U.S. Founders

Each year, Mount Vernon collaborates with the local group Black Women United for Action to hold a commemoration ceremony at the burial site for Mount Vernon’s enslaved people. Photo credit: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Who counts among the nation’s “Founders?” Some lists of “Founding Fathers” (a term coined by then-Senator Warren G. Harding in a speech to the 1916 Republican National Convention) restrict membership in that elite group to a defined set of affluent and influential white men: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.[i] Other, broader conceptualizations encompass the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the 55 “Framers” who crafted the U.S. Constitution.[ii] Still-larger definitions take in organizers like Massachusetts goldsmith and engraver Paul Revere, or soldiers like South Carolina’s John Laurens. For many, the term “Founder” has generally applied to the relatively small number of white men of authority and privilege who led the political, legal, and military effort to establish the United States of America as an independent nation.

Yet, particularly over the past forty years, key accounts of the Revolution increasingly emphasized new critical perspectives on the Revolutionary era while uncovering stories of everyday men and women—white, black, and Native American—whose roles in the rebellion were critical to the independence movement. (See Suggested Readings below.) As the historiography of the Revolution advanced, these new methods and priorities have enlarged our understanding of the founding moment and the wide range of people who contributed to it. History scholarship now takes a broader view of who constitutes a “Founder” and asks more encompassing questions about how Americans drove and experienced the founding. Public historians committed to more inclusive interpretations of the Founders and their world are now well supported by more than four decades of research that situates them in broader contexts and suggests new directions for interpretive planning.

Any nation’s founders become objects of patriotic veneration, and so it is unsurprising that this group of individuals became the subjects of numerous monuments, memorials, and historic sites. Among the first sites in the United States to become museums were Washington’s headquarters at Newburgh, Hasbrouck House, and his Virginia home at Mount Vernon. Such sites aimed to cultivate awe and reverence, emphasizing the U.S. Founders’ larger-than-life status as intellectual giants, political visionaries, and moral leaders. The motives and aspirations of the men and women who created these historic sites, as well as the continuing expectations and desires of visitors, have made efforts to complicate those interpretations in the wake of ongoing scholarship and cultural change challenging.

Expanding the Meaning of “Founders”

Historians continue to expand the meaning of “Founders.” Even the term has been amended from the original “Founding Fathers” so as not to actively exclude women. Interpretation at historic sites associated with this group has expanded to take into account new scholarship and respond to social and cultural criticisms, though the path to new interpretive strategies has not been smooth. An important and instructive example is that of the President’s House and Liberty Bell Pavilion in Philadelphia, which became the scene of heated public debate at the turn of the twenty-first century when historians and Philadelphia residents learned that the exhibit to accompany the new installation of the Liberty Bell would not confront the histories of slavery that shared that ground. Public historians alongside activist Philadelphians pressured the National Park Service to reconsider their plans, forcing both Pavilion exhibitry and interpretation at the site of the President’s House to confront the tension between liberty and enslavement that shaped the nation’s founding.

Efforts to acknowledge roles played by African Americans in the nation’s founding date back at least as early as William Cooper Nell’s 1855 study The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. In the 1880s, pressure from Boston’s black community led to a monument honoring Crispus Attucks, the Revolution’s “first martyr,” and, in the early twentieth century, Carter G. Woodson’s work through the Association for the Study of African American Life and History spurred expanded research on black people’s experiences in early America.[iii] In the 1960s, research leading to the creation of Boston’s Black Heritage Trail commenced, inviting visitors to consider sites beyond those linked by the Freedom Trail, including the home of African American revolutionary war veteran George Middleton. In 1970, among the early efforts of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, D.C. was the exhibition “Black Patriots of the American Revolution,” and, later in the decade, attention to Black Founders surged in and around the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition and accompanying catalog The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770-1800, by Sidney Kaplan, aimed to “restore to the national memory an historic fact that has been long suppressed or forgotten—the living presence of black men and women during the thirty years that stretched from the martyrdom of Crispus Attucks…to the conspiracy of Gabriel Prosser in Virginia at the turn of the century.” More recently, a 2008 exhibition at Philadelphia’s The Library Company explored the lives of “Black Founders,” including scientist and inventor Benjamin Banneker, African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Richard Allen, Prince Hall, James Forten, Sarah Mapps Douglass, and Daniel Coker. Moreover, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, includes significant treatment of African Americans and the nation’s founding in the permanent exhibition.

