Top Myths and Facts About Founding Fathers

1. The Constitution Was Written on Parchment

The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were crafted on parchment made from animal skin, not hemp paper. While hemp paper was prevalent during that era, the final versions of these foundational documents were definitively written on parchment. This distinction provides insight into the materials chosen by the Founders for such significant texts.

A photo showing different types of parchment made from animal skins

2. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams Did Not Sign the Constitution

Contrary to popular belief, neither Thomas Jefferson nor John Adams signed the Constitution. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Thomas Jefferson was in Paris serving as the United States' minister to France, while John Adams was in London as the United States' minister to Great Britain. Their diplomatic missions abroad prevented them from attending the convention.

While Jefferson and Adams are often grouped with the Founding Fathers who crafted the Constitution, their contributions were made through other means. Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and his ideas influenced the republican ideals that form the Constitution. Adams, known for his advocacy of independence and his role in drafting the Massachusetts Constitution, laid much of the groundwork for the principles of American governance.

Their absence at the Constitutional Convention does not diminish their influence on the founding of the nation, but it's crucial to clarify who was directly involved in drafting the Constitution. Their diplomatic missions underscore the collaborative effort required to build the United States, with different leaders playing various roles based on their strengths and opportunities.

Portrait paintings of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

Photo by libraryofcongress on Unsplash

3. All Founders of the Declaration Signed the Constitution

Only a select few had the distinction of signing both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution:

  • George Clymer
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Robert Morris
  • George Read
  • James Wilson
  • Roger Sherman

Franklin's wisdom and diplomacy were vital in fostering unity among the delegates. Sherman played a significant role in drafting the Great Compromise, shaping the legislative structure. Clymer, Morris, and Wilson contributed to the economic and ideological underpinnings of the new nation.

George Read's contributions to both documents solidify his legacy as a pragmatic and forward-thinking leader, ensuring a balance between radical and conservative elements.

Understanding the contributions of these six Founders provides a richer perspective on the collaborative efforts and personal sacrifices that underpinned America's origin, forging a nation grounded in liberty, justice, and effective governance.

The six founders signing both the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution

4. Signatures on the Constitution

While 39 delegates officially signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787, William Jackson, the Convention's secretary, also added his signature to the parchment. Jackson's signature symbolizes the administrative backbone that supported the delegates' efforts. As the secretary, he was entrusted with documenting the proceedings, ensuring the accurate preservation of the debates, drafts, and resolutions.

Jackson's role, though less celebrated than the prominent Founding Fathers, was crucial in guaranteeing that the thoughts and intentions of the Constitution's drafters were preserved for posterity. The inclusion of his signature acknowledges his indispensable contribution to the Convention's success, highlighting the collaborative nature of this historic endeavor.

5. Phrase 'All Men Are Created Equal'

The iconic phrase "All Men Are Created Equal" appears in the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, not the Constitution. The Constitution initially included provisions contradictory to this principle, notably the Three-Fifths Compromise, which determined that enslaved individuals would be counted as three-fifths of a person for representation and taxation purposes.

The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery, and the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, guaranteed equal protection under the law, effectively nullifying the Three-Fifths Compromise. These amendments transformed the Constitution, embedding the ideals of equality and individual rights more firmly within its framework.

Understanding the origins and evolution of "All Men Are Created Equal" provides insight into the nation's ongoing struggle to reconcile its foundational ideals with its legal and social realities, highlighting the Founding Fathers' initial compromises and subsequent efforts to fulfill their vision of a republic grounded in equality and justice for all.

6. Ratification of the Constitution

While five states ratified the Constitution promptly, the path to full ratification was arduous and met with considerable opposition. States like Massachusetts and Virginia became battlegrounds for intense debates between Federalists, who championed a stronger central government, and Anti-Federalists, who demanded a Bill of Rights to protect individual liberties and states' sovereignty.

In Massachusetts, ratification was particularly contentious. Delegates agreed to ratify on the condition that amendments, particularly a Bill of Rights, would be swiftly considered, setting a precedent that influenced remaining hesitant states.

The milestone of the ninth ratification required to activate the Constitution was reached when New Hampshire ratified on June 21, 1788. This achievement was a testament to the careful balancing of interests and the earnest negotiations that addressed Anti-Federalist fears while securing support for the new government structure.

The ratification process exemplifies the dynamic interplay of advocacy, negotiation, and compromise that characterized the nascent republic's political landscape. The eventual addition of the Bill of Rights in 1791 fulfilled the crucial promise made to the Anti-Federalists, illustrating that the Constitution was capable of evolving to address the needs and concerns of the populace.

