“Look at how Young the Founding Fathers Were!”

This was originally posted in defense of a bunch of kids making pronouncements on public policy (specifically gun control) being criticized for their lack of life experience and general knowledge of the subjects involved. We were supposed to go “oh, those guys were young too, so I guess it’s okay.”

There’s just one problem. None of the listed people, not one, was a policy maker in the nascent United States in 1776. None of them.

Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, was born in September of 1757, so, yes, he was 18 at the time the United States declared independence. Being born a noble in France and in the context of his family’s martial tradition, he was commissioned an officer at age 13. In December of 1776, Lafayette was made a Major General but, well, at that time and place commissions were largely purchased. It was not until 1777 that he actually began his trek to America. When he learned that the Continental Congress lacked funds for his voyage, he bought a ship (The Victoire) with. his. own. money. on which to make the journey.

While the Marquis de Lafayette would go on to be a significant figure in the American fight for Independence, he was not a shaper of American political policy.

In 1776 James Monroe dropped out of college to join the 3rd Virginia Regiment in the Continental Army. Since he was literate, he was commissioned a Lieutenant. He was cited for bravery and promoted to Captain. As a captain he was expected to recruit his own company of soldiers but, lacking funds (unlike Washington, he was not independently wealthy), he was unable to do so and asked to be returned to the front. It would be some years later, in 1782 (age 24) when Monroe would win election to the Virginia house of Delegates. Later, he would become a United States Senator, a Minister to France, Governor of Virginia, and eventually win election to the Presidency in 1816 (age 58). So, while Monroe would go on to become a shaper of American policy, it was certainly not at the tender age of 18.

Henry Lee III became a Captain in a Virginia Dragoon detachment at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. In 1778, he was promoted to Major. Later, in 1786, then in his 30’s, Henry Lee III became a delegate to the Congress of the Confederation and in the 1788 Virginia convention, a 32 year old Lee favored the adoption of the United States Constitution. In 1799 (age 43) he became a member of the US House of Representatives. So, again, it was a Henry Lee III considerably older than in the meme above who actually became a policy shaper in the United States.

Nathan Hale is certainly a hero of renoun. In 1775 he joined a Connecticut militia unit. He participated in the siege of Boston. He was also part of the first organized intelligence service in the United States and, in that role, as a spy behind the enemy lines, he was captured by the British and executed with the purported last lines “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Nathan Hale was a hero and martyr, and is deservedly honored as such. He was not a policy maker.

With Aaron Burr we see the continuation of the pattern that’s becoming clear. He took part in Colonel Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Quebec. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Quebec. In 1776 he joined George Washington’s staff but, by June had quit that position to return to the battlefield. He played an important role in the evacuation of Manhattan after the British landing. Even though active in the war, Burr was able to finish his legal studies and was admitted to the bar in 1782 (age 26). He was a member of the New York State Assembly from 1784 to 1785 (age 27-28). He became seriously involved in politics, however, in 1789 (age 33) when appointed as New York State Attorney General. He became a US Senator in 1791 (age 35). He ran for President in 1796 and again in 1800 in which he became Vice President, which would lead to his famous duel with Hamilton and an end to any political influence he might have. So, again, Burr may have been young in 1776 but he was not a policy maker and would not be one for some years.

And, finally, we get to Alexander Hamilton. Shortly after the battles of Lexington and Concord (April 1775) Hamilton joined a volunteer militia company. He raised the New York Provinical Company of Artillery in in 1776 and was elected captain and fought in the campaign around New York City. He would go on to do more fighting and to serve on George Washington’s staff. In 1782 (Age 27) he became a member of the Congress of the Confederation as New York representative. He resigned in 1783 to return to law practice. In 1787 (age 32) he was an Assemblyman in the New York State legislature. While Hamilton had been a leader in calling for a Constitutional Convention, his actual influence in the convention was rather limited. The other two delegates from New York, being from a different faction, ensured that New York’s vote went their way (each State got one vote, which was decided by majority of the delegates from that State). Hamilton was one of the authors of The Federalist Papers used to “sell” the newly drafted Constitution to the States in general and New York in particular. He would go on to hold various roles in government, most notably Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington and his political infighting was a large part of the reason that John Adams only served a single term (and the power of the Federalist party was essentially broken from that point) until his fateful duel with Aaron Burr.

So the folk in the meme were not policymakers when they were 18-21 years old. That came later–for good or ill–with more seasoning and experience. So who were the policy makers and how young were they?

Well, the instrument shaping the policy of the colonies and the nascent United States at the time of the Declaration of Indpendence was the Second Continental Congress whose youngest member was Thomas Jefferson at 33 and whose oldest was Benjamin Franklin at 81.

Hardly the children demanding to have their way in the political arena today.

8 thoughts on ““Look at how Young the Founding Fathers Were!””

  1. Not disagreeing with anything you’ve said, but there’s also another factor.

    In that time and place, young people were expected to “take up an adult role” at a younger age than young people of today.

    A young man of that time & place would likely be working for a living at an age when a young man of our time would still be in school.

    IE They’d have more Real World knowledge than many college aged young people of our time.

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      1. Hang on, is “read Cicero” part of the original graphic or is that part of the response that suggests these guys wouldn’t have supported gun control (because they were homeschooled, pro-gun, pro-religion, pro-secession)? It seems a lot of people responded to this meme by claiming the youthful founders were actually on the political right rather than pointing out they were relative nobodies in 1776.

        Incidentally, do you have an example of this meme being used to defend the youthful gun control advocates? Every version I’ve ever seen included a response along the lines outlined above.

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        1. The original graphic was just the six pictures with the “What do they know…” text. The versions that I’ve seen pointed out the stuff below, which mostly showed that youth “then” was not the same as typical youth today as contrasted with “don’t eat Tide Pods.”

          I noticed that the ones I knew specifically about were not, however, in positions to actually make policy in 1776. A quick search showed that neither were the others that, in fact, not one of the ones being offered up as examples were in positions to make, or even strongly influence, policy in the US. The most that could be said on that score was that they were willing to put themselves on the line fighting fro independence. Thus this post.

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  2. But, but, but… they were 18 at one point in their life, and look how incredible they were at one point in their life! So, we should definitely let 16yo’s vote! /derp

    One other item to point out – even if these folks were policy-makers later, look at one of the big things they ended up writing into the Constitution: minimum ages for serving in elected positions. They basically said “Holy cow! We wouldn’t anyone who was like us at 18 serving in Congress or as President!”

    Or, as I always respond to the rock & roll song, “Your Mama Don’t Dance”:
    Oh yes, your mama DID dance, and your daddy DID rock and roll, and that’s exactly why “ya gotta end your date by ten”.
    Those guys knew what they were doing putting that in the Big Con.

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