50 Things You Didn't Know About the Founding Fathers

Hulton Archive/National Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/National Archive/Getty Images

George Washington. Alexander Hamilton. Benjamin Franklin. John Adams. These men and several more continue to stand as some of the most influential figures of the United States of America, drafting the Declaration of Independence and helping to define the ideology and ambition of the free world.

More than 200 years later, their philosophies continue to inform, educate, and inspire. If you're aware of their significance but might be a little short on details, we've assembled a laundry list of facts, trivia, and lesser-known information about this formidable group.

1. They probably never heard the words "Founding Fathers." The term wasn't coined until 1916, when then-Senator Warren G. Harding was giving a speech at the Republican National Convention. Harding's phrase included men who fought in the American Revolution and drafted the Constitution as well as the Declaration of Independence.

2. John Hancock has become synonymous with personal signatures. One possible reason: His name takes up six square inches on the Declaration of Independence, a massive piece of real estate compared to the rest of the signees. Sam Adams, for example, needed just 0.6 square inches. No one knows for sure why Hancock used such broad strokes, although it's possible he didn't realize the document would eventually need 56 signatures.

3. Not too many people could crack jokes at Hancock's expense over it. That’s because those signatures were kept secret for some time owing to the fact that there was fear of reprisal from the British. At the time the Declaration was signed, British armies were stationed nearby, and the potential for treason was large enough to keep quiet about it.

4. Instead of his handwriting, Hancock was more notable for his smuggling: He often brought over goods like glass, paper, and tea in secret to avoid excessive British taxation.

5. Hancock's smuggling practices led to the British wishing to see his head mounted on the proverbial stake. Hancock was actually said to be a little irate about that British resentment. He thought the 500 British pound price on his head was insultingly low.

6. Such semantics probably weren’t on Thomas Jefferson’s mind when he prepared the Declaration. Considered the best writer of the group, it was Jefferson who was charged with writing a rough draft of the document.

7. Jefferson's first draft contained a pretty crucial passage that was left out of the final copy: a call for the end of slavery. Jefferson took it out because he felt the document wouldn’t be approved by delegates in states like Virginia and South Carolina.

8. Jefferson can also lay claim to having the most unusual "pets" of any president on White House grounds. A military captain gifted Jefferson with two grizzly bears in 1807. Jefferson knew the animals were too ferocious to be kept, but until he could pass them over to a handler in Philadelphia, they remained on the grounds for two months. Jefferson kept them caged on the front lawn.

9. That wasn’t Jefferson's only experiment with imposing creatures. He once had the bones of a mastodon sent to him in the White House and devoted time to an attempt to reconstruct it.

10. Just before Jefferson was appointed minister to France in 1785, he took a trip to the country and quickly fell in love with its cuisine. In a rather cringe-inducing deal, he told his slave, James Hemings, that he would free him if Hemings would learn the art of French cooking and then pass it on to a Jefferson employee. Jefferson kept his word, although Hemings stayed in France for several years and didn't become a free man in the U.S. until 1796.

11. Jefferson liked to write nearly as much as he liked to eat. The third president wrote an estimated 19,000 letters of correspondence in his lifetime, keeping a copy of each for himself. Oddly, he never wrote to his wife.

12. After Jefferson became minister to France, he maintained a close relationship with both John Adams and John's wife, Abigail. Despite gender equality being a rare concept at the time, Jefferson thought Abigail to be every bit as insightful as anyone and kept a lengthy mail correspondence with her.

13. Perhaps Jefferson felt Abigail was a better pen pal than her aloof husband: Adams became vice-president in 1789 with Washington's appointment as commander-in-chief, but the role seemed to insult him. He called it the "most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived."

14. When he wasn't condemning his own job, Adams was an ardent admirer of William Shakespeare. With Thomas Jefferson, Adams even visited Shakespeare's home in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1786. Adams liked it; Jefferson thought they were overcharged for the tour.

15. When Adams took the presidential office in 1797, he brought with him two dogs. One was Juno, and the other was named Satan.

