Poll reveals America’s ’forgotten founders’
September 15th, 2008
Ever hear of James Wilson? George Mason? How about Gouverneur Morris?
If those names don’t ring a bell, it’s no wonder. All three men helped shape the United States when it was new in the late 1700s, but hardly anyone today knows who they were or what they did.
Political scientists Gary Gregg and Mark David Hall think that’s a shame, so they undertook a survey to identify the country’s most important early patriots. They announced their findings Sept. 13 at the University of Louisville in the form of a top 10 list, “America’s Forgotten Founders,” in anticipation of Constitution Day, Sept. 17.
“Everybody remembers George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, but many other founders of our nation have gone largely unrecognized over the years,” Gregg said.
Gregg and Hall asked more than 100 historians, political scientists and law professors to nominate people “who played a major role in the nation’s founding but who have been unjustly neglected by history.”
They culled the list of 73 nominees down to the 30 cited most frequently, then gave that list back to the scholars and asked them to rank the top 10.
Wilson, a Pennsylvania lawyer who played a significant role in the American Revolution, topped the list. He signed the Declaration of Independence, served as one of the first U.S. Supreme Court justices and “was second only to James Madison in influencing the Constitution,” Hall said.
Mason, a Virginia orator who shaped the Bill of Rights, came in second. Although the National Park Service erected a modest memorial to Mason in a secluded corner of Washington D.C.’s National Mall in 2002, he deserves far more attention, Gregg said.
Morris, a New Yorker who was America’s first secret agent overseas and whom Madison credited with handling most of the “style and arrangement of the Constitution,” placed third.
Rounding out the top 10 list were:
- John Jay, who helped negotiate the end of the Revolutionary War and was the first chief justice of the Supreme Court
- Roger Sherman, who served more days in the Continental Congress than any other member
- John Marshall, who established the Supreme Court as a third branch of government
- John Dickinson, who was called “Penman of the Revolution” for his essays influencing political thought
- Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet “Common Sense” helped persuade Americans to seek an independent government
- Patrick Henry, whose “liberty or death” speech galvanized Virginia’s will to fight against Britain
- John Witherspoon, a New Jersey pastor and university president who was the only active clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence
Although most nominees were white males, Nanye-hi, a Cherokee woman who urged peace with whites, and Phyllis Wheately, an African American poet born into slavery, also were contenders.
“We were surprised and encouraged by the wide range of names suggested,” Gregg said.
Results of the survey are being compiled into a book containing essays about the lives and accomplishments of each of the top 10 founders, he added.
“We should all appreciate these people who gave their lives, shed their blood and toiled with their minds and pens to create America,” Gregg said. “The least we should do is remember their names and what they did.”
Gregg directs UofL’s McConnell Center, an academic program that prepares students to be leaders. Hall is Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Political Science at George Fox University.
Constitution Day at UofL’s Brandeis School of Law