Forgotten Founders to Know on U.S. Independence Day

EEvery year, Americans take the day off work and light fireworks in celebration of Independence Day. This is the date that the Declaration of Independence was published. However, it wasn’t until two days before the Continental Congress had voted to declare independence from Britain. Although Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and John Adams are well-known names, many other men and women played an important part in the shaping of America’s early years. This is particularly true for minorities and women. Native Americans had their own societies which functioned for centuries before the United States.

TIME asked historians from the early American history and founding period to spotlight individuals that made significant contributions in America’s communities. From the brain behind the “We the People” clause in the U.S. Constitution, to a woman who risked her life holding loyalist soldiers prisoner during the Revolutionary War, what follows in an effort to broaden our understanding of the young nation during this period.

Mayken van Angola (early 1600s-late 1600s)

A founding mother of America’s Black community

Mayken van angola, one founding figure I recall this Fourth of July, is another. Mayken van Angola was born in the late seventeenth century and was held captive by the Dutch West India Company for more than three decades on Manhattan’s island. Together with Susanna, Lucretia, and two other women Susanna, Mayken fought for her freedom and gained it in 1662. But their freedom was constrained—they had to promise to continue to clean the house of Director General Petrus Stuyvesant, the leader of the Dutch colonies in North America, to maintain their freedom. Unfortunately Susanna and Lucretia both died within a few hours of gaining their freedom. Mayken had to take over cleaning the house. Mayken was perhaps reeling from that loss and fought for her freedom again. She argued for the release of Mayken’s forced labor. It was granted in April 1664. Mayken was free throughout Dutch rule, and even into English colonial control which began in August 1664. Mayken, who was married to Domingo Angola (a Black landowner), was part of an expanding African community and was the founding mother of America’s Black community. This Independence Day, Mayken’s story has an extra flavor because it is free from oppression.

—Nicole Maskiell, author of Bound by bondage: Slavery, the Creation of Northern Gentry,Soon

Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816)

The author of ‘We the People’

Gouverneur, a New York peg-legged man with a name like Morris, is the most significant unknown founder. Everyone knows the author of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution is unknown. Gouverneur Moor took the entire collection of drafts, assembled them in one week, and gave the Constitution form. The most crucial editorial change American history has seen was made by him. The draft that he was given began as follows: “We the People of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island” and listed states down the east coast. He changed it to read “We the People of the United States.” All of a sudden, the single issue that’s central to the whole constitutional convention—”Are we a nation or a confederation of states?”—is resolved in that one line.

—Joseph Ellis, author of The Cause: American Revolution and Discontents 1773-1783

Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833)

America’s first abolitionist writer

In July 1776, Lemuel Haynes, a free Black man with a white mom and a Black dad, was a soldier in George Washington’s Continental Army. He had just finished writing an essay called “Liberty Further Extended”—one of the world’s first anti-slavery pamphlets. When he read the Declaration of Independence, he liked the phrase ”all men are created equal” so much that he used it to open his essay—thus becoming the first person to quote what are now the Declaration’s five most iconic words. Whites of the founding era who wrote about the Declaration emphasized its states’ rights passages. Haynes and anti-slavery activists such as Benjamin Banneker, were among the first to read the Declaration in favor of personal freedom. Those abolitionists—and in the 19th century, women’s rights’ campaigners—eventually convinced their fellow Americans to see our founding document the way all Americans do today: as a universal declaration of human rights.

—Woody Holton, author of Liberty Is Sweet: Hidden History of the American Revolution

Esther de Berdt Reed (1746-1780)

Fundraising for the Revolution

Esther Reed

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Esther was born in England and became an American patriot. Following the most significant American defeat of the Revolutionary War—in which about 3,000 men surrendered to the British in the fall of Charleston, S.C. in May 1780—she wrote a tract titled “Sentiments of an American Woman,” which called for women to rally to the revolutionary cause. They could be likened to Biblical and Ancient heroines who gave their lives for their nations. She then suggested a fundraiser, which she organized. Each colony was headed by Martha Washington, while nationwide, by the wife the governor. The idea of her pamphlet was to get donations from other women in order to pay each soldier a small amount of hard currency, rather than the inflationary money. Philadelphia women went door-to-door seeking donations. This raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Maryland and New Jersey also saw the impact of this.