16. Adams was the first president to take up occupancy in the White House, but construction delays kept him off-premises until 1800—he was in office only five more months after moving in.

17. His lost bid for re-election may have had a little to do with his somewhat pompous view of the office. He often lobbied for the president to be referred to as "his highness."

18. Adams couldn't have been too much of a miser, though. In 1798, he formed the United States Marine Band, the oldest active professional music group in the country.

19. In a strange bit of coincidence, Adams and Jefferson died the same day: July 4, 1826. It was also the 50th anniversary of American independence.

20. While all of the Fathers are renowned for pushing the idea of liberty and independent choice, Benjamin Franklin apparently came to the idea a little late. In 1725, when he was just 19 years old, Franklin self-published a pamphlet titled A Dissertation Upon Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain that argued humans didn't actually have free will and weren’t responsible for their behavior. Maturity prevailed, however, and Franklin later burned almost every copy of the booklet he could find.

21. Franklin's eccentricity wasn't limited to that strange philosophy. He once had a plan to rearrange the English alphabet by eliminating the letters C, J, Q, W, X, and Y, declaring them redundant. It didn't katch on.

22. A more reasonable Franklin contribution: bifocals, which he invented in order to both see from a distance and read text up close without having to switch lenses.

23. Continuing his role as America’s most eccentric Father, Franklin also advocated for the turkey to be the nation's official bird. He once dissed the bald eagle, calling it a bird "of bad moral character."

24. Franklin also authored a text titled "Fart Proudly", a mocking essay intended to irritate the Royal Academy of Brussels, an institution he felt was too focused on impractical science. In it, he advocated for a breakthrough in making toots more pleasant-smelling. (He never sent it.)

25. Franklin's unique perspective extended to personal hygiene. He'd often opt for what he dubbed an "air bath" over a cold water bath, wandering around nude in his quarters for a half-hour each morning while reading or writing.

26. Franklin and John Adams made for a bit of an odd couple. Forced to spend the night together in a hotel while traveling in 1776, the two argued over whether the window should be open or closed. Adams believed night air could lead to colds; Franklin, obviously fond of a little breeze, dismissed the notion as nonsense and advocated for fresh air. (Franklin won: The window stayed open.)

27. When Franklin died in 1790, roughly 20,000 people attended his funeral—two-thirds of Philadelphia’s population at the time.

28. Franklin and George Washington had at least one thing in common: considerable egos. Franklin was told by friends early in his life that he should start to consider humility a virtue, while Washington reportedly had to corral his predilection for arrogance.

29. While Washington may have curbed his ego, he still made time to look good. His famous white 'do was not a wig, but his actual hair, powdered white and carefully styled each morning.

30. While he looks out at you from the $1 bill with total calm, Washington could unleash a hellacious temper if you caught him on the wrong day. Leading the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, Washington used so much profanity that General Charles Scott, who witnessed the event, said he cussed "until leaves shook on the trees…never have I enjoyed such swearing before or since."

31. Later in life, Washington's newfound modesty helped usher in a significant principle of the U.S. presidency. Despite the public's desire for him to run for a third presidential term—which he would've won with ease—Washington elected to leave after two terms so he could resume being a regular citizen, avoiding the kind of long-term rule associated with monarchs.

32. Once he returned to private life in 1797, Washington opened a whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon, which quickly became the largest whiskey distillery in America.

33. Before taking on the presidency, Washington was wrapped up in the Constitutional Convention, a gathering of minds intended to elaborate on the famous document that would provide concise guidelines for future lawmakers. But Washington was unsure it would have such a lasting impact. Walking with a friend just before the convention came to a close in 1787, he said, "I do not expect the Constitution to last for more than 20 years."

34. In fact, it was Washington himself who didn't last that long. Plagued by a series of ailments including malaria, smallpox, tuberculosis, and diphtheria, the Founding Father died in 1799 at age 67. Suffering from a severe sore throat, he asked doctors to bleed him. They did, with five pints being removed from his body in a single day.

