The Immigrants Among the Founding Fathers

Seven of the 39 men who signed the Constitution of the United States of America were immigrants.
Seven of the 39 men who signed the Constitution of the United States of America were immigrants.

As we approach July 4th, we often think back to the founders of this country and the framers of our Constitution for inspiration and guidance. They were, in many people’s minds, the quintessential Americans. We read books on the Founding Generation by the millions.

Yet we don’t usually think of them as immigrants. A look at who actually founded America tells us that the immigrant contribution to starting this country was much greater than is usually imagined.

Seven of the 39 men who signed the Constitution were immigrants. In fact, two of the three men most associated with its passage, Alexander Hamilton and James Wilson, were foreign-born. One of the three men who wrote the Federalist Papers explaining the Constitution was born abroad.

When George Washington chose Justices of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution, three of his choices were immigrants. James Wilson of Scotland, James Iredell of England, and William Patterson from Ireland made up the immigrant third of the original of the Supreme Court.

Four of the first six Secretaries of the Treasury were immigrants, one each from Switzerland and Scotland, and two from the West Indies. President Washington appointed an Irish immigrant, James McHenry, as Secretary of War in 1796.

Immigrants did not have to rely on Presidential appointment to hold important offices. Of the 81 Congressmen in the first Congress, eight were immigrants.

Immigrants were among the most important writers of the Founding Generation, crafting American ideas of democracy and freedom. The most famous of all, Tom Paine, came from England.

When civil liberties were threatened during John Adams’ administration, Irish-born editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, William Duane risked arrest to take on the president and his Alien and Sedition Acts. Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon, also an Irish immigrant, was jailed under the Alien and Sedition Acts and he became the only Congressman to be reelected while in jail.

When Americans say that this country was “built by immigrants,” they rarely realize that, from the very beginnings, America’s system of government depended on those who came here from somewhere else.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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  1. 48 of the 56 signers were born in America. Two were born in England (Button Gwinnett, Robert Morris), two in Ireland (George Taylor, Matthew Thornton), two in Scotland (James Wilson, John Witherspoon), one in Northern Ireland (James Smith), and one in Wales (Francis Lewis). Isn’t this correct and not seven out of thirty nine ?

    • Thanks for commenting William. While there were 56 men referred to as the “Framers of the Constitution,” the Constitution was signed by 39 delegates on September 17, 1787. Seven were born outside the colonies that became the United States.