The Top Five Forgotten Founders

Our Fourth of July Feature Story

Shortly after the Declaration of Independence, Haynes wrote “Liberty Further Extended,” possibly the most powerful argument against slavery from the Revolutionary era. In the 1780s, Haynes began a thirty year pastoral career in Vermont, and was likely the first African American to pastor a largely white congregation.


When Americans speak of the “Founding Fathers,” they usually have a group of about six men in mind: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, James Madison, and John Adams, for sure, and maybe Alexander Hamilton or Samuel Adams. These Founders are endlessly fascinating, but if all we do is focus on this short list, we get a skewed view of the Revolution.

I recently contributed an essay on Patrick Henry to Mark David Hall and Gary Gregg’s America’s Forgotten Founders (now in its 2nd edition, from ISI Books), which introduces readers to some of the lesser-known Founding Fathers. As I also discuss in my biography, Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, Henry is probably one the best known of those forgotten Founders, but he is not quite in the top tier of those we remember. Perhaps Henry has lost some fame because of his bitter political rivalry with Madison and Jefferson in the 1780s, which culminated in Henry’s opposition to the Constitution. Some Americans have a hard time understanding how the great Patriot Henry could have become an Antifederalist.

In any case, in honor of the Fourth of July, here’s my personal list of the top five forgotten Founding Fathers, leaders I wish more Americans knew. Since I’ve already discussed him, I’ll leave Henry off, even though he’s my personal favorite. Anyone who participated in politics or the military during the Revolution could be on the list.

John Witherspoon: a Scots Presbyterian minister, president of Princeton, and teacher of James Madison, Witherspoon was elected to serve in the Continental Congress, and signed the Declaration of Independence (the only clergyman to do so). The best book on Witherspoon is Jeffry Morrison, John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic.

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