Washington declined to grant Esther a gift of patriotic women when she wrote to him to inform him about the plans to present each soldier with a gift. Washington replied that he was concerned about the men spending such large sums of money on unwise things, including alcohol. He instead asked Esther and her coworkers to create shirts for soldiers. Esther initially disagreed, daring to oppose Washington and to argue that soldiers’ clothing should be supplied by the government—but she finally had to give in. The money collected by the canvassers bought linen to make shirts distributed to soldiers, although it’s unclear whether the wealthy women who started the organization made the shirts themselves or hired seamstresses to do so. Esther Reed’s pamphlet was the first major public statement by an American woman about a political issue. Yet, she has been forgotten due to her tragic death after childbirth in 1780. Her work was concluded under the leadership of her friend Sarah Franklin Bache, Benjamin’s daughter.

—Mary Beth Norton, author of Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800

Nathanael Greene (1742-1786).

A nearly forgotten general

Nathanael Greene

Universal History Archive—Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Greene, a Quaker born and raised in Rhode Island was an amateur military soldier. But he rose from the militia to become George Washington’s most dependable and loyal general. Greene ignored his religion’s calls for pacifism to join the American cause on ideological and moral grounds. His “confidence” didn’t “arise from our discipline and military knowledge, but from the justice of the cause and the virtue of America,” Greene himself wrote. Showing the same sense of morality throughout the war, Greene championed equal pay for Black soldiers, “humanity” for loyalists, and rules of war by which “cruelty was dishonorable.”

“Amateurs talk tactics, professionals study logistics,” says the old military maxim. Greene had the ability to see a whole campaign as if it were one battle. Today, the U.S. military would call it operational art—the ability to link the strategic with the tactical. Greene was the first to do it. He used traditional fighting and guerilla tactics, winning his battles strategically and then retreating to the Carolinas. Greene described his strategy to Washington as: “We fight, get beat and fight again.” Despite few individual victories, Greene was able to exhaust the British and win the Southern campaign. His tedious job of Quartermaster General for the Continental Army was a success. Greene even drove himself to financial ruin, taking on all the debts necessary to outfit his troops.

So why don’t more Americans know about Nathanael Greene? Washington tends to overshadow all other generals, but Greene’s early death from heat stroke in 1786 may be the culprit. A Broadway cast sang “every other founding father gets to grow old” about Alexander Hamilton; Greene died even younger at age 43. Greene died in his final year of life, one year before the Constitutional Convention. He was not able to leave a legacy that would be cherished by the new republic.

—Craig Bruce Smith, author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era.

Thayendanegea (1743-1807)

A Native American diplomat

Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant

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Thayendanegea was a Mohawk who hailed from Canajoharie, Mohawk River Valley. He rose to fame as a politician, leader and soldier among the Haudenosaunee, also called the Six Nations Confederacy or the Iroquois. Thayendanegea was a student at a Connecticut boarding school run by Eleazar Wheelock. He learned English fluently and adopted the Christian Baptism name Joseph Brant. Thayendanegea’s dual identity and bilingualism enabled him to attain a high political position in Eastern North America during the American Revolution. This was a period when colonial and Indigenous social lives overlapped.

The Grand Council of the Iroquois opted to stay neutral, but Thayendanegea joined the British. Thayendanegea, who was an advocate of peace and unity for Native peoples after the revolution became an advocate to the new independent United States. He linked peaceful co-existence with the U.S. to recognition of Native land claims, declaring Indigenous territory outside of the 13 states to be a “common pot” or “a dish with one spoon.” The land of North America, he argued, belonged to all Native peoples and should not be divided or sold off by individual Indian nations.

