The Founding Fathers: A Brief Overview|
The 55 delegates who attended the
Constitutional Convention were a distinguished body of men who
represented a cross section of 18th-century American leadership.
Almost all of them were well-educated men of means who were
dominant in their communities and states, and many were also
prominent in national affairs. Virtually every one had taken
part in the Revolution; at least 29 had served in the
Continental forces, most of them in positions of command.
The group, as a whole, had extensive
political experience. At the time of the convention,
four-fifths, or 41 individuals, were or had been members of the
Continental Congress. Mifflin and Gorham had served as president
of the body. The only ones who lacked congressional experience
were Bassett, Blair, Brearly, Broom, Davie, Dayton, Alexander
Martin, Luther Martin, Mason, McClurg, Paterson, Charles
Cotesworth Pinckney, Strong, and Yates. Eight men (Clymer,
Franklin, Gerry, Robert Morris, Read, Sherman, Wilson, and
Wythe) had signed the Declaration of Independence. Six (Carroll,
Dickinson, Gerry, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, and Sherman)
had affixed their signatures to the Articles of Confederation.
But only two, Sherman and Robert Morris, underwrote all three of
the nation's basic documents. Practically all of the 55
delegates had experience in colonial and state government.
Dickinson, Franklin, Langdon, Livingston, Alexander Martin,
Randolph, Read, and Rutledge had been governors, and the
majority had held county and local offices.
The delegates practiced a wide range of
occupations, and many men pursued more than one career
simultaneously. Thirty-five were lawyers or had benefited from
legal training, though not all of them relied on the profession
for a livelihood. Some had also become judges.
At the time of the convention, 13
individuals were businessmen, merchants, or shippers: Blount,
Broom, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Gerry, Gilman, Gorham,
Langdon, Robert Morris, Pierce, Sherman, and Wilson. Six were
major land speculators: Blount, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Gorham,
Robert Morris, and Wilson. Eleven speculated in securities on a
large scale: Bedford, Blair, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons,
Franklin, King, Langdon, Robert Morris, Charles Cotesworth
Pinckney, and Sherman. Twelve owned or managed slave-operated
plantations or large farms: Bassett, Blair, Blount, Butler,
Carroll, Jenifer, Mason, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth
Pinckney, Rutledge, Spaight, and Washington. Madison also owned
slaves. Broom and Few were small farmers.
Nine of the men received a substantial part
of their income from public office: Baldwin, Blair, Brearly,
Gilman, Jenifer, Livingston, Madison, and Rutledge. Three had
retired from active economic endeavors: Franklin, McHenry, and
Mifflin. Franklin and Williamson were scientists, in addition to
their other activities. McClurg, McHenry, and Williamson were
physicians, and Johnson was a university president. Baldwin had
been a minister, and Williamson, Madison, Ellsworth, and
possibly others had studied theology but had never been
A few of the delegates were wealthy.
Washington and Robert Morris ranked among the nation's most
prosperous men. Carroll, Houston, Jenifer, and Mifflin were also
extremely well-to-do. Most of the others had financial resources
that ranged from good to excellent. Among those with the most
straitened circumstances were Baldwin, Brearly, Broom, Few,
Madison, Paterson, and Sherman, though they all managed to live
A considerable number of the men were born
into leading families: Blair, Butler, Carroll, Houston,
Ingersoll, Jenifer, Johnson, Livingston, Mifflin, Gouverneur
Morris, both Pinckneys, Randolph, Rutledge, Washington, and
Wythe. Others were self-made men w ho had risen from humble
beginnings: Few, Franklin, Gorham, Hamilton, and Sherman.
