J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Finding “Founding Fathers”

Last month I was chatting with Richard Ryerson, former editor-in-chief of the Adams Papers, about not finding any use of the phrase “Intolerable Acts” in 1774-75. He in turn reminded me that many books credit another phrase that we use a lot when speaking of the Revolution—“founding fathers”—to Warren G. Harding. So I figured I’d try to confirm that.

Harding was certainly fond of the phrase, and used it in many speeches. In fact, he used it three times in his address to the 1916 Republican National Convention alone. And he went back to it on a lot of other occasions as well. Folks soon noticed. Authors wrote of it as one of Harding’s favorite phrases. After he became President, the phrase lost its quotation marks and appeared in such popular literature as Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (1922).

However, the Oxford English Dictionary gives credit for the phrase to a book called Founding Fathers: Men Who Shaped Our Tradition, by Kenneth B. Umbriet, which it dates to 1914. But that must have been a typo. That book was published in 1941. So Harding’s our man after all, it appears.

But not so fast. Through the magic of Google Books, I found an author using the term “founding fathers” twenty years before Harding. On 8 June 1886, the Rev. Edward Anderson gave an address titled “Patriotism in Our Churches,” published in The One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Consociations, Fairfield East and Fairfield West. He intoned:

But a deeper matter than this comes of our Christian patriotism in the churches, and that shows in our process of reconstruction. Our land has been made secure (who doubts it) because of the Christian principle that underlies it, as shown in the deeply religious phaze of our [Civil] war. Are prayers of the founding fathers to be echoed in prayers of the establishing sons, for nothing? Not if God lives, and not if there is truth in the history of his national leading all the way from Israel to now.
I don’t follow the theology, but I can recognize the alliterative phrase when I see it.

I strongly doubt that a privately published celebration of a church anniversary in Connecticut could have influenced the never-very-deep thoughts of a politician in Ohio. So Harding probably came up with the phrase independent of Anderson.

Indeed, they might both have found the words “founding father” in, of all, places, a Robert Browning poem. This is a passage from Red Cotton Night-cap Country, or Turf and Towers, published in 1873:
Red, Red, where is the tinge of promised Red
In this old tale of town and country life,
This rise and progress of a family?
First comes the bustling man of enterprise,
The fortune-founding father, rightly rough,
As who must grub and grab, play pioneer.
A very different picture of a “founding father.”

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