—Michael Witgen, author of An Infinity of Nations – How Early North America was shaped by the Native New World

Eliza Harriot O’Connor (1749-1811)

A pioneer in equal rights for women

O’Connor was the first woman to give public lectures in the United States. She gave the lectures at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania during the summer of 1787, when the Constitution was being drafted by the delegate. Nearly every day, a notice was placed in the newspapers that a female lecturer was nearby as the Constitution was being drafted. George Washington went to one. Newspapers across America spread the news and the story became a national sensation. My argument is that she left a legacy because the Constitution is not gender-specific, allowing women to be elected and vote.

O’Connor also attempted to create a female academy that would be led by women. O’Connor represents the belief percolating at the time that women were equally capable of the same types of education as men and the same types of political participation. She’s a really important model of, in the framing generation, people pushing the boundaries of exclusion and imagining that the United States could be a place where people—regardless of sex or gender—can participate fully in public life.

—Mary Sarah Bilder, Female Genius: Eliza Harriot at the Dawn of the Constitution and George Washington

Benjamin Rush (1746-1813)

The wise doctor

​​Rush is a second-tier revolutionary who is not as well-known as he ought to be. While Rush was a member of Pennsylvania’s Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence, 1776, his primary role was that of a politician. He was, however, also a doctor and scientist. Indeed, he is the most famous physician and scientist of early Republic. Rush was more American Enlightenment than Jefferson or Franklin. Since he came to believe that “the science of medicine was related to everything,” he considered everything within his intellectual domain. Believing he “was acting for the benefit of the whole world and of future ages,” he campaigned for every conceivable reform—for a national university, churches for Blacks, temperance, healthy diets, the emancipation of slaves, prison reform, free postage for newspapers, enlightened treatment of the insane, the education of women, animal rights—and the abolition of hunting weapons, dueling, and corporal and capital punishment. He was not so utopian, he said in 1786, as to think than man could become immortal, but he did believe that “it is possible to produce such a change in his moral character, as shall raise him to a resemblance of angels—nay, more, to the likeness of God himself.”

He was an excellent bleeder as a doctor. He would bleed every patient, regardless of what their illness was. However, his patients were disappointed to learn that he underestimated the body’s blood supply. His belief that most people have twelve quarts of blood was double what it is for the average person’s six quarts. It is no surprise that Rush died so often, as he took as much as five quarts from patients in one day. The acerbic Philadelphia journalist William Cobbett termed Rush’s bleeding “one of those great discoveries which are made from time to time for the depopulation of the Earth.” But, one of Rush’s greatest achievements was bringing the two estranged former friends, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, back together in their retirement years.

—Gordon S. Wood, author ofIn the American Revolution, Power and Liberty: The Constitutionalism of America

Hannah Griffitts (1727-1817).

Mobilizing ‘female patriots’

Hannah Griffitts was writing and thinking about liberty and patriotism for over a decade by July 1776. Griffitts was Quaker, poet, and head of her Philadelphia household. Her family connected Griffitts to some of America’s most passionate patriots (Secretary Charles Thomson), famed moderates John Dickinson, as well many neutrals or loyalists.

Griffitts was part of a circle of women writers in revolutionary Philadelphia who had been exploring what women’s independence might mean. While she used to write lyrically about religion, grief and nature, when Griffitts turned her attention to politics and the American-Great Britain dispute, she became more direct. When British taxation on colonies’ goods was making news, in 1768 she wrote about women using the power of boycotts as a way to express their political views. She called on “female patriots” as the “daughters of liberty” to deny themselves and their families the taxed goods. “Rather than freedom we[‘ll] part with our tea,” she proclaimed. She could not stand violence but was prepared with words and boycotts.