35. Washington's onetime assistant, Alexander Hamilton, had a heartier constitution. Relegated to writing Washington’s letters, Hamilton pleaded with the then-general to see action on the battlefield. Hamilton faced the British in the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 and came away with a victory.

36. Hamilton’s health was also robust enough to carry on an affair with a married woman, Maria Reynolds, while serving as U.S. treasury secretary in 1791. When her husband threatened to go public with the scandal, Hamilton wrote and circulated a pamphlet detailing his side of the story. The Reynolds Affair became the country's first major political sex scandal.

37. In an odd footnote, when Reynolds later sued her husband, James, for divorce, her lawyer was Aaron Burr.

38. Beyond setting up the country's banking and financial systems, Hamilton was also concerned with protecting America’s coastlines. To help suffocate smuggling and enforce tariff laws, Hamilton organized a marine service—it later became known as the United States Coast Guard.

39. Dueling was part of the Hamilton family long before Alexander's fateful encounter with Aaron Burr. Three years prior, Hamilton's son, Philip, challenged a lawyer named George Eacker to a pistol fight after Eacker was overheard criticizing his father. Eacker shot Philip, who died the next day.

40. In 1799, Hamilton's life gained one of its most interesting footnotes. As a practicing lawyer in New York, Hamilton teamed with future dueling foe Aaron Burr in what is believed to be the United States' first murder trial on record. After the body of Elma Sands was discovered, a grand jury indicted her boyfriend, Levi Weeks, for the crime. The wealthy Weeks enlisted Hamilton, Burr, and Henry Livingston for his defense. He was acquitted, though public opinion largely declared him guilty.

41. Hamilton founded another cultural touchstone—the New York Post—in 1801. Then titled the New York Evening Post, it’s one of the longest continually published newspapers in the U.S. When he felt like opining, Hamilton would dictate articles to editor William Coleman.

42. Hamilton, however, had used his own hand to author the Federalist Papers, a series of essays sent to newspapers in the 1780s to rally support for ratifying the Constitution. Hamilton used the pseudonym Publius, collaborating with James Madison and John Jay.

43. There was little love lost between treasury secretary Hamilton and fourth president James Madison, who frequently sparred with him over economic strategy. Onetime friends, their acrimony set the tone for Madison’s tenure in office.

44. Said to be shy and reserved, Madison apparently had a counterbalance in wife Dolley, who entertained the whole of Washington. At the time, the city was not exactly a hotbed of partying, and her lavish affairs helped endear congressional members to the idea of Madison as president.

45. To date, Madison remains our smallest president at 5 feet, 4 inches and 100 pounds.

46. Madison is also the president to grace the little-known $5000 bill, part of a series of high-value denominations printed between 1928 and 1945. The bills were mainly used to settle large transactions between banks.

47. Although Madison had two vice presidents die in office, he had better luck with future VP Dick Cheney: The former vice president’s wife, Lynne, wrote a well-received biography of Madison in 2014.

48. While all of the Fathers had formidable intellects, Sam Adams had quite an early start. He was admitted into Harvard College at age 14 and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1740.

49. In terms of Founding Father extracurricular activities, Sam Adams is frequently credited with being a brewer. That's not really true, though—his father made malted barley that was sold to breweries. His son inherited the business and became known as a "maltster." But politics soon dominated his time, and the business fell by the wayside.

50. Adams may not have been a brewmaster, but like a lot of Founding Fathers, he didn't mind pulling up a chair at a pub. You can enjoy a beer at the same location as Founding Fathers Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Adams. The Green Dragon Tavern in Boston is said to have been the preferred watering hole of the men where politics could be discussed without the hassle of sobriety.

