Many of the Founding Fathers were actually fathers. Here’s how that influenced the Constitution

Research from Brigham Young University said that founders who had sons supported federal government, while dads of girls liked local strength

While the Founding Fathers get the accolades for America’s form of government, research says some credit might belong to the 67 sons and 78 daughters who at that time made up the founding families. 

A study in the American Journal of Political Science found that delegates to the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention were more likely to support a strong, centralized federal government if they had sons. Having daughters “diluted” that support, though that effect was much less strong.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution weren’t just trying to hammer out the details of government. They were also crafting the country their children would inhabit, said co-authors Jeremy C. Pope, political science professor and co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, and Soren J. Schmidt, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and one of Pope’s former students. That connection to their children’s future probably strongly influenced their decisions in designing the federal government, the two said.

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The researchers theorize the founders’ thinking — maybe even subconsciously — went something like this: An eldest son in that day would inherit property and prestige, but what of a second, third or fourth son? The younger ones would need good jobs in order to thrive — and they’d probably be decent men who wouldn’t abuse their power. So creating a strong centralized government might be a good idea.

On the other hand, daughters — and wives, too, in that era — had only local power, and sometimes it stopped on the front porch or at the city border, if it even stretched that far, Pope told the Deseret News.

The idea is not novel, Schmidt said, though this is probably the first time it’s been applied to the nation’s founders. Political scientists have noted in past research that the greater number of daughters a lawmaker or judge has, the greater the tendency to vote for and rule in favor of women’s issues. Why wouldn’t that be true of past politicians? Pope asks.

“I think it’s a mistake for humans to underestimate how much our family situations influence our political thinking,” Pope said.

Clear gender roles

Delegates knew what society expected of each gender: Males would work and lead and prosper in a much larger realm than females, whose only potential power was very local, starting within the family and perhaps branching out some in their communities.

The constitutional convention delegates were already powerful men and could expect the government they crafted to welcome their sons and find them a place. Schmidt said while some of the delegates were distrustful to some extent of federal power, thinking of it in terms of one’s own trustworthy sons made a federal government seem more palatable. 

”Fathers of daughters — who had neither of those two incentives — might have preferred to maintain the status quo,” which meant local governments in control, the researchers wrote in The Atlantic. “The Articles of Confederation kept power local, where daughters might have had some influence, even if through informal channels.” 

While noting that they cannot read the minds of the delegates and acknowledging that differing motivations might exist, they wrote that “... whatever the internal thought process, it seems possible that delegates systematically voted to advantage their sons for the benefit of the family.”

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Schmidt said their primary source on which delegates had children and of what gender at the time of the convention came from the book, “Women of the Constitution.” Many of the delegates would go on to have children — or more children — but the researchers looked at the children delegates had at that time.

They controlled for the age of the delegates, as younger delegates might be more amenable to reform. They controlled for factors that could indicate wealth, “as wealthier delegates would have more reason to expect their sons to hold positions of power in the new government” and whether the Founding Father was a lawyer or politician, as sons would be more likely to follow in their footstep and hold government office or at least “exert public influence.” They also measured wealth and prestige by considering if the delegate was a Revolutionary War officer and how many slaves a delegate owned.

And while they suspected what they might find, Pope and Schmidt said “the magnitude of the effect is surprisingly large in both absolute and relative terms.” 

Women sometimes had a role in local politics. In New Jersey, for instance, Pope said a widow who under U.S. law inherited her husband’s estate could own it and, as a landowner, vote in local municipal elections.

On a large farm, “the woman in charge had an enormous amount of power. But it fell off at the property line or the edge of town,” he said.

“I’m not saying Founding Fathers loved their daughters any less than their sons, but societal mores were not going to give their daughters a career,” said Pope, who noted exceptions: women who became historians, writers, doctors. Plus, the wives of powerful men often ran the local social scene, he added.

Children and the future

The duo could only analyze a limited number of votes, based on information pieced together. 

Schmidt said most votes were done by delegation at the convention and people came and went, so a handful from one state would talk among themselves and then announce the state’s vote. Teasing out individuals votes relied on historical records like diaries and other documents, which a number of scholars have plowed through diligently over time, “filling in the blanks in a sudoku-like way,” Schmidt said.

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The two BYU researchers took eight of those votes that seemed the most relevant to the question of national power and analyzed them.

The pattern they found held up. And Pope noted that then delegates’ sons seemed to be elected to Congress later at a “much higher rate,” further bolstering their research.

The impact was clear: “Our model based on the data predicts each additional son a father had would have made him 8% more likely to vote for increasing federal power — and for each additional daughter, 5.5% less likely,” Schmidt said. 

Schmidt added that about a third of the delegates had no children at the time, though some had children later. A quarter had only daughters. 

And a child’s gender was not a guarantee of how the delegates would vote. James Madison had no sons at the time and was among the most pro-national. Conversely, George Mason, who was anti-nationalist, had five sons and some daughters, too. 

One has to ponder, though, if the government might have been different with a different mix of founders’ children. “We could have ended with a different constitution,” Pope said.