—Karin Wulf, author of Lineage: The Power of Connection and Genealogy in Early America Coming Soon

Nancy Hart (circa 1735-1830)

Outsmarted loyalist soldiers

One day, between 1778 and 1780, Hart was at home with her daughter in her cabin in Georgia when five loyalist soldiers—that is, Americans who supported the British cause—showed up at her door, armed with weapons and bayonets. The soldiers said, “Feed us.” ’ She went out, and she brought her daughter with her, and she said to her daughter, “You go find American troops and tell them I’ve got five loyalists here in the house.” And then she cooked them this meal, and while she prepared the meal, she plied them with whatever alcohol she had. When they got to the table, they were quite drunk and she forced them to put their rifles into the corner. She then grabbed one of the guns and pointed it at five people. They were held captive for 5 hours before being arrested by American authorities. Hart was really a character, and she went to the hanging of every one of these men and loudly whistled “Yankee Doodle” while they were being hanged.

These women were not common in the colonies. To stop the British army having food or grain, some women burned their fields to protect their families. Some blew up their own houses—especially in the South, they stored ammunition and weapons for these guerrilla fighters, and when the British or the loyalists showed up at their houses, they exploded their own houses to make sure the British couldn’t get those weapons. People need to be aware of how important women were in the revolution.

—Carol Berkin, author of Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence

James Forten (1766-1842)

Revolutionary War soldier, abolitionist

James Forten was a Philadelphian freeman of African descent who became one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest men. As a young man, he fought in the Revolutionary War and was captured aboard a British vessel. His release freed him from Philadelphia. After his return, he became a businessman and made his fortune by owning a sailmaking company and real estate investing. The money he made and the influence he gained to support the causes that were most important to him, abolition of slavery and equal rights, was what he used. His op-eds were published in local newspapers. He was also a supporter of the Equal Rights Campaign. Liberator newspaper—published by William Lloyd Garrison. One of his most famous writings, ”Letters from a man of color,” really eloquently talks about fighting in the Revolutionary War alongside white men and believing that they had all been fighting for the same thing— that all men were created equal. In a world where people often envision the American Revolution as one that was only about white people, it’s important to remember how many people of African descent were deeply involved in the founding of the nation and the shaping of its ideals. It is important to have an accurate picture of all those involved.

—Adrienne Whaley, Director of Education and Community Engagement at the Museum of the American Revolution

Ona Judge: (1773/1774—1848)

Washingtons slaves, never to be free

Ona Judge was an African-American enslaved lady who belonged Martha Washington and George Washington. As a skilled seamstress, she served Mrs. Washington as her most valuable, enslaved individual. When George Washington was elected unanimously as President of the United States, the Washingtons made the decision to take seven enslaved people with them to New York, the site of the nation’s first capital, and Ona Judge was one of those enslaved people. When she had to abandon her family to become the First Lady, she was only 15-16 years old. She moved to New York and later to Philadelphia, where she continued to serve Mrs. Washington at the Washingtons’ executive home.

Ona Judge made the decision to escape, upon hearing that she would be given away as a wedding gift to Martha Washington’s granddaughter, who was known for having a volatile temper. On May 21, 1796, she walked out of the Washingtons’ home in Philadelphia while they were eating supper and never returned. It would take her nearly half a century to escape, and George Washington and Martha Washington would continue their pursuit of Ona Judge right up until their final days. She died free in New Hampshire, though she was legally the property of Washington’s heirs.

By examining Ona’s story, we get an opportunity to reimagine the founding of the nation through the eyes of people who helped to build it, and who were prevented from experiencing the ideals central to the revolution. Ona Judge never received these ideals which revolved around equality, democracy, freedom. Even people such as George Washington and the founders are flawed. They were also brilliant. They were complicated. This is a contradiction, and I think it helps to understand why, as a nation, we’re still wrestling with some of the central issues that our founders wrestled with in the latter part of the 18th century.

—Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

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Send an email to Olivia B. Waxman at


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