What continues to make the United States the peculiar and incredible place it is lies in the ideas Thomas Jefferson put forth in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, signed 246 years ago this Fourth of July: one does not need to be of a specific religion, race, or lineage to be an American, you must only embrace the self-evident truths that all men are created equal and that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A revolutionary idea, indeed!
We have all learned about the bravery of our Founding Fathers and how they beat the odds against the most powerful empire in the world. But like everything else in history, we sometimes hyper-focus on events themselves and overlook the great traits of our past leaders that made life as we know it possible.
The celebration of the birth of our nation doesn’t need to begin and end with fireworks and hotdogs. The men and women who shaped our nation were not just brave (although they undoubtedly were). There is a lot we can learn from these individuals about revolutionary leadership, and this week is the perfect time to reflect on their characteristics.
Unlike many other Founding Fathers, Ben Franklin was never a U.S. President. He made his mark in other ways: helping to draft and then signing the Declaration of Independence, representing the U.S. in France during The American Revolution, and serving as a delegate for the Constitutional Convention, for starters. Franklin was also an avid writer, a printer, a scientist, and a political philosopher, but perhaps the most impressive thing about Ben Franklin was his proclivity toward innovation.
Many people are aware that Ben Franklin invented bifocals and discovered how to harness electricity via a lightning rod, but his innovation surpassed these well-known designs. When Franklin apprenticed with his older brother, James, at the family print shop, James refused to publish anything 16-year-old Franklin wrote. In response, Franklin fabricated the pseudonym Mrs. Silence Dogood, a fictional widow, and ended up publishing 14 witty letters under the name of Dogood without his brother knowing.
A lesson in tenacity and of following one’s passions, this instance of Franklin’s antagonism and problem-solving is one of the more interesting yet lesser-known facts about Franklin. He went on to author and publish numerous pamphlets, owned several of his own newspapers, became the official printer for Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and published the famous Poor Richard’s Almanac 25 years in a row. This means that 16-year-old Franklin’s act of defiance and problem-solving began his life-long career as a writer. When met with seemingly insurmountable roadblocks, consider the example of Ben Franklin’s innovative determination and find a way to create your own Mrs. Silence Dogood.
Thomas Jefferson, one of our more divisive Founding Fathers, is primarily known for authoring the Declaration of Independence, the document whose signing marks our annual celebration, and for later serving as the 3rd U.S. President. However, Jefferson also had an intense love of reading and writing and was the founder of the Library of Congress.
Jefferson’s love of language is seen most clearly in his ability and passion to communicate clearly. His writing, although quite different in style than writing now in the 21st century, was clear, concise, and served a vital purpose in creating the United States as we know it.
Jefferson mastered the ability to clearly articulate a vision, and that clear articulation has shaped our country in ways difficult to quantify. Jefferson was able to accurately put words to the ideas our other Founding Fathers were passionate enough about to begin the Revolutionary War over, and therefore, Jefferson breathed life into and provided concrete grounds for the beginning of our nation, showing just how powerful it is to clearly communicate one’s vision.
Patrick Henry, one of the lesser-known Founding Fathers, was a skilled politician, orator, and lawyer. Henry did not always agree with other Founding Fathers, either, and he was outspoken and well-known for his riveting speeches. Henry was a delegate to the Continental Congresses of 1774 and 1775 and was a member of the first Virginia Committee of Correspondence, which was tasked to help with intercolonial cooperation.
At the Second Virginia Convention in 1775, Henry gave the speech he is most well-known for and is said to have helped spark the American Revolution. Henry was convinced that a war with Great Britain was unavoidable, and in an attempt to rally support for organizing and establishing a defensive militia, he ended his speech with these brave words: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
While Henry served only briefly in the Revolutionary War, the declaration of “Give me liberty or give me death” has resounded throughout generations for their sheer clarity and courageousness, instilling in anyone who considers their true meaning a sense of patriotism and pride. Displaying courage in light of potential conflict is no easy feat, but it can rally unmatched support and result in revolutionary change.
Abigail Adams, wife of the second President of the United States, John Adams, has not traditionally been considered a Founding Father, but Abigail Adams was a trusted advisor to her husband and an important political figure in her time. While John Adams traveled frequently for his work, the couple wrote to each other frequently, and John Adams often consulted Abigail, writing to her when he was elected president, “I never wanted your Advice and assistance more in my life.”
In a letter to her husband during the Second Continental Congress, Adams famously warned her husband and the other Founding Fathers to “remember the ladies.” Adams wrote, “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors…Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.”
John Adams responded casually to her comments, but Abigail continued to warn him and speak about how our republic’s independence would suffer if women did not have the right to property and education. One of the first American women who spoke out about women’s rights, Abigail Adams’ outspokenness was impactful, beginning to pave the way for great future change. Speaking truth to power and encouraging change is often uncomfortable, but having the courage to do so may create transformative and impactful change felt for generations.
George Washington is, as Joseph J. Ellis phrases it, perhaps the “Foundingist Father of them all.” Washington was the first American President and Commander and Chief of the Continental Army, and, interestingly enough, he desired neither position. When Washington was elected Commander, he refused “any payment beyond his expenses and called upon ‘every gentleman in the room’ to bear witness that he disclaimed fitness for it.”
Throughout the Revolutionary War, Washington displayed incredible shows of leadership, maintained strength and morale anyway he could, and outwitted his opponents. After being encouraged by some to use his command of the military to make himself a king, Washington dutifully resigned from his position as Commander and turned over a request for only his cost of living throughout the war, again denying himself salary for serving the country for nearly a decade in the most important position at that time.
In the chaotic aftermath of the Revolution, Washington urged his fellow statesmen to take steps to create an “an indissoluble union” to protect what so many lives were sacrificed for. At the Constitutional Convention, Washington was unanimously chosen to be the President of the Convention. Washington wanted to help build the framework of the country and retire to his home, Mount Vernon, but he was again unanimously voted for–this time to be the First President of the United States. Washington never desired the power bestowed upon him, he never sought it out, and he was acutely aware of how his actions would affect the country forever.
Washington’s reluctance to accept power and his self-restraint almost seem unnatural, but this one man’s self-awareness and humility are a great lesson regarding the power of forethought and humility.
This list of great leadership traits and interests do not even begin to cover the impact many men and women have had on our nation–our Founders were also deep lovers of debate, life-long learning, and philosophers. But the aforementioned characteristics–innovation, clear communication, courage, and self-restraint–are the bedrocks of any successful community-based endeavor, whether you are establishing a free republic or creating a thriving business.
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