BYU researchers: Fatherhood played key role in founders' influence on Constitution

New BYU research finds that "family experiences shape who we end up being and what we end up valuing."

New BYU research finds that "family experiences shape who we end up being and what we end up valuing." (Shutterstock)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

PROVO — Every Fourth of July weekend, the Founding Fathers of the United States are celebrated for their roles in crafting the nation's government and forming a system of legislatures that still stands to this day, with some modifications and amendments.

In other words, the "founding" is often the more celebrated notion of men like George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and other representatives at the first Constitutional convention.

But research from Brigham Young University suggests the "father" role also played a critical part. In the case of these fathers — both literal and in the founding sense — having more sons tended to lead to convention attendees favoring a stronger national government, while fathers of daughters preferred greater state authority, according to BYU professor of political science Jeremy Pope and former BYU student Soren Schmidt, who recently graduated from law school at Yale.

"There's a temptation to think of the Constitution as a straightforward written document," Pope said. "But when you start to look into it, you realize it was quite complicated."

A variety of factors influenced the crafting of the U.S. Constitution, with familial relationships being just one of them, Pope said. But those relationships played a significant role, often overlooked in modern historical circles, that shouldn't be ignored.

"I think it's fair to say that we underappreciate how much our family relationships matter in politics," Pope said. "All of our relationships matter, but I think we undersell family and how much that shapes our political views.

"We tend to think of the past as statues and images frozen in time. But these were real people, who had real familial concerns. They cared more about the careers of their sons than their daughters, but family still mattered a lot."

In the 18th century, sons had "relatively far more diverse career prospects" than daughters, who were "no doubt important and loved but would eventually be married off into another family," Pope's research mentions. This proved doubly true for sons of the convention's delegates — many of whom could envision political aspirations for their sons.

"Delegates to the convention could contemplate their sons not only becoming a lawyer, a merchant or a plantation owner," Pope and Schmidt wrote in the American Journal of Political Science, "but also realize future political prospects as well."

Gen. George Washington at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and signing of U.S. Constitution. A new study cowritten by a BYU political science professor found that the paternal status of the Founding Fathers played a significant role in shaping their political views.
Gen. George Washington at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and signing of U.S. Constitution. A new study cowritten by a BYU political science professor found that the paternal status of the Founding Fathers played a significant role in shaping their political views. (Photo: Painting by Junius Brutus Stearns, public domain)

Evidence suggests that fathers of daughters may have favored the status quo instead of radical changes to government, namely because sons — rather than daughters — were more likely at the time to assume control of the government the Founding Fathers were setting up.

But that also led to fathers of those women lending their own voice — preconceptions from their daughters included — to the constitution-making process.

"Our research shows that the differences driven by the gender of the delegates' children were big enough to affect the Convention's proceedings and therefore the structure of the U.S. Constitution itself," Schmidt said in a news release. "In other words, it mattered deeply that our Founding Fathers were also actual fathers."

It's similar to contemporary political and legislative discourse, Pope said, citing research that shows politicians with more sons than daughters tend to lean more towards the right, while judges with more daughters than sons often pronounce more left-leaning rulings.

Then it should be no surprise that the early settlers of the United States — most of them immigrants from the British Isles and other European countries — were tugged in similar directions.

"Clearly, our family experiences shape who we end up being and what we end up valuing," said Pope, who recently published a book on the early fathers, Founding Factions: How Majorities Shifted and Aligned to Shape the U.S. Constitution. "Good family experiences make your life better, and also more optimistic about the world today. Bad family experiences make you less optimistic about the world. But it also is difficult to tease out the subconscious benefits.

"I'm sure my three daughters change the way I look at the world," he said. "There are all sorts of subtle things that roll through our lives, and I think we take family for granted more than we should. So I hope that through this paper, people can take family more seriously."

Of course, the Constitution wasn't solely determined by how many kids any of the Founding Fathers had, Pope is quick to add. It was complicated enough that one's family situation probably played a role, but there were also several interests that influenced it, as well — things like occupation or whether or not one held slaves.

Family relationships was just one important factor.

"There were all kinds of things that mattered," Pope said.

Related Links

Related Stories

SIGN UP FOR THE KSL.COM NEWSLETTER

Catch up on the top news and features from KSL.com, sent weekly.
By subscribing, you acknowledge and agree to KSL.com's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

KSL Weather Forecast