Slavery and the Founders

In recent years, museum professionals have been particularly focused on the need to address the subject of slavery in historic site interpretation. Sites associated with U.S. Founders have responded to mounting pressure from critics to interpret connections to slavery. African Americans had long been aware of the many ways the Founders were complicit in the system of slavery, but many historians and historical institutions minimized the degree to which the independence movement was entwined with slavery. Longstanding cultural impulses to valorize the Founders persisted in both formal and informal interpretive practice. In recent years, sites like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and James Madison’s Montpelier, have worked to foreground histories of enslavement in their interpretation. These sites have committed decades of research to form exhibitions and interpretive programming that wrestle with the Founders’ ownership of, and interactions with, enslaved people. At the same time, the sites continue to struggle with the challenges of interpreting this history. In 2012, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation mounted Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty at the National Museum of American History. Monticello’s efforts to explore the history of slavery are particularly noteworthy and fraught given the site’s long-standing unease with interpreting Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. In 2016, George Washington’s Mount Vernon opened Lives Bound Together, the first major exhibition there to treat enslavement at the estate. James Madison’s Montpelier opened The Mere Distinction of Colour in 2017, which asks critical questions not only about James Madison’s slaveholding legacy but about the impact of slavery on ongoing racial struggles today.[iv]

The latter examples, in particular, engaged descendant and stakeholder communities in the development of interpretive materials—difficult but necessary work. For instance, at Montpelier, descendants and stakeholders (defined broadly) participated in the research process and helped make meaning from those findings; “The most important thing about being inclusive,” Vice President for Museum Programs Elizabeth Chew has said, “is that it allows us to engage African American voices in the process of interpreting their ancestral story and the story of our founding.” Sites like Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier also include in their online interpretative material not only content addressing the history of slavery, but timelines sharing the history of the site’s engagement with this subject matter—a useful practice that requires sites to examine and interpret their own institutional histories. In some cases, sites also share the raw research data underlying interpretation, making it possible for audiences to check facts, dig deeper, and put the work to new purposes; one good example is the database made public in conjunction with Lives Bound Together.

Making Connections to Current Issues

Boston’s Old South Meeting House—like Hartford’s Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, President Lincoln’s Cottage, and other forward-thinking sites—embraces a different strategy, drawing on the site’s history to frame a mission that engages present-day events. As Sarah Hudson has observed,

Rather than defining itself solely as the “Birthplace of the Boston Tea Party,” the Old South Meeting House connects its history to “protest, revolution, and freedom of speech and extends that history well beyond the Revolutionary era. Its interpretive timeline draws attention to the voices and stories of women, African Americans, immigrants, and others. In a sense, the [site] offers a historical interpretation more rooted in an idea than in a specific period of time.[v]

Even museums focused on the distant past can learn from new approaches that engage current and potential audiences in the development of content; if prospective visitors cannot contribute information about the eighteenth-century past, they can certainly convey their questions and concerns about the revolutionary underpinnings of current events, which can help shape programming and interpretation.

Inclusive Institutions

Museums and other historical institutions can take steps to achieve the institutional body language that signals a welcoming and inclusive environment. In the case of the Founders, such steps often more accurately reflect the historical content being conveyed. For instance, in talking about family life, sites should not employ exclusive language, or make assumptions based on normative expectations. Professionals committed to more inclusive museum practice recommend that sites not use language that projects assumptions about family relationships; “family inclusive language” recommends, for instance, swapping assumptions about “Mom” and “Dad” for “grownups” or “adults,” and it is likewise useful not to overemphasize the so-called “nuclear” family. When working in eighteenth-century contexts, such approaches may in fact be more historically appropriate, as blended, large, and complex families and households involving parents and stepparents, siblings, step-siblings, cousins, grandparents, unrelated caregivers, and others were not the exception, but rather the rule, in early America.

Interpretive staff working to craft an inclusive experience should remain mindful not to create “affective inequality,” which occurs when docents paint richly evocative pictures of, and invite visitors to imagine, life for the typically white, affluent, and best documented figures associated with a site. This approach does not often give equivalent attention to the less privileged figures who lived and worked there.[vi] Interpretive staff should recognize that visitors will not necessarily identify with the powerful families headed by the Founders or the guests who crossed their thresholds; and, visitors should be encouraged to consider the experiences of all of the people impacted by the site.

Inclusive Interpretation

Turning attention to the Founders themselves, any treatment of these leaders should also take into account their full range of lived experience. Thinking systematically about the neighborhoods in which they lived, and the laborers—paid, unpaid, and enslaved—who made their lives possible, are all ways to work toward a more inclusive understanding of their experiences. In many cases, it is helpful to look hard, in a step-by-step manner, at processes, and how any given task was accomplished. For instance, in looking at George Washington’s inauguration suit, we can tell stories about the many hands involved in its creation, from the Connecticut men and women who spun and wove the wool to the New York tailors who stitched the garments together, to the enslaved men and women who laundered and maintained those garments. After the inaugural ceremony, Washington changed from his politically-necessary American-made suit into stylish London-made apparel for further festivities. How do politics influence fashion today? Who makes the clothes we wear, and does that matter?