From Abe Lincoln Chia Pets to FDR Baseballs: 11 Products to Celebrate President’s Day

iStock.com/malerapaso
iStock.com/malerapaso

While President’s Day originated in 1885 as a holiday celebrating George Washington, it has now grown to recognize all 44-and-counting chief executives in U.S. history. If you’re feeling truly patriotic, check out these 11 incredible products inspired by some of the most distinguished leaders to hold America's highest office, and feel free to gift them to your favorite future politician.

1. George Washington’s Teeth Magnet

George Washington's illustrious hair may have been totally real, but his teeth certainly weren’t. In fact, Washington had only one real tooth left in his head when he was sworn in as president, and he wore several sets of dentures throughout his life (though none of them were made of wood, as the legend claims). Mount Vernon has one of the last surviving sets—made of human and cow teeth—in its collection, and fans can get a copy of the historic chompers in the form of a fridge magnet.

Buy it from George Washington’s Mount Vernon for $10.

2. John Adams Mouse Pad

A John Adams mousepad
MyHeritageWear, Amazon

Compared to the other Founding Fathers, John Adams doesn't get much love. There's reason to admire the pugnacious leader, though: He may have been the nation’s second-ever president, but he was second to none when it came to dishing out insults. If you’re looking for a subtle way to pay tribute to Adams, this mouse pad will do the trick. After all, who doesn't want a president at their side in the office?

Buy it on Amazon for $10.

3. Founding Fathers Gift Box

If you’re looking for other ways to honor the Founding Fathers, this commemorative gift box includes four hefty Old Fashioned tumblers bearing the likenesses of old-fashioned presidents James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams. The glasses—which are made in America—are the perfect way to toast the country's early leaders. They'd also be a great accessory for your next Drunk History marathon. (As would Fishs Eddy's many other politician-themed kitchenware products, for that matter.)

Buy it from Fishs Eddy for $22.

4. Abraham Lincoln Chia Pet

A Chia Pet Abraham Lincoln
Chia, Amazon

Honest Abe is known for a great many things: leading the United States through the Civil War, abolishing slavery, and—according to Hollywood—maybe being a vampire hunter. However, we rarely celebrate his very lush head of hair. (Though a few strands of it did sell for $25,000 in 2015.) This Chia Pet planter offers a way to spice up your kitchen while honoring the classic elegance of the 16th president's silhouette. The handmade statuette grows a full head of presidential chia-sprout hair in one to two weeks and includes quotes from President Lincoln transcribed on its sides.

Buy it on Amazon for $26.

5. Edmund Morris’s Theodore Roosevelt Trilogy

A set of three Edmund Morris books on Theodore Roosevelt
Random House, Amazon

This Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographical trilogy on Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt from Edmund Morris is a must-have for all the TR fans out there. Written over the course of more than 30 years, Morris's opus is considered essential reading for any Roosevelt scholar, and it's well worth the money. As The New York Times wrote in its review of the first volume in 1979, it's a “splendid, galloping narrative of the great galloper. The insights are keen. The pages turn quickly. There are few who will not get from it a more satisfying conception of the man almost everyone thinks he knows … It is one of those rare works that is both definitive for the period it covers and fascinating to read for sheer entertainment.”

Buy it on Amazon for $78.

6. FDR Collectible Baseball

Like many Americans, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had an intense love of baseball. He even argued that the national past time was an essential morale booster during World War II, ensuring that the league could continue playing throughout the war. He made eight Opening Day appearances during his presidency, and this collectible baseball is a perfect monument to one of them. The custom ball features a photograph of FDR throwing the ceremonial first pitch for the 1935 Opening Day game between the Washington Senators and Philadelphia Athletics at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Buy it from the National Archives store for $7.

7. "Dewey Defeats Truman" Ceramic Tile

The result of the 1948 presidential election between incumbent Democrat Harry S. Truman and Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey was, by all accounts, one of the greatest upsets in history. Nearly every analyst at the time got their predictions wrong, including the Chicago Daily Tribune (now just the Chicago Tribune), which led to the famous photograph that helped cement the election's legacy in American politics—and media history—forever. While history nerds would surely appreciate a copy of the actual newspaper, this option from the National Archives is a joyously clever alternative.

