The normal use of the phrase, “American Founders,” refers to famous early Americans–Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Henry, etc–whose unique leadership in ideas, courage, and brave actions led to victory in the American Revolution, and the eventual ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Washington and Jefferson will be noted below, as representatives from this class.
However, while those early Americans deserve historic recognition, they were only a handful of people. Regardless of their leadership, brilliance, or contributions, they actually stood on the shoulders of millions of Average-American Founders.
The Average-American Founders
First, and most important, are those first millions of immigrants who came to North America to what they called the “New World.” It was new to them, compared with Old Europe, though it was not new to the millions of indigenous American Indian tribes scattered across the continent.
Anyone reading the list of passengers on The Mayflower in 1620 cannot miss the fact that, in one sense, that brave little band were no more than just “average people” of all ages. Perhaps some would say they were foolhardy, for they were not wealthy. They had no bodyguards or entourage to protect them on their adventure. In fact, every one of those individuals knew and understood they were at great risk of death.
These passengers were “average people” by station in life; below average in financial resources; and way above average in their willingness to accept personal risks of death–they were above average in their religious faith. These were real Christians risking their lives, going to an unknown land, in order to have freedom to worship their Savior, Jesus Christ, according to their religious consciences. Readers who want a small historical taste of just how religious the earliest American were should go to the following link at the Library of Congress: “Religion and the Founding of the American Public.”
This said, those millions of immigrants from Europe were the first Real Founders. The first ones died, now dust in unmarked or paved-over graves. Eventually, these average people were the ones who laid down their lives to found their hoped-for new nation in the American Revolution. The vast majority of those who fought and died for a new American nation were confessing and practicing Christians.
While Christians always were (and still are) the religious majority in the United States–which means Christians also proportionately have sacrificed most in wars–Jews and Muslims also fought for American freedom during the Revolutionary War. The Jew, Francis Salvador, fought in the Revolution, was shot, and died on August 1, 1776. Muslims, like Yusuf Ben Ali, who fought with General Sumter of South Carolina, also risked life and limb for a new nation.
Such were this class of Average American Founders. When Americans face danger to preserve their beloved free nation, they unite and cooperate, yet still keep their personal faith in God, practice it, and pray to God for help–as they risk their lives for family and their fellow-citizens’ families.
The Famous-American Founders
The second class of founders includes the “famous leaders,” the shakers and movers who advocated, debated, and fought to form a new and independent nation. These were the men (yes, though they surely discussed things with their women) who drafted, debated, resolved, signed, published our American Charters of Freedom–the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. These were the men who promoted the adoption of the Constitution through the Federalist Papers.
Believers in a Moral Creator
The Continental Congress adopted Thomas Jefferson’s draft of The Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. In its second paragraph, then at the very end, we see these first leaders (1) believed they had equal dignity as God’s children and (2) confessed they needed God’s protection.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” American democracy was built on human value created and human rights endowed by the Creator….
“For the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Authors of a Moral Constitution
America’s Founders not only believed in a moral Creator over the Universe, Who made them moral beings, and to Whom they would answer. The Founders used their moral capacities to create a moral legal structure. This was the U.S. Constitution. To see the extremely clear moral intent of the Constitution, read the very first words in the Preamble.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Why did the Founders create the Constitution? Everything was for The People: More Perfect Union, Established Justice, Domestic Tranquility, Common Defense, General Welfare, and Blessings of Liberty. The Founders believed in their moral Creator; believed they were creating a moral nation; and designed the Constitution for WE, THE PEOPLE.
Supporter of Religion and Morality
President George Washington famously wrote,
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” (1796, “Farewell Address to the American People,” par. 27)
Supporter of Religion and Morality
American atheists, skeptics, and libertarians, LOVE to cite Thomas Jefferson as their “patron saint” because he was not an orthodox Christian. These groups commonly quote his private letter to the Danbury Baptist Association on January 1, 1802. There Jefferson merely affirmed the Constitution’s prohibition against the “establishment of religion”–what today is called the “Establishment Clause“–and described it as a “wall of separation between Church and State.”
