The Founding Fathers
George Washington (1732-1799)
Highest Political Office: President (1789-1797)
Other Accomplishments: Led the colonial forces in the Revolutionary War
The staid portraits of George Washington accurately reflect the personality of the father of the nation. He was a man of few words, whose political ascension was attributable to his strength of character, rather than his intellect.
A huge man for his day, Washington stood 6' 3 1/2" tall with enormous hands. Washington had pockmarked skin as a result of a teenage case of smallpox. He was quiet and reserved in public but in his free time enjoyed many lighthearted hobbies, including playing cards and dancing. He married Martha Custis, the richest widow in Virginia.
He had lost almost all his teeth by the time he was president, leaving him with badly sunken cheeks that were stuffed with cotton for portraits. Contrary to popular belief, George Washington never had wooden teeth! His teeth were made mostly of lead fitted with human, cattle, and hippopotamus teeth. Some were carved from elephant and walrus tusks.
In his will, he freed all 300 of his slaves permanently.
The popular tale of Washington and the cherry tree, historians say, was almost certainly untrue.
His Politics: Washington was a Federalist, so he favored a strong central government. He also had a strong affinity for aristocrats. During the Constitutional Convention, he spent much of his time at the mansion of Robert Morris, the richest man in America. His closest political ally was Alexander Hamilton, whose policies inevitably leaned toward the upper classes.
Washington was the only president to win unanimous approval (all of the votes cast) by the electoral college. He did it twice.
In office, Washington served the nation best by keeping the government stable. He advocated a strong national defense, and kept the country out of the escalating tension between England and France.
His health failing, Washington begged out of the presidency after one term. Men from both sides of the political fence urged him to remain in office, however, so he stayed on. His second inaugural address may reveal his enthusiasm for the second term. At 135 words, it is the shortest inaugural address in history.
Closest Crony Among the Founding Fathers: Alexander Hamilton
What He Said: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence—it is a force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”
James Madison (1751-1836)
Highest Political Office: President (1809-1817)
Other Accomplishments: Helped draft Virginia’s state constitution when he was 25. That document later became the model for the U.S. Constitution. Served as Jefferson’s Secretary of State.
Madison was a soft-spoken and tiny man—about 5'4" and less than 100 pounds. Even his nickname was diminutive: “Jemmy.” He was too small to serve in the Revolutionary War, and turned to politics instead.
Madison, “the Father of the Constitution”—the most important legal document in modern history—never received a law degree.
Even in his 40s, Madison was a lonely and single man. That changed when Aaron Burr introduced him to Dolley Todd. The couple married when Madison was 43, and never had children.
Dolley Madison earned a place in history when she stole away from the White House with crucial government documents and a portrait of George Washington as the British stormed the capital during the War of 1812.
Madison was the last Founding Father to die at the age of eighty-five in June, 1836.
His Politics: His presidency was marred by the War of 1812—the only war in which U.S. soil was overrun by enemy forces. The war was precipitated by the widespread sentiment that the U.S. was destined to conquer Canada, then a British territory.
Aside from the war that nearly cost him his reelection, Madison’s two terms were also memorable for the fact that both of his vice presidents died while in office.
Closest Crony Among the Founding Fathers: Jefferson and Madison were close friends throughout their lives: Madison was Jefferson’s protégé. After their presidencies, each spent many days at the other’s estate. Jefferson named one of the bedrooms at Monticello “Mr. Madison’s room.”
What He Said: On the War of 1812: “I flung forward the flag of the country, sure that the people would press onward and defend it.” Under the new Constitution, the nation’s powers will be “derived from the superior power of the people.”
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Highest Political Office: President (1801-1809)
Other Accomplishments: Wrote the Declaration of Independence, served as Minister to France (a pivotal diplomatic position) as the Constitution was being drafted.
Jefferson was nicknamed “Long Tom” because he stood 6' 2 1/2" tall, with long, slender limbs. He had carrot-red hair that paled with age. A fiddle player, Jefferson wooed his wife with violin serenades. Jefferson eschewed the uniforms of nobility, choosing instead to dress himself in sometimes dirty and tattered clothing.
Although his wife died at the age of 33, Jefferson never remarried. He did, however, allegedly father five children by Sally Hemings, one of his slaves.
Jefferson suffered from migraine headaches throughout his life, and bathed his feet in cold water daily to avoid colds.
Jefferson was the quintessential Renaissance man and has been described as a(n): lawyer, linguist, diplomat, astronomer, naturalist, political philosopher, educator, statesman, president, “farmer,” musician, scientist, inventor, agriculturalist, horseman, geographer, theologian and paleontologist. Jefferson was fluent in Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and was a supporter of equal rights and education for women, the right of all to have a free public education, a free library system and the creation of decimal system of weights and measures. He is also considered one of the preeminent architects in the history of the country.
His Politics: Jefferson was a Republican, which at that time was the party of the common man. He envisioned a nation built on agriculture, not industry. The formal name for the “Republican” Party of Jefferson was the Democratic-Republican Party from which our present day Democratic party evolved. (The Republican party of today was created in 1854 by the joining of anti-slavery Democrats, the Free Soil Party and factions of the Whig Party.) The formal name of the opposing party (led by Alexander Hamilton) was the Federalist Party.
Jefferson was renowned for being a terrible public speaker due to a speech impediment, although he is certainly regarded as one of the most facile writers ever to hold the office of the presidency. He alone wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.
He doubled the land size of the United States when he made the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon. Napoleon needed cash to conquer Europe; Jefferson wanted the land to safeguard against a future French invasion and to encourage his vision of American being a land of small independent (yeoman) farmers. The selling price: $15 million.
After his two terms as president, Jefferson retired to his Virginia estate, Monticello. He spent much of his time pursuing his dream of establishing a university. That dream was realized when he founded the University of Virginia.
Closest Crony Among the Founding Fathers: Although his closest friend among the founding fathers was James Madison, Jefferson’s most memorable friendship was with John Adams. The friendship developed when they both worked on the committee that was responsible for the Declaration of Independence. Their friendship turned to a bitter rivalry, however, when they joined opposing political parties. They reconciled after both finished their presidencies, and they kept up a steady correspondence. They both died on July 4, 1826 - the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. On the day he died, Adams opened his eyes and whispered his last words: “Thomas Jefferson lives,” he said. Jefferson had died earlier that day.