They all pledged their “lives, fortunes and sacred honors,” and it was more than just an idle boast.
The Founding Fathers were committing treason against the most powerful empire that the world to date had ever seen. It was also their Mother Country, to which many of their friends, family, and neighbors were still loyal.
And while they certainly, in the words of Patrick Henry, “made the most” of their treason, the idea that they would establish the most free and powerful nation in the history of mankind was not the most likely outcome.
So in singling out these 7 men in standing out as badasses (and I am sure some of you will find a more worthy nominee or two that I should have thought of, so please feel free to enlighten me in the Comments section), I am not minimizing the notion that Ben Franklin was right — that they could most certainly “all hang separately” whether they all hung together as he urged them, or not.
However some men risked just a bit more, courted danger a little more closely, and were just a bit more reckless with their lives or fortunes. Here are 7 of them, and on this Independence Day, I hope I do these Founding Badasses justice.
7. Henry Laurens
Veteran Indian fighter Henry Laurens from the Cherokee campaign of the French and Indian War was a bit too old to serve in the Continental Army during the Revolution, but that didn’t stop him from being the only American to be imprisoned in the infamous Tower of London.
After that war, Laurens became a very wealthy rice planter, and was a continuously elected member of the South Carolina Assembly. Like most of the eventual revolutionaries, Laurens favored reconciliation with the Crown, even while advocating for more freedom for the colonists.
He became a prominent member of South Carolina’s revolutionary government, was elected to the Continental Congress, and eventually succeeded John Hancock as the president of the Revolution’s governing body.
Meanwhile Henry’s son John was making a name for himself as a soldier in the Continental Army. John vociferously argued that slavery was anathema to the fledgling nation’s rhetoric about liberty, and was granted permission to offer South Carolina’s slaves freedom in exchange for military service.
He was vigorously opposed by Governor Rutledge, who was not quite as fierce in his defense of Charleston from the British. When Rutledge tried to surrender, John Laurens took on the defense of Charleston and repulsed the British forces.
Shortly thereafter, he was captured by the British and shipped to Philadelphia, just as his father Henry was leaving that city for a secret mission to convince the Netherlands to help the American cause financially. Henry’s diplomatic mission was successful, but he was himself captured by the British on his second voyage to Amsterdam and tossed into the abysmal conditions of the Tower.
Eventually both Laurens were freed in prisoner exchanges (Henry for Lord Cornwallis himself), and, undaunted, John went back to fighting Redcoats and Henry back to get money from the Dutch. John was killed in a skirmish late in the war in 1782; but his father honored his principles by manumitting all 260 of their slaves after the war.
6. Patrick Henry
“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”
When Patrick Henry delivered those words, they were not just a political slogan, a t-shirt or the motto on a license plate, they were reflective of a potential reality.
Quite possibly the rhetorician who lit the revolutionary fires in a young Thomas Jefferson, Henry was perhaps the most passionate defender of individual rights of the Founding Fathers. In fact, after winning the war for liberty against King George, Henry became involved in the Constitutional Convention to keep George Washington and his colleagues honest in Philadelphia, fearing a too-powerful central government might result.
Henry practiced law and served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses where he advocated for the state to join the Committees of Correspondence. Organized by Samuel Adams, the goal was for the colonies to present a united face to the Crown.
His most famous speech, with its immortal line excerpted above, was Henry’s second consequential address. In the other, he introduced the Virginia Stamp Act resolutions, whose language was so defiant it made even many sympathetic members of the assembly squirm, while others loudly accused Henry of treason.
“If this be treason,” he retorted, “then make the most of it.”
The day after Lexington and Concord, Henry, a colonel in the militia, led troops in what became known as “the Gunpowder Incident,” when Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, fearing his own unruly colonists, attempted to disarm them by commandeering the colony’s gunpowder stores. Henry intervened and the governor backed down without bloodshed.
Henry was not an advocate of a Constitution setting up a more powerful federal government. In fact, he set out for Philadelphia worried that liberty was again under assault. Henry was the most influential voice in the adoption of the Bill of Rights — which while it might not have been needed under Washington’s administration, has certainly acted as a bulwark against the encroachments of plenty of others, since.
Alexander Hamilton may have lost the most famous duel in American history but at least he showed up for it. That’s got to count for something.
But then whatever else Hamilton was short of, guts would not make the list. Unlike modern politicians who get caught in compromising positions with women, Hamilton, unlike fellow New Yorker Eliot Spitzer, did not use his wife as a human shield. He stood alone and admitted what he’d done, albeit in uncomfortable and inappropriate detail.
Of all the Founders, Hamilton may have traveled the furthest to reach the pinnacle of success. Illegitimately born and on his own from age 11, young Hamilton’s sheer brilliance made others believe in him and invest in his future.
While at King’s College, Hamilton published articles in favor of the Revolution, and then quit to join the militia. He quickly rose through the ranks and eventually became part of George Washington’s staff. Though he was involved in everything from diplomacy to espionage to strategic planning, Hamilton badgered Washington throughout the war for the chance to return to a battlefield command. His mentor finally relented near the war’s end, and Hamilton again served with distinction.
Between serving in the war, and joining Washinton’s cabinet, Hamilton founded the Bank of New York. He was the first secretary of the treasury, and fought the likes of Thomas Jefferson in establishing a true national economy — particularly nationalizing the debt incurred by states in the Revolutionary War.
He founded the United States Mint, the Coast Guard, and took effective command of, and developed, the U.S. Army during the quasi-war with France.
Unfortunately, even with all of that, the man considered the most dashing of the Founders still found time to have a scandalous affair with Maria Reynolds that ended his public life for awhile.