This letter’s phrase has been used as a bludgeon by anti-Christian and anti-religion forces in one legal case after another. The three-word phrase, “wall of separation,” has been championed like the best case law. The anti-Christian and anti-religion forces misrepresent Jefferson enough to call this usage a bold lie.
As President, in public and not in a letter, nine months before Jefferson had delivered his First Inaugural Address (4 March 1801). Jefferson addressed his fellow citizens“… enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them including honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter; with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and prosperous people (paragraph 3)?”
Notice what Jefferson said in his capacity as President of the United States, observing from his own words above these elements:
- He affirmed his fellow citizens were “enlightened by a benign religion,” Christianity
- He affirmed all Christian groups taught “honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man”
- He affirmed all citizens “acknowledged and adored an overruling Providence,” that is, God
- He affirmed God “delighted in the happiness of man here” with “greater happiness hereafter” proven by divine “dispensations” (blessings given) to the nation
Again, publicly as President–and three years after the so-called “critical Danbury letter”–Jefferson delivered his Second Inaugural Address (4 March 1805). It seems none of the atheists, skeptics, and anti-religion parties wish to read his two public statements, respectively, on religion and on God.
“In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state or church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies (paragraph 7) ….”
Jefferson here publicly made his position clear. (1) He said religion was “independent of” the powers of federal government, not that the government was independent of religion. (2) He said, concerning “religious exercises” (practices of religion), the Constitution “left them under the direction and discipline of state or church authorities….” This last was a remarkable statement. The Constitution left religious exercises under State OR Church authorities.
In the same Second Inaugural Address, he closed his statements with specific references to God. After the quote, again there will be bullet-summary points, based on Jefferson’s own language:
“I shall now enter on the duties to which my fellow citizens have again called me…. I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power; and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations (paragraph 15).”
- Jefferson confesses he needs God’s “favor”
- Jefferson connects his Being with the God of the Jews “who led our forefathers, as Israel of old”
- Jefferson observes God’s protection over the “infant” democracy and God’s “wisdom and power” later
- Jefferson confesses his belief God is “good” to Whom prayers are to be offered, with him
- Jefferson adds the content of the prayers he seeks from fellow citizens–“enlightenment, guidance, prosperity of their measures (likely, legislations)“
- Jefferson adds the outcomes of what he intends for his administration, under Divine guidance–the good of the citizens themselves, and “peace, friendship, and approbation (praise)” in international relations
Thomas Jefferson has been misrepresented as a kind of closet atheist, the first White House Friend of atheists and skeptics. However, unless we credit him with being a liar–which he was not–these statements make clear the kind of faith Jefferson had, and he had a real faith, even though it was his own. Jefferson was not an orthodox Christian, but a Unitarian.
He held Jesus of Nazareth was the “most innocent, most benevolent, most eloquent and sublime character that ever has been exhibited to man” (Letter to Joseph Priestly, 9 April 1803) and an enlightened corrector of Judaism. Jefferson did not believe in miracles. In order to allow Jesus’ teachings to be studied on their own–without any narrative or miracles–Jefferson took multiple copies of the New Testament in Greek, Latin, French, and English; cut out Jesus’ teachings with a straight-razor; and laid them side by side in the four languages. This manuscript later was published, is available today, and bears the title, “The Jefferson Bible.”
The Common and Uncommon
In early America, there was a small handful of truly great and exceptional leaders today who are called America’s Founders. However, they were honest men and would be the first to say–if we could resurrect them to speak to us–that anything they did as leaders depended completely on masses of honest, reliable, good, and also brave Americans.
The period before, during, and after the American Revolution required belief that a new nation was possible; willingness to sacrifice one’s life and property for freedom from tyranny; and willingness to unite with other Americans for a grand dream with big risks. The men we now call “Founders” actually were Average Men who rose to meet the challenges they saw. They stepped up. They raised their voices. They risked being corrected. They risked all once they knew they were right. They became leaders with courage and backbone.
This is precisely as it is today. This is why Leadership Ethics Online finds them inspiring and worthy of study. They once were as we are today–average people who had to decide, “Will I rise up for my family, neighbor, and nation?”