The Founding Fathers: What Were They Really Like?

Joanne Freeman
Joanne Freeman
Yale University

Joanne B. Freeman is an award-winning professor of history and American studies at Yale University and the author of The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War. Freeman has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, NPR, PBS, and The History Channel, as well as in The New York Times and the Washington Post, and is a co-host of the popular history podcast “BackStory.” Her award-winning history, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic, was declared one of the year’s “Best Books” by The Atlantic.



July 4, 2022, 4:00 pm

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America’s Founding Fathers were ambitious. They were grouchy (especially John Adams). They were scared. They were hopeful. They told jokes (sometimes dirty ones.) They fought. They schemed. They gossiped. They slung a lot of mud. They occasionally killed each other (sorry, Alexander Hamilton.) They improvised. They made great big crashing mistakes. And above all, they were human. John Adams said so, more than once. Responding to an awestruck letter written to him in his old age, Adams replied: “I ought not to object to your reverence for your fathers…. But to tell you a very great secret, as far as I am capable of comparing the merit of different periods, I have no reason to believe we were better than you are.”

To Adams, as to many of his peers, one of the most important things to remember about America’s founding was that it was a human story. The Founders were real people with real weaknesses as well as strengths, engaged in an enormous political experiment that they hoped would have worldwide significance, but that seemed just as likely to collapse as to prevail. Only by seeing the Founders as human can we appreciate the full story of the nation’s founding with all of its drama, humor, and significance intact. This talk will explore what it felt like to be one of the nation’s founders, standing on the national stage, bringing an experimental government to life, and wondering what would happen next.



Eric Jay Dolin


Engaging, illuminating, and thought-provoking. Professor Freeman is a wonderful lecturer, her enthusiasm is contagious. I wish I had had more professors like her. She makes history fun as well as interesting, which is what it should be.





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