Geographic and Educational Background
Most of the delegates were natives of the
13 colonies. Only eight were born elsewhere: four (Butler,
Fitzsimons, McHenry, and Paterson) in Ireland, two (Davie and
Robert Morris) in England, one (Wilson) in Scotland, and one
(Hamilton) in the West Indies. Reflecting the mobility that has
always characterized American life, many of them had moved from
one state to another. Sixteen individuals had already lived or
worked in more than one state or colony: Baldwin, Bassett,
Bedford, Dickinson, Few, Franklin, Ingersoll, Livingston,
Alexander Martin, Luther Martin, Mercer, Gouverneur Morris,
Robert Morris, Read, Sherman, and Williamson. Several others had
studied or traveled abroad.
The educational background of the Founding
Fathers was diverse. Some, like Franklin, were largely
self-taught and had received scant formal training. Others had
obtained instruction from private tutors or at academies. About
half of the individuals had at tended or graduated from college
in the British North American colonies or abroad. Some men held
advanced and honorary degrees. For the most part, the delegates
were a well-educated group.
Longevity and Family Life
For their era, the delegates to the
convention (like the signers of the Declaration of Independence)
were remarkably long-lived. Their average age at death was
almost 67. Johnson reached the age of 92, and Few, Franklin,
Madison, Williamson, and Wythe lived into their eighties.
Fifteen or sixteen (depending on Fitzsimmon's exact age) passed
away in their eighth decade, and 20 or 21 in their sixties.
Eight lived into their fifties; five lived only into their
forties, and two of them (Hamilton and Spa ight) were killed in
duels. The first to die was Houston in 1788; the last, Madison
Most of the delegates married and raised
children. Sherman fathered the largest family, 15 children by 2
wives. At least nine (Bassett, Brearly, Johnson, Mason,
Paterson, Charles Cotesworth, Pinckney, Sherman, Wilson, and
Wythe) married more than once. F our (Baldwin, Gilman, Jenifer,
and Alexander Martin) were lifelong bachelors. In terms of
religious affiliation, the men mirrored the overwhelmingly
Protestant character of American religious life at the time and
were members of various denominations. Onl y two, Carroll and
Fitzsimons, were Roman Catholics.
The delegates subsequent careers reflected
their abilities as well as the vagaries of fate. Most were
successful, although seven (Fitzsimons, Gorham, Luther Martin,
Mifflin, Robert Morris, Pierce, and Wilson) suffered serious
financial reverses that left them in or near bankruptcy. Two,
Blount and Dayton, were involved in possi bly treasonous
activities. Yet, as they had done before the convention, most of
the group continued to render outstanding public service,
particularly to the new government they had helped to create.
Washington and Madison became President of
the United States, and King and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney were
nominated as candidates for the office. Gerry served as
Madison's Vice President. Hamilton, McHenry, Madison, and
Randolph attained Cabinet posts. Nineteen men became U.S.
senators: Baldwin, Bassett, Blount, Butler, Dayton, Ellsworth,
Few, Gilman, Johnson, King, Langdon, Alexander Martin,
Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, Paterson, Charles Pinckney,
Read, Sherman, and Strong. Thirteen served in the House of
Representatives: Baldwin, Carroll, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons,
Gerry, Gilman, Madison, Mercer, Charles Pinckney, Sherman,
Spaight, and Williamson. Of these, Dayton served as Speaker.
Four men (Bassett, Bedford, Brearly, and Few) served as federal
judges, four more (Blair, Paterson, Rutledge, and Wilson) as
Associate Justices of the Supreme Court. Rutledge and Ellsworth
also held the position of Chief Justice. Seven others (Davie,
Ellsworth, Gerry, King, Gouverneur Morris, Charles Pinckney, and
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney) were named to diplomatic missions
for the nation.
Many delegates held important state
positions, including governor (Blount, Davie, Franklin, Gerry,
Langdon, Livingston, Alexander Martin, Mifflin, Paterson,
Charles Pinckney, Spaight, and Strong) and legislator. And most
of the delegates contributed in m any ways to the cultural life
of their cities, communities, and states. Not surprisingly, many
of their sons and other descendants were to occupy high
positions in American political and intellectual life
Information from The National Archives