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The Founding Fathers: Who Were They Really?

Happy 4th of July! In celebration of the birth of the United States, we explored the real personalities of the Founding Fathers and discovered they had quirks, flaws, and issues—just like the rest of us!

Our Founding Fathers may be esteemed for getting the United States of America started, but they were still regular people, with all-too-human quirks, personality flaws, and family issues. One was too shy to talk to a crush (or just about anyone else), another hated his post-independence job, and one honored gentleman occasionally exploded into paroxysms of rage. The Founding Fathers: They’re just like us!

1. George Washington: Temper, Temper

George Washington Photo

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As the leader of the Revolutionary Army and later, head of state of a burgeoning nation, George Washington is known for his serious side. But in fact, he was like the Hulk of the Founding Fathers. In 1814, Thomas Jefferson wrote about Washington: “His temper was naturally high toned; but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendancy over it. If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath.”

On one occasion, Washington unleashed his inner beast during the Revolutionary War, after he discovered one of his generals, Charles Lee, was retreating from the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse in 1778. Another general, Charles Scott, later recounted Washington’s reaction: “He swore that day till the leaves shook on the trees. Charming! Delightful! Never have I enjoyed such swearing before or since. Sir, on that memorable day he swore like an angel from heaven!”

With that kind of motivation, it’s little wonder America won its war for independence.

2. Thomas Jefferson: Fumbling Feelings

Thomas Jefferson Photo

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As the Declaration of Independence demonstrates, Thomas Jefferson had a way with words. Unfortunately for him, sentences that flowed effortlessly from his quill usually got stuck in his throat.

As a teenager, Jefferson fell for Rebecca Burwell. After mooning over her from a distance for more than a year, he decided to screw up his courage and actually talk to her. Unfortunately, it didn’t go well. As Jefferson wrote: “I was prepared to say a great deal. I had dressed up in my own mind such thoughts as occurred to me, in as moving language as I know how, and expected to have performed in a tolerably creditable manner. But, good God! when I had an opportunity of venting them, a few broken sentences, uttered in great disorder, and interrupted with pauses of uncommon length, were the too visible marks of my strange confusion.”

Jefferson entered politics, but remained tongue-tied. In 1776, John Adams noted: “Mr. Jefferson had been now about a Year a Member of Congress, but had attended his Duty in the House but a very small part of the time and when there had never spoken in public: and during the whole Time I satt [sic] with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three Sentences [sic] together.”

Fortunately, for both himself and America, Jefferson was around at a time when sound-bites weren’t necessary for a politician to make his mark.

3. John Adams: Practically a Misanthrope

John Adams Photo

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If you could bend time and space to hang out with the Founding Fathers, here’s a tip: Steer clear of John Adams. Few people ever met the exacting standards of this persnickety revolutionary. Even the revered George Washington fell short: Adams once sniped in his diary that Washington “is too illiterate, unread, unlearned for his status and reputation.”

Benjamin Franklin, who worked alongside Adams in France during the Revolutionary War, may have said it best when he decreed that Adams “is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”

Adams managed to become president, but by the end of his first term he’d alienated both his party and much of the American public. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t re-elected. Instead, Adams finally went home to his beloved wife, Abigail. At least she—unlike many of his colleagues—liked him.

4. Benjamin Franklin: An Air of Exhibitionism 

Benjamin Franklin Photo

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Throughout his life, Benjamin Franklin acquired many admirers (particularly in France, where he used his talents to win support for the American Revolution). In addition to political accomplishments, Franklin was a renowned scientist and inventor.

However, along with political, creative and scientific genius came eccentricities, one of which were Franklin’s “air baths.” Franklin described the ritual to a friend: “I have found it much more agreeable to my constitution to bathe in another element, I mean cold air. With this view I rise early almost every morning, and sit in my chamber without any clothes whatever, half an hour or an hour, according to the season, either reading or writing. This practice is not in the least painful, but on the contrary, agreeable.”

Franklin took these “baths” in front of an open window on the first floor. He thus also introduced “air baths” to many of his neighbors, whether they wanted to learn about the practice or not.

5. James Madison: Son of a Debt

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James Madison may have had the strength to help found the United States of America and serve as the country’s president during wartime, but he was powerless to control a wayward family member.

When Madison wed his wife, Dolley, in 1794, she was a widow who brought her young son, John Payne Todd, into the marriage. Todd grew up to be a disappointment—his interests were gambling, drinking and spending money, and he spent time in debtor’s prison.

Madison likely spent a total of $40,000 in a vain attempt to expunge Todd’s debts ($20,000 of which was paid out in secret, as he wanted to protect Dolley from knowing the extent of her son’s shortcomings). It was a staggering sum of money at the time, and it meant that Madison didn’t leave his wife enough to live on after his death (Dolley survived in part because Congress bought Madison’s papers, marking an occasion when Congress actually did something useful).

6. John Jay: No Need for Courtship

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John Jay helped America gain independence, and later worked toward passage of the country’s new Constitution. But after being appointed as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Jay soon came to hate his new job.

At the time, Supreme Court justices were required to travel to circuit courts around the country in order to hear cases. Given the era’s road and travel conditions, it wasn’t a pleasant task. Jay decided that “the office of a Judge of the Supreme Court of the United States was in a degree intolerable,” and was happy to head to England to negotiate a treaty in 1794. He resigned from the court in 1795 to become New York’s governor.

When John Adams became president, he tried to get Jay to take up his old position as chief justice. Jay adamantly refused.

7. Alexander Hamilton: Mr. Independent 

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From his illegitimate birth on a Caribbean island, Alexander Hamilton climbed into the upper echelons of the newly formed United States. He accomplished this because he had the skills to succeed in a ye olde version of Game of Thrones.

Hamilton had a lot of sway as George Washington’s treasury secretary. Even after he resigned from Washington’s cabinet, he remained a close presidential advisor and a controlling figure in the Federalist Party. When John Adams became president after Washington, he discovered that his cabinet members were taking their marching orders from Hamilton.

Hamilton felt no qualms about this, declaring: “As the President nominates his ministers and may displace them when he pleases, it must be his own fault if he be not surrounded by men who for ability and integrity deserve his confidence.” Or, in other words, “Hey, don’t blame me because Adams sucks at politics.”

From the Bio Archives: This article was originally published on July 3, 2014.