Heated debates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia

7. Dissent in the Constitutional Convention

Not all delegates agreed with the final Constitution. Elbridge Gerry, George Mason, and Edmund Randolph chose not to sign, citing distinct objections. Gerry feared the document concentrated too much power in the central government, lacking protections for individual and state rights. Mason objected to the absence of a Bill of Rights, believing fundamental freedoms needed explicit protection. Randolph, initially supportive, declined to endorse the final draft due to concerns about a potentially overbearing central government and ambiguity surrounding the separation of powers.

Their dissent highlights the importance of diverse viewpoints and the necessity for continuous dialogue and compromise in forming a balanced and just government. Their concerns directly influenced the subsequent addition of the Bill of Rights, addressing many of the issues they raised.

Acknowledging their dissent provides a fuller understanding of the constitutional creation process, illustrating that the foundation of the United States was a product of robust debate and compromise, reflecting the democratic principles at the heart of the American republic.

Portrait paintings of Elbridge Gerry, George Mason and Edmund Randolph

8. Rhode Island's Involvement

A lesser-known aspect about the Constitutional Convention of 1787 is the notable absence of a delegation from Rhode Island. Unlike the other twelve states, Rhode Island opted not to participate in the Philadelphia Convention, driven primarily by concerns over potential federal overreach and the prospect of losing state sovereignty. This small state, heavily reliant on its local governance and wary of a powerful central authority, chose to sit out a crucial event in the nation's formative process.

Rhode Island's hesitance stemmed from its economic and political context. The state had benefited from lax regulations and was apprehensive about the economic implications of joining a more regulated and centralized federal structure. Many influential figures in Rhode Island believed that the new Constitution could impose economic policies detrimental to their interests, such as federal control over commerce and tariffs that might affect their lucrative trade operations.

Over time, pressure to join the Union mounted. The economic and political advantages of being part of a united federation became increasingly evident. Additionally, demands from citizens and businesses within Rhode Island, eager to benefit from and contribute to a stable, national economic and political environment, grew louder. It became clear that isolation could be more detrimental than integration.

Faced with these growing pressures and recognizing the inevitability of nationwide adherence to the new Constitution, Rhode Island eventually called a state convention. On May 29, 1790, after considerable internal debate and reflection, Rhode Island became the last of the original thirteen colonies to ratify the United States Constitution. This decision marked the end of its reluctance and solidified its place within the newly established framework of the United States.

9. Washington's Wooden Teeth

A widely circulated myth about George Washington asserts that he had wooden teeth. However, historical research and evidence readily debunk this misconception. Washington's dental issues were well-documented, and they reveal a far more intricate narrative about the first President's dentures.

Washington's dentures were sophisticated devices. A set examined in 2005 revealed a combination of materials: the base of the dentures simulated the gums made from carved hippopotamus ivory, while the individual teeth were composed of human teeth, cow teeth, and even elephant ivory. These materials were carefully assembled and secured using gold wire springs, allowing the dentures to function and remain in place.

The myths of Washington's wooden teeth likely arose from the stained and discolored appearance of his dentures, caused by the ivory bases which could darken over time, giving them a grainy texture similar to wood. However, this association with wood is purely superficial and unfounded.

Washington's dental struggles and the intricate construction of his dentures reflect the medical and dental practices of the 18th century. Dentistry during Washington's era was far from the advanced practice we know today. The materials available, along with the techniques for creating dentures, were rudimentary and often uncomfortable, highlighting the ingenuity and resourcefulness in their creation despite these limitations.

10. Turkey as the National Symbol

A compelling myth often recounted about the United States' founding involves Benjamin Franklin's preference for the turkey as the national symbol. However, the reality is that while Franklin did indeed express admiration for the turkey, it was never seriously considered as a rival to the bald eagle, which ultimately became the emblem of American national pride.

Despite Franklin's thoughtful, albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek arguments, the committee responsible for designing the Great Seal of the United States did not seriously entertain the turkey as an option. The bald eagle, long seen as a symbol of strength, freedom, and resilience, quickly emerged as the favored choice among the nation's leaders. Its majestic appearance and wide-ranging habitat across North America made it an emblem that captured the imagination and aspirations of the newly independent states.

While Franklin's correspondence has added a humorous and human element to the historical narrative, the choice of the bald eagle has stood the test of time. Seen today not only on the Great Seal but also in various institutions and currency, the bald eagle embodies the enduring principles and strength of the country.