Buy it from the National Archives store for $7.50

8. JFK for President Mug

For political history buffs and design obsessives alike, this mug is a throwback to the campaign posters made by John F. Kennedy when he ran for president in 1960. The mug is emblazoned with JFK's own smiling mug as well as his 'Leadership for the 60's" slogan. (You can see one of the originals at the Library of Congress.)

Buy it from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum for $15.

9. Lyndon B. Johnson Bobblehead

A Lyndon Johnson bobblehead depicting the president holding a dog
Royal Bobbles, Amazon

Lyndon B. Johnson—who assumed the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963—is best known for his "Great Society" programs and his role in passing laws like the Civil Rights Act and Medicare. This bobblehead in his likeness from Royal Bobbles, however, represents another side of LBJ: his love for dogs. Johnson and his family were often photographed with their beloved beagles, Him and Her, as well as subsequent White House pets Freckles, Edgar, Blanco, and Yuki. (Royal Bobbles doesn't specify which dog this design is based on.) Standing over 8 inches tall, the bobblehead comes with a collector’s box to keep it pristine, because you'll want to display it prominently.

Buy it on Amazon for $26.

10. Presidential IQ Trivia Game

The 'Presidential IQ' card game on a table
Presidential IQ, Amazon

If you're like us, you love some good-old-fashioned trivia—and almost 250 years of presidential history has left us with a bevy of facts to mine for questions. Featuring 1200 questions across a number of categories, including famous quotes, foreign affairs, and geography, Presidential IQ is perfect for game night.

Buy it on Amazon for $25.

11. 1000-Piece U.S. Presidents Jigsaw Puzzle

A puzzle with all of the U.S. presidents surrounding a map of the United States
White Mountain Puzzles, Amazon

This puzzle by White Mountain illustrates the entire presidential timeline of the United States with portraits of each of the presidents and a map of notable historical sites relating to the former chief executives. In addition to stimulating your brain, it provides a great opportunity to plan your next presidential road trip.

Buy it on Amazon for $18.

7 of John Adams's Greatest Insults

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A man whose wit was matched only by the looseness of his tongue, the combative John Adams quickly acquired a hefty reputation for articulate jabs and razor-sharp put-downs at the expense of his allies and rivals alike, including some of the most celebrated figures in American history. (Bob Dole once described him as “an 18th-century Don Rickles.”) Here are some of his best zingers.

1. On Benjamin Franklin

“His whole life has been one continued insult to good manners and to decency.” (For more about the pair's tense relationship, read about the time they were forced to share a bed.)

2. On Alexander Hamilton

In a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush in 1806, Adams exclaimed that "I lose all patience when I think of a bastard brat of a Scotch peddler." (Hamilton certainly wasn't above returning the fire.)

3. On Thomas Paine's Common Sense

Compared to the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, published in 1775, Paine's pamphlet was “a poor, ignorant, malicious, crapulous mass," as Adams wrote in 1819 to Thomas Jefferson (another colleague with whom he had a fraught friendship).

4. On George Washington

“That Washington was not a scholar is certain. That he is too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station was equally past dispute.”

5. On the City of Philadelphia

“Philadelphia with all its trade and wealth and regularity, is not Boston," Adams wrote in his diary in 1774. "The morals of our people are much better; their manners are more polite and agreeable ... Our language is better, our taste is better, our persons are handsomer; our spirit is greater, our laws are wiser, our religion is better, our education is better. We exceed them in every thing, but in a market, and in charitable public foundations.”

6. On Thomas Jefferson

In 1793, Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, about his longtime frenemy Thomas Jefferson: "Instead of being the ardent pursuer of science that some think him, I know he is indolent, and his soul is poisoned with ambition.”

7. On John Dickinson

While working as a member of the American Revolution's Continental Congress, Adams referred to one of his less-radical colleagues as “a piddling genius” in one of his letters—an insult which caused a good deal of uproar when the British intercepted and published the candid document.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013.

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