Warren G. Harding is credited with coining the term “Founding Fathers” to refer to the men who led the American Revolution and “dedicated a new republic to liberty and justice,” as he said in a 1916 speech to the Republican National Convention. There’s more than a little irony here. Harding was one of our least presidential presidents—he was a confirmed, and boastful, womanizer, gambler, and heavy drinker—who presided over a notoriously corrupt administration. Like others before him, he attempted to stand in the reflected glow of the men of the past whose wisdom and virtue were largely unchallenged at the time.
Today, we no longer view the founders as demi-gods, but as men with flaws and contradictions who nevertheless gave us a blueprint for creating a more perfect nation. There’s not even agreement as to who the founders were. The signers of the Declaration of Independence? That leaves out George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. The framers of the Constitution? Fifty-five delegates attended the Constitutional Convention. Historian Richard B. Morris defined the founders as Washington, Hamilton, Madison, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Thomas Jefferson. Many would add Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, George Mason, Thomas Paine and others to that list.
Aside from this, “founding fathers” has always been a fraught term, suggesting that only elite white men created the nation. As journalist Mary Lockwood wrote in a scathing letter to the Washington Post in 1890, shortly after the newly formed Sons of the American Revolution denied admission to women, “Were there no mothers of the Revolution?”
It also ignores the longstanding efforts of Black Americans to hold the country to the ideals of the Revolution. Former President Barack Obama eulogized civil-rights leader and congressman John Lewis as “a founding father” of a “fuller, fairer, better America,” a poignant reminder that the work of the Revolution remains unfinished and that those who continue the work walk among us. Obama himself surely counts as part of that new founding, as does L. Douglas Wilder, the first elected Black governor of the United States.
Encyclopedia Virginia is full of examples of Black Americans, women, and others who have engaged in the work of perfecting our democracy. You can read about the remarkable Elizabeth Key, who sued for her freedom from slavery in 1655—and won. There’s suffragist Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon’s plan for “citizenship schools” to educate voters, including shortly to be enfranchised women, or Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton’s heroic efforts to register Black women to vote in the 1920 election. Or follow the story of the young activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which sought to publicize the use of state-sanctioned violence to repress peaceful protests against segregation in Danville. Or read the narratives of Albert Jones and Cornelius Garner, two formerly enslaved men who fought for the Union in the Civil War.
(Image of women celebrating Tennessee’s passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving them the vote, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.)