By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
By 1832, the ranks of the Founders of the United States had grown exceedingly thin. James Madison was the last survivor among the Founders. In the only speech he delivered after his retirement, he said, “The essence of government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
Founders of the United States Who Died in the 1790s
Of the 39 who walked up to Washington’s table in the Pennsylvania State House on September 17, 1787, to sign the Constitution, four of them died in 1790, including the tottering Benjamin Franklin and David Brearley.
Flinty old Roger Sherman of Connecticut died in 1793, having earned the singular distinction of being a part of the Continental Congresses, the Confederation Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the first U.S. Congress.
The scholarly, near-sighted James Wilson became the first professor of law at the College of Philadelphia in 1790 and was appointed by George Washington as one of the six justices of the original Supreme Court—even though he heard only nine cases before his death in 1798.
Washington himself followed in 1799 after developing a cold which in turn flared into pneumonia. Patrick Henry pre-deceased his old friend Washington by seven months.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
1800-1816: Deaths of Many Founders
John Rutledge, who had fiercely resisted any attempt by the Constitution to speak about slavery at all, died in 1800, as did Thomas Mifflin, who had resisted fiercely any attempt to manage his life by good sense.
Alexander Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr cost Hamilton his life in 1804, but that may have been, on the whole, less painful than the death of Robert Morris, bankrupt and in poverty, in 1806, or of Benjamin Banneker, who died of alcoholism, and just as penniless, in a log cabin, the same year as Morris.
James McHenry died in 1816, with the satisfaction of seeing the fort named in his honor in Baltimore harbor. Gouverneur Morris died the same year, a dandy to the end, having served as Minister Plenipotentiary to France, a United States Senator, and a chairman of the Erie Canal Commission.
More Founders Pass Away
Timothy Dwight followed Morris much more colorlessly in 1817, but with equal confidence that America would “Unfold how pious realms to glory rise, / And impious nations find avenging skies”.
William Findley lived on until 1821, cantankerous and venerated, serving in Congress from his western Pennsylvania home from 1790–1797 and again from 1804–1817, and eventually becoming the senior serving member of the House of Representative and becoming known as “The Father of the House”.
The man who arrived at the Constitutional Convention with his own plan for a federal government in hand, Charles Pinckney, died in 1824, followed a year later by his kinsman and head of the delegation which had faced down the XYZ bribery demands, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Daniel Shays died that same year on his farm in Sparta, New York, where he had fled after his rebellion.
Learn more about the “age of the Founders”.
Death of Thomas Jefferson and Others
Luther Martin, falling into alcoholism and poverty, was taken in by his one-time client, Aaron Burr, and died under Burr’s roof in New York City in 1826.
John Lansing, who with Robert Yates had walked out of the Constitutional Convention in protest, went on to serve as chief justice of the New York state supreme court and disappeared in 1829 when he left his home to mail some letters and never returned. No trace of him was ever found.
Thomas Jefferson lived on, hale and hearty, until his final decline in 1826, dying 40 minutes after noon on July 4th — the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams died later that same day, but not before making one final mistake about Jefferson. Adams’s last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still lives.”
Deaths of Rufus King, John Jay, and Edmond-Charles Genêt
Rufus King, who opposed slavery bitterly in the Constitutional Convention, served as George Washington’s representative to Great Britain. He was one of the rare Federalists whom Jefferson did not recall from office after Jefferson’s election in 1800, but King resigned the post anyway, and in 1804, he was the Federalist candidate for vice-president.
King died in 1827, two years before John Jay, who was, if anything, an even more aggressive opponent of slavery, occasionally buying slaves outright so he could set them free.
One unhappy reminder of the passions of the 1790s died in 1834 in upstate New York: Edmond-Charles Genêt, the one-time and notorious Citizen Genêt.
Learn more about slavery in the new United States.
James Madison: Last Man Standing
John Marshall died in 1835 in Philadelphia, still in harness as chief justice. The man Marshall had set at liberty, Aaron Burr, died a year later in New York City.
That left, at the end, only one man standing, and that was James Madison — the last survivor of the Constitutional Convention, and after Charles Carroll’s death, the last real survivor of the Founders. He came out of retirement only once, in 1829, to serve as a delegate from Orange County to the new Virginia constitutional convention.
Common Questions about the End of the “Age of the Founders” of the United States
Four founders of the United States died in 1790; among them were Benjamin Franklin and David Brearley. Roger Sherman died in 1793, James Wilson in 1798, and George Washington in 1799. Seven months before the death of George Washington, Patrick Henry, another founder of the United States, had died.
John Lansing, who had walked out of the Constitutional Convention in protest, went on to serve as chief justice of the New York state supreme court. He disappeared in 1829 when he left his home to mail some letters and never returned. No trace of him was ever found.
Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, 40 minutes after noon on July 4th — the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams died later that same day.