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Who were the most important founders?

Research by Jim Allison
Our purpose in this article is two-fold: (1) to clarify what we mean by a "founder" of America, and (2) to identify those founders who most influenced the course of the early Republic. Put simply, not every famous early American was a founder, and most of the founders were relatively unimportant from the perspective of history (who today, for example, remembers such names as David Brearley or William Few, despite their status as attendees to the Constitutional Convention?). Our interest, in other words, is in studying the opinion leaders, theorists, and leading lights of the early Republic; it is in their words and actions that we are most likely to discover the sentiments that shaped American attitudes toward religion and the state.

Briefly, we define "founders" as any American citizen that played some identifiable role in the governance of America from 1774 to 1820, or any citizen who helped frame the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, or Bill of Rights. By "identifiable role in governance" we mean serving in either state or national government as legislator, executive, or judge, or service as an Ambassador or other appointed office at the national level. Additionally, we divide the years 1774-1820 into two time periods, the founding period (1774-1789, the years during which the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights were being written), and the shaping period (1790-1820, when the country first began to work out the consequences of Constitutional law for public institutions).

To help determine which of the founders were most important, Jim (who did the research for this article) employed a ranking system that gave each founder points for participation in selected activities. Jim's list of founders was taken from David Barton's Original Intent, a popular anti-separationist book. For each activity at the state level, or for a position as an ambassador or emissary to a foreign nation, he gave one point. For each activity at the national level, or participation in the framing of our founding documents he gave two points. This system appropriately gives greater weight to founders that played mainly in the national arena, while still allowing important state figures to be counted. Jim consulted a variety of sources in making determinations as to how many points each founder earned.

Here is a detailed look at Jim's ranking system:

The founding period: 1774-1789.

The shaping period: 1790-1820.

A problem with this ranking system is that it gives each person the same number of points for participating in an activity, even though some founders had more influence on the outcome of these activities than others. Accordingly, Jim awarded additional points to founders on the basis of the importance of their contributions to selected activities. Importance was assessed for each of the following: (1) the Constitutional Convention, (2) state ratifying conventions for the Constitution, (3) Congressional debates on the Bill of Rights, and (4) Congressional debates on the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Importance was measured by looking at the extant records of these events, counting the number of times each person spoke, and assigning each participant a rank on the basis of speaking frequency. These ranks were then reversed and multiplied by two to yield the number of points awarded.

To give an example, 47 persons are recorded as speaking at the Constitutional Convention. The most frequent speaker was Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania. Accordingly, Morris was assigned the rank of "1," and the person that spoke least was assigned the rank of "47." These ranks were then reversed, so that Morris was now ranked "47," and the person that spoke least was ranked "1." These number were multiplied by two, giving Morris 94 points for his participation at the Constitutional Convention.

Obviously, this ranking system is not perfect (since there is no purely objective way to assess such an ambiguous concept as "importance"), but whatever the flaws in our method, those flaws are distributed equally among all the founders we rated. In fact, at least a few pro-separation founders were likely shortchanged on our scale. Thomas Jefferson, for example, surely ranks as one of the 5 most influential men in the early Republic (he's number 19 on the list), but he was serving as Ambassador to France during the both the Constitutional Convention and the Congressional debates over the Bill of Rights and so received no points for those events. Having said this, no historian would dispute that the people that rank highly on our scale were extraordinarily influential men. We feel comfortable in asserting that, if our scale is not perfect, it yields results that go some distance in shedding light on just who's opinions mattered most to the greatest number of people.

Here's our list:

Name Points State
James Madison 364 VA
Roger Sherman 295 Conn
James Wilson 276 PA
Rufus King 272 Mass
Elbridge Gerry 214 Mass
Edmund Randolph 154 Va
George Mason 131 Va
Alexander Hamilton 125 NY
Gouverneur Morris 119 Pa
John Rutledge 112 SC
Caleb Strong 100 Mass
George Read 94 Del
John Marshall 90 Va
John Vining 87 Del
Ben Franklin 81 Pa
Fisher Ames 81 Mass
James Monroe 69 VA
James McHenry 63 Md
Thomas Jefferson 61 Va
Samuel Adams 59 Mass
Patrick Henry 55 Va
John Q. Adams 54 Mass
John Adams 49 Mass
Oliver Ellsworth 49 Conn
Ben Rush 48 Pa
John Jay 40 NY
John Randolph 34 Va
Joseph Story 32 Mass
Henry Lee 29 Va
John Hancock 24 Mass
John Witherspoon 22 NJ
Noah Webster 9 Mass

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