- The Age of Enlightenment shaped the ideals of liberty and freedom held by the United States Founding Fathers.
- The Founding Fathers were prominent statesmen and activists who made outstanding contributions to the Revolutionary War and the founding of America as an independent nation with a new form of government.
The American Revolution was a war fought by the American colonies against England over their independence from the crown. While the main agenda of the war was to achieve the political independence of America from England, the underlying force was the courage and the ideals held by the great personalities of the time to establish a new way of governing. This section highlights their contribution to the revolutionary cause and to humanity.
The Founding Fathers were proponents of Enlightenment philosophies of the 17th and 18th centuries in particular. The most influential figures of this time were:
John Locke (1632 – 1704) is perhaps the most influential figure of liberal political thinking. He was an Enlightenment philosopher and political theorist credited with the idea of social contract – the idea that the legitimacy of a government depends on free consent given by the people to be governed. He wrote about liberty, religious tolerance and rights to life and property. His ideas were of significance to Thomas Jefferson, Madison, and Voltaire who were active in the American and French Revolutions.
Voltaire (1694 – 1778) was a French Enlightenment writer best known for his work “Candide, or Optimism” (1759), a satirical account that criticised social conventions. He is best known for promoting Republican ideals owing to his critique of the absolute monarchy of France.
Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809) was a writer and political philosopher whose pamphlets “Common Sense” (1776) and “The American Crisis” (1776–1783) distilled the sentiments that started the American Revolution. He was an acclaimed political activist and theorist but also received criticism over his works such as “Rights of Man” (1791), which was a defence of the French Revolution and republican principles; and “The Age of Reason” (1793–1794), which was an exposition of the place of religion in society.
The Founding Fathers
The prominent statesmen that led the thirteen colonies to demand and fight for freedom are regarded as America’s’ founding fathers. Their contributions include war strategies and engagement on the battlefield during the Revolutionary War, as leaders and proponents of the liberal ideas that are captured in the Declaration of Independence, and as framers of the U.S. Constitution. They are:
John Adams (1735 – 1826) was a statesman, attorney, diplomat, writer and served as the second president of the U.S. (1797-1801). His parents were among the early Puritan settlers of New England. He studied law at Harvard University, was among the most prominent leaders in the resistance movement. He wrote a dissertation titled “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law”, discussing the right of the English Parliament to levy taxes on colonists. This was in response to the Stamp Acts and the Townshend Act. He is celebrated for his participation during the first and second Continental Congress, as the primary author of the Massachusetts Constitution (1780), as a signatory of the Treaty of Paris (1783), first American ambassador to Great Britain in 1785, and as the first Vice President (1789–97) and second President (1797–1801) of the United States.
Samuel Adams (1722—1803) was a radical figure and a colonial Massachusetts leader during the American Revolution. He was a delegate in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. He was a lieutenant governor (1789–94) and governor (1794–97) of Massachusetts.
Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790), pseudonym Richard Saunders, was a polymath, scientist, author, inventor, printer, publisher, politician and statesman. He also contributed to the drafting the Declaration of Independence and was among its signatories. During the American Revolution, he was pivotal in securing shipments of munitions from France. He also played an important role as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. He made important contributions to science, especially in the understanding of electricity.
Patrick Henry (1736 – 1799) was a great orator and a prominent figure during the American Revolution. He was the first and sixth governor of Virginia (1776-79, 1784-86) and a delegate to the first and second Continental Congress and drafted the first constitution of the state. He made a speech sharing his views on the inevitability of war with Britain over the freedom of America, and motivated the militia in Virginia to stand against the British with the famed declamation ‘I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” During the war, he supported Washington by recruiting militia to boost his troops.
Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) is acclaimed for being the principal author of the Declaration of Independence of the United States. He was America’s first Secretary of State (1790–93), its second Vice President (1797–1801), and the third President (1801–09). He was the leader during the Louisiana Purchase, one of the single most important events in American history. He espoused ideals of separation of church and states, contributed to the establishment of the University of Virginia, and emphasised that the freedom of the individual was at the core of the revolutionary movement. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial was dedicated to him on the 200th anniversary of his birth.
James Madison (1751 – 1836) served as the fourth president of the United States (1809–17). He influenced the planning and ratification of the U.S. Constitution. During his tenure in the House of Representative, he sponsored a number of amendments. Ten were ratified and the amendments are referred to as the Bill of Rights.
John Marshall (1755— 1835) was the main founder of the U.S. principal of Constitutional law and the fourth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He is celebrated for asserting the independence and co-equal nature of the Supreme Court as a branch of government in the United States. In Marbury vs. Madison (1803), he established the Supreme Court’s mandate to extrapolate on constitutional law and exercise judicial review by declaring specific laws unconstitutional. In McCulloch vs. Maryland (1819), he upheld the power of Congress to create the Bank of the United States and declared it unconstitutional for states to tax instruments of federal government. In the same ruling, he asserted the role of the court in the interpretation of the Constitution, the powers of the organs within the federal system, and the democratic nature of the U.S. government. He rejected slavery and the constitutional gaps that enabled slavery despite being a Southerner and called it “disgraceful to mankind.”
George Washington (1732 – 1799) was a commander in Chief of the Continental Army during the armed resistance against Britain and helped deliver America’s victory during the Revolutionary War.