Never a uniting figure, Hamilton’s legacy is still fiercely debated, with some sure we would be living in a libertarian paradise today, if not for his evil centralized bank; while Pat Buchanan types are equally sure if we had taken his theories on tariffs and protectionism more seriously, we would be manufacturing the bulk of the world’s goods today.
If any Founder followed the motto “Go big or go home,” it was Alexander Hamilton. If only he had been a better shot…
4. Benjamin Franklin
Merely listing the accomplishments of Benjamin Franklin in the areas of science, politics, writing, philosophy, journalism, or diplomacy would take more room than this column allows. But the fact that he was the American equivalent of Leonardo DaVinci — and then some — is not what makes him a badass.
In an age when we are bombarded with commercials asking us if age has slowed us down and offering testosterone supplements, consider this: At the age of 70, which was considerably older than the average lifespan of his time, Benjamin Franklin not only undertook the arduous ocean voyage to France to negotiate the military alliance that would save the Revolution, he had a good enough time doing it that it royally pissed off John Adams’s puritan sensibilities.
Franklin was nearly as influential in establishing the American character as Washington was in establishing how it would be governed. His observations and one-liners still permeate the American lexicon today. Far from the lofty public utterances of many public speakers of the time, Franklin dazzled with a brilliant, yet down-to-earth, wit and wisdom that came from the working-class roots he stayed proudly true to no matter how far he climbed in the social stratosphere.
Even while he preached unity among the colonies and independence from the Crown, Franklin was a wildly popular figure in England — and also in its most bitter enemy, France. While on his mission to make France an ally of the fledgling United States, Franklin managed to help end discrimination against non-Catholics by the French government — in his spare time, I suppose.
For succeeding in nearly everything he put his hand or mind to, and for doing it for pretty much all of his 84 years, Ben Franklin gets to add one more title to his dozens — that of genuine badass.
3. John Paul Jones
“I have not yet begun to fight!” may only be the second most badass line of the Revolutionary War, but when he delivered it, John Paul Jones was literally looking down the barrels of a broadside of British battleship cannons.
In his first command mission as the captain of the 21 gun sloop Providence, Jones took command of no less than 16 British vessels. Later, Jones actually attacked a British coastal town which rattled the enemy considerably. Then, of course, there is his comeback victory as the captain of the Bonhomme Richard after being offered a chance to surrender which led to his immortal, defiant response.
While the Continental Navy hardly swept the mighty Royal Navy from the seas, it was an important factor in making the war against the colonists simply too costly for the British to continue.
It would be nearly 200 years before another man rose from the enlisted ranks to command an American warship in wartime (my friend, the late Lt. Command Henry Dale); but John Paul Jones is more than just a war hero.
While some might be surprised to see him in a list of Founding Fathers, John Paul Jones is certainly the founding father of the United States Navy. Unfortunately, the Continental Navy was disbanded after the war — despite Jones’s urging that the ability to project naval power would be a deterrent to future aggression — but Jones would be considered the inspirational father of the United States Navy, without which the young nation would have had no means of projecting power in a hostile world.
2. Samuel Adams
Of all of the Founders of the American Revolution, Samuel Adams was perhaps the revolutionary-est. And if for nothing else, the fact that his revolutionary fervor and tactics toward Loyalists during the Revolution has some modern-day liberals blasting him as no more than a common thug, Samuel Adams gets the title of badass.
It was Adams’s letter calling for cooperation among the colonies that led the British to send troops to occupy Boston in the first place. Adams’s response: to quit calling for cooperation and start coordinating it. His “committee of correspondence” system linked patriots throughout the colonies and formed the organizational basis for the Revolution to come.
Stories of the extent of Sam Adams’s involvement in the Boston Tea Party range from one of his fiery speeches merely being the accidental inspiration for it, to his actually putting on war paint and throwing crates into the harbor.
“No taxation without representation” was the unifying theme behind much of Adams’s rhetoric, including this line from his speech protesting the Sugar Act:
For if our Trade may be taxed, why not our Lands? Why not the Produce of our Lands & everything we possess or make use of?
John Roberts, call your office.
Thomas Jefferson called Samuel Adams “truly the Man of the Revolution.” For his fearless and tireless efforts to form a new nation, no matter how many troops King George sent to quiet things down, Samuel Adams was a badass.
1. George Washington
If you had any doubt where this was ending up, then you probably don’t care enough about the topic to make it this far. Yes, our first founding father defined the term “badass.” You could even consider him an action hero whose commanding presence and calmness under fire would be worthy of a John Wayne movie.
But aside from the fact that this president would have regarded “leading from the rear” with utter contempt, or the number of horses he had shot out from under him and the bullet ridden coat you can still see on display, what proves George Washington is not only the Number 1 Badass of the Founding Fathers, but possibly in American history, is the reaction of his contemporaries.
This is a guy who could settle an argument among a room full of the best and brightest men in the world with a simple declaration of how things should be. (At least 2 of those men had the hubris to rewrite the Bible the way they thought it should be, and all of them had risked hanging to establish a new form of government.)
And when you think of the contentious fights between those egos over who would be the succeeding presidents to Washington, the idea that he would be the not only unanimous — but obvious — choice of this group to lead them is just mind-boggling.
Without the rhetorical flourishes of a Henry or a Paine, Washington could enter a room full of possibly rebellious soldiers whose rightful pay was being withheld by the Congress and leave them weeping simply by the force of his character.
And last, but not least, nearly everything he did to establish how a president should act and lead (basically on the fly and by instinct) was naturally accepted as correct and proper by his peers, and established precedent for centuries.
And for at least a hundred years after his death, political arguments could be settled by the mere fact that “Washington said so.”
Arguments among “historians” that any other president should be placed at the top of the list of American greats are plain ignorant. Of the Top 10, the first 9 places should be occupied by George Washington.
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