

  • David_Rogers_Hunt

    Gouveneur Morris, who was, at least, the final ‘editor’ of the American Constitution.

  • James Matthew

    James Otis, cited as an inspiration by John Adams. Was attacked and bashed in the skull by a British tax collector for his efforts. Now forgotten even by pages that pretend Patrick Henry is somehow forgotten.