In addition to contemplating implications of race and class, as well as privilege and access to labor, inclusive approaches to the Founders also contemplate histories of sexuality, gender, and the body. Accounting for the full range of lived experience also means looking for narratives of ability and disability. Most people are neither “abled” nor “disabled,” but rather move in and out of those categories at different times of their lives and for different reasons—a fact as true in the era of the Founders as it is today. How did early American men and women, as well as members of their household, their circle of friends, and others, cope with the effects of injury, sickness, aging, and other physical conditions that compromise physical and cognitive ability?

Part of the challenge of inclusion when it comes to the Founders is that there is often an abstract quality to the content matter, as audiences interested in this subject are often drawn, if sometimes in unstated ways, to the history of beliefs, ideas, and ideologies. It can be easy, in interpreting complex arguments, to oversimplify complicated debates, and to confine individuals to polar positions. But it is rarely the case that people’s ideas are so rigid. Instead, ask, how did their ideas evolve over time? How, when, and why did these leaders change their minds? Where were there inconsistencies? Also, it is important to expose blind spots. Where did their analyses fall short? As Mount Vernon Associate Curator Jessie Macleod notes, “efforts to explain away Washington’s slaveholding by declaring him ‘a man of his time’ elide the existence of his contemporaries who were passionate abolitionists (not to mention Washington’s own complex feelings toward slavery).”[vii]

Inclusive interpretation also maintains a sense of contingency. No one knew, in the eighteenth century, that the so-called “patriots” wouldn’t hang for treason: they were not always heroes in their day. Sites should be careful not to suggest that independence was foreordained, as if the choices being made were part of some larger and certain design. Men and women at all levels of society were engaged in constant—and often frantic—calculation, trying to figure how to navigate these dangerous waters in ways that would minimize danger and maximize benefits. There was nothing “inevitable,” for instance, about how Native nations would fare as a result of the British empire’s conflict with its North American colonies; as visitors to sites like Fort Stanwix National Monument learn, indigenous people were an active presence, and essential partners among both rebel and British leadership.

Museums adopting more inclusive approaches should be prepared for backlash. The newest entry into the interpretation of the founding moment is the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which opened in April 2017. In its review of the site’s exhibits, the Wall Street Journal—noting that “historical scholarship has become vastly more inclusive”—took the museum’s leadership to task for working to “de-sacralize the Revolution,” and prioritizing inclusion over the Revolution’s “symbolic and aspirational power.”[viii] And so museum-goers are “reminded here not just of higher principles but of how they fell short for those who were enslaved—some 400,000 in 1776 growing to nearly four million by 1860—or for those who preceded the colonists, American Indians….This Revolution poses dilemmas, not doctrinal clarity.” Likewise, Thom Nickels, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, calls this “middle-school history told through a lens of identity politics.”[ix] But, as the museum’s curator, Philip C. Mead, explained, “The goal of the museum is to give the Revolution back to the people. Since people always change, there’s no telling where this Revolution might go.”[x]


[i] On Harding, see Robert Tracy McKenzie’s post “The Founding Fathers and Warren G. Harding,” citing R. B. Bernstein, The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (Oxford University Press, 2009), on the blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home <https://thewayofimprovement.com>.

[ii] Several historians offer redefinitions of the term in “How Do You Define ‘Founding Fathers’?” in the online Journal of the American Revolution, December 1, 2015,  https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/12/how-do-you-define-founding-fathers/.

[iii] See Mitch Kachun, First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); and Pero Gaglo Dagbovie, The Early Black History Movement, Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007).

[iv] Carson Bear, “‘The Mere Distinction of Colour’: Telling the Story of Slavery at Montpelier,” November 1, 2017, https://savingplaces.org/stories/the-mere-distinction-of-colour-tells-story-slavery-montpelier.

[v] Sarah Hudson, “More voices” in Boston’s public history,” History@Work, January 27, 2015,  http://ncph.org/history-at-work/more-voices-in-bostons-public-history/.

[vi] See E. Arnold Modlin, Derek H. Alderman and Glenn w. Gentry, “Tour Guides as Creators of Empathy: The Role of Affective Inequality in Marginalizing the Enslaved at Plantation House Museums,” Tourist Studies 11(1) 3–19. My thanks to Jessie MacLeod for alerting me to this scholarship.

[vii] Jessie MacLeod to author, 4 January 2018.

[viii] Edward Rothstein, “A Politically Correct Revolution,” WSG, April 12, 2017.

