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This July Fourth, Remember the ‘Founding Scoundrels’

They helped build America, too.
July 3, 2023
This July Fourth, Remember the ‘Founding Scoundrels’
Artist's depiction of the 1807 treason trial of Aaron Burr. (Bettmann / Getty)

As Americans celebrating Independence Day, we tend to want to remember the ideal promised by the new nation: that the United States would be a place where high-minded people led virtuous citizens in a spirit of well-ordered liberty. That’s what Thomas Paine meant in 1776 when he wrote that “we have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth.” And it’s certainly how the Founding Fathers themselves wanted to be remembered.

But some of their contemporaries interpreted “every opportunity” differently.

These particular individuals would fight for independence from Britain, sure, and even establish new political and social institutions—so long as they could also serve themselves. Across the country there were land speculators, like William Blount, who used his position in the federal government to build a private empire in Tennessee; schemers, like Aaron Burr, who preyed on the new government’s weakness to advance his political ambitions; and spies, like James Wilkinson, a high-ranking general in the early U.S. Army who traded information for influence.

Though denounced by their enemies as scoundrels, these self-interested men, active both inside and outside the new government, were not simply villains the sainted Founders defeated. Often influential in their communities, they played critical roles in building the United States into what it would become. Recalling their stories gives us a fuller picture of the founding we celebrate each July Fourth.

William Blount fought in the North Carolina militia during the Revolution. A participant in the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, he was among the signers of the Constitution, and saw new opportunities in the new government. In 1790, after moving west, he finagled an appointment as territorial governor of what would become Tennessee—where he used his position to cheat Native Americans and grab the best tracts of land for himself, flipping them to farmers moving across the Appalachians. In 1796, Blount became one of Tennessee’s first U.S. senators—and in July 1797, he became the first member of Congress to be expelled, thanks to a treasonous land swindle he plotted with British agents in Spanish Louisiana. The next year, already out of office, he became the first senator to be impeached—and ultimately the only one, because his impeachment trial established the precedent that senators are not subject to impeachment.

By the time Blount died in 1800, days before what would have been his fifty-first birthday, his reputation lay in tatters. It has never recovered. But for all the scandal and ignominy, it’s worth remembering that Blount’s wheeling and dealing helped Tennessee become a state.

A name more familiar to Americans nowadays is that of Aaron Burr, given his prominent role as a character in Hamilton. But in his own lifetime, Burr was notorious for reasons that went far beyond his shooting of the former Treasury secretary. Burr had a proud record of service to the United States, having joined the Continental Army as a teenager in 1775, and at every step of the new nation’s life, he walked alongside it as a state and national official, including as vice president during Thomas Jefferson’s first term. Burr was—people sometimes forget this—the sitting vice president in July 1804 at the time of his deadly duel with Hamilton.

Searching for a return to prominence following the disrepute of the duel, Burr organized a military adventure in the trans-Appalachian west. Frontiersmen resented the Eastern elites who left them vulnerable to Native American and Spanish enemies. Burr saw the opportunity in their precarious situation. His plans were always mysterious, and he insisted that his private militia was just in case of an outbreak of war with Spain. Burr’s militant-looking scheme spooked President Jefferson, who authorized the arrest of his former VP.

Burr’s 1807 trial for treason riveted the nation and inflamed partisan passions. Brought to court, he was acquitted in no small part because the trial judge, Chief Justice John Marshall, a cousin and committed political foe of Jefferson, defined treason narrowly for the jury. (In those days, Supreme Court justices still “rode the circuit,” and Marshall was acting in his capacity as trial judge for the federal circuit court in Virginia.) The case was important to defining the legal limits of treason—and it was the nadir of Burr’s long life of public service and political striving.

James Wilkinson’s name is everywhere in the records of the early republic’s borderlands. At the age of 20, he became a general in the Continental Army; after the war he became the highest-ranking general in the new U.S. Army. At the same time, he was known to the Spanish as “Agent 13”—a confidential informant on American plans in the West. Wilkinson was also an early trader in Kentucky and helped attract a population that would make the territory a state full of the kind of restless Americans feared by Spanish officials.

Wilkinson was an effective military commander and frontier diplomat, protecting U.S. interests in Louisiana, including when he turned on Burr to raise the alarm that led to his arrest. His involvement with Spain wasn’t revealed until after his death in 1825. At best, Wilkinson was an opportunist, playing both the Spanish and his own government against each other for his personal benefit. Today, this would make him a spy, a criminal, and possibly even a traitor.

Blount, Burr, and Wilkinson were just three of the many Revolutionary-era Americans making their world anew. Though they failed to uphold the ideal of public virtue prized at the time and ever since, they were critical to making the United States a nation. It is understandable that they aren’t venerated among the ranks of those we call “Founding Fathers,” but we should take care not to forget these “Founding Scoundrels.”

Timothy C. Hemmis and David Head

Timothy C. Hemmis is an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University–Central Texas. David Head is an associate lecturer of history at the University of Central Florida and Distinguished Faculty Fellow in History at Kentucky Wesleyan College. They are co-editors of A Republic of Scoundrels: The Schemers, Intriguers, and Adventurers Who Created a New American Nation, which will be published in December 2023.