I was a little surprised that Time included John Jay among its marquee founding fathers. We all expect to see Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison among the key founders. But Jay was not a president nor was he the towering figures that the others were.
Every high school student should be able to recite or at least write the following about the founders:
Jefferson — Virginia planter, descendant of Welsh, English and Scottish ancestors, product of the Enlightenment, believer in the Age of Reason and that reason would triumph in a free marketplace of ideas. Drafted the Declaration of Independence at age 32. As president, he doubled the nation’s size with the Louisiana Purchase. Believed that states rights were more important than federal rights, and that a nation of yeoman farmers tilling their own land would be free from the fluctuations of a national economy and be able to feed themselves and their community. Architect. The accomplishment of which he was most proud was founding the University of Virginia because he believed that education would set men free. He was a slave-owner and fathered children by his slave Sally Hemmings, who was the half-sister of his wife who had died. He recognized the moral quandry of equality in a nation that enslaved people, and wrote tormented thoughts about it.
Franklin — Son of a soap and candlemaker in Philadelphia. He became a writer, sage, publisher, scientist, inventor, slavery abolitionist, advocate of religious tolerance, ambassador to France and Britain, postmaster, and philosopher. But he was blind to the injustices foist upon his sister who was also quite talented.
Washington — Born to a Virginia planter, considered landed gentry, from English and French ancestry. Distinguished himself as a British officer in the French and Indian War. Became a Virginia planter himself, then led the military revolt against the British. In 1789, he was unanimous selected by the 13 colonies to serve as the nation’s first president. Slave-owner but recognized the moral conflict of a nation promoting freedom but countenancing slavery.
Adams — From Massachusetts, of English descent. Thought of himself as an aristocrat governed by reason unlike the uneducated hoi polloi and mobs governed by passion. Helped Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence. Came to believe in a strong central government, a federalist in contrast to Jefferson, an anti-federalist. He believed he had a right to deport foreigners and prosecute critics in the notorious Alien and Sedition Act, which many believed violated the First Amendment to the Constitution. Later, in letters to Jefferson, he acknowledged that the Alien and Sedition Act was a bad idea. He opposed slavery on principle.
Hamilton — Born in the British West Indies, he was the illegitimate son of a Scottish immigrant and a British West Indies mother (who was married to someone else). Became George Washington’s assistant. He wrote more than half of The Federalist, newspaper articles intending to convince Americans to support the Constitution and still used to interpret the intentions of the founders. He persuaded New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution despite its countenance of slavery. He was the chief architect of America’s political economy. He was a leading federalist. He famously called his political rival Aaron Burr “despicable.” Burr challenged him to a duel and shot him dead.
John Jay — Born in New York to a wealthy family of Dutch and French merchants, He was chief negotiator of the Treaty of Paris ending the war with Britain in 1783 and drawing the boundaries of the new nation. His insistence of a tall northern boundary meant that the area around what became Seattle, Washington could eventually become part of the country. He was a strong federalist. and served as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1789 to 1795. He is described as a “reluctant revolutionary” by Historian Walter Stahr, author of John Jay: Founding Father, featured in this three-minute video. Jay wanted to preserve British legal rights, and felt the British were violating their own legal principles in the colonies. He saw the First Continental Congress as an effort to persuade the British to change course and avoid the revolution. He spoke of ending slavery, yet he owned slaves. He helped end slavery in New York state when he became governor of the state in the 1790s.