[ix] Nickels, “What the Museum of the American Revolution Gets Wrong,” April19, 2017, http://www.phillymag.com/news/2017/04/19/revolution-museum-philadelphia/.

[x] Quoted in Ibid.

Suggested Readings

The first flowering of modern scholarship to offer broader conceptions of the founding era included books like Robert Gross’s The Minutemen and Their World (1976); Gary Nash’s Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America (1974) and The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution (1979); Mary Beth Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (1980); Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic (1980); and Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (1982). These works were in time joined by others that likewise sought to widen the circle of founders and complicate popular understandings of the Revolutionary era: Woody Holton’s Forced Founders (1999), Alfred Young’s Shoemaker and the Tea Party (1999), Saul Cornell’s The Other Founders (1999), and Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers (2005), to name just a few. Scholarship that placed founders within systems of enslavement and racial oppression includes Harry Weincek’s Imperfect God: George Washington, his Slaves, and the Creation of America (2003) and Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008). Other work on African Americans and the nation’s founding includes LaGarrett J. King’s 2014 essay “More Than Slaves: Black Founders, Benjamin Banneker, and Critical Intellectual Agency” and curator Philip Lapsansky’s “Black Founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic.”

Other historians have emphasized histories of sexuality (e.g., Thomas Foster, Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past, 2014), explored the founders on matters of faith (e.g. Denis Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, 2013), and the environment (e.g., Andrea Wulf, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, 2011). Scholarship that considers health and the body includes Jeanne Abrams, Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health (2013), which illuminates intersections between personal experience, political philosophy, and thinking about the nation’s health care. Still other historians have worked to add complexity to how we understand the evolution of political thought, and political documents. For instance, a rich scholarly literature (e.g. Janet L. Polasky, Revolutions without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World, 2015) has emerged that situates the Founders within robust transatlantic conversations about liberty, equality, sovereignty, natural rights, and citizenship that stoked independence movements not only in Britain’s North American colonies, but also France, Haiti, and Ireland as well as Central and South America. Other scholars, like Michael Klarman, The Framers’ Coup (2016) have emphasized how our founding documents emerged from the authors acting not as a united body of elites, but as men with differing priorities and perspectives representing competing interests.

Several websites are particularly useful to inclusive interpretations of the founding moment. The Founders Online makes available the papers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, which public historians can mine for content related to their particular interpretive goals. Another web resource that makes available primary source material is the database published in conjunction with the exhibition Lives Bound Together. The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History publishes short writings about the political and cultural history of the founding era; the blog is “dedicated to providing content of general interest to other early Americanists and those interested in early American history, a well as a forum for discussion of relevant historical and academic topics.”

Historians at work in settings that are related to the nation’s founding may also wish to consult histories of public history practice that describe how other professionals, past and present, have grappled with similar challenges. Though this list is by no means exhaustive, some especially useful points of entry include:

Aden, Roger C. Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015.

Burns, Andrea.  From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Bruggeman, Seth C. Review: “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pa. Journal of American History 100, No. 1 (June 2013): 155–158.

Horton, Lois E. “Avoiding History: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the Uncomfortable Public Conversation on Slavery,” in Horton and Horton, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008, 135-150.

Kachun, Mitch. First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Lawler, Jr., Edward. “The President’s House in Philadelphia: The Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 126, No. 1 (Jan., 2002): 5-95. http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/history/pmhb/index.php

Monteiro, Lyra D. “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.” The Public Historian Vol. 38 No. 1 (February 2016): 93.

Ogline, Jill Titus. “‘Creating Dissonance for the Visitor’: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy.” The Public Historian 26.3 (Summer 2004): 49-57.

Rogers, Ashley. “Incorporating Descendent Community Voices: The Whitney Plantation.” In Robert P. Connolly and Elizabeth A. Bollwerk, eds., Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset: A Practical Guide. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Schocket, Andrew M. Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution. New York: New York University Press, 2017.

Tyson, Amy M. and Azie Mira Dungey. “‘Ask a Slave’ and Interpreting Race on Public History’s Front Line (Interview with Azie Mira Dungey).” The Public Historian 36, No. 1 (February 2014): 36-60.


~ Marla R. Miller directs the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she teaches courses in Museum and Historic Site Interpretation, History Communication, and the Art and Craft of Biography. A historian of early American women, work, and material culture, she is the author of The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution (UMass Press, 2006) and Betsy Ross and the Making of America (Holt, 2010). She also consults and collaborates with a wide range of museums and historic sites, and is a co-author of the 2012 report Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, a multi-year study funded by the NPS Chief Historian’s office and hosted by the Organization of American Historians. She is currently serving as the president of the National Council on Public History.