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Original photo by Timothy R. Nichols/ Shutterstock
7 Amazing Facts About America’s Famous Founding Fathers
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Article image
Original photo by Timothy R. Nichols/ Shutterstock

Few figures loom as large in American history as the Founding Fathers. Although wrapped in myth and shrouded in legend, these leaders lived fascinating lives molding a fractious colony into a new nation. Although their stories have been meticulously detailed — through their own writings as well as centuries of biographies and classroom textbooks — not everything about them is well known. Which famous general lost more battles than he won? Which two Founding Fathers died on the same day? Which one invented a strange musical instrument? Here are seven little-known facts about the men who created a nation.

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John Adams and Thomas Jefferson Died on the Same Day

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Livingstone and Roger Sherman.
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John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, bitter political rivals and, at times, close friends, died on the very same day — July 4, 1826, 50 years after signing the Declaration of Independence. The two were the last surviving of the original revolutionaries who helped forge a new nation after breaking with the British Empire. During their presidencies, the two diverged on policy and became leaders of opposing political parties, but at the urging of another founding father, Benjamin Rush, around 1812, Adams and Jefferson began a correspondence that lasted the rest of their lives. On his deathbed at the age of 90, Adams’ last words were reportedly “Jefferson still lives,” but he was mistaken — Jefferson had died five hours earlier in Monticello, Virginia.

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James Madison Was the Shortest President in U.S. History

Portrait of James Madison, 4th President of the United States.
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Although James Madison’s signature doesn’t adorn the Declaration of Independence, as the nation’s fourth President and chief architect of the Bill of Rights, he’s widely regarded as one of the most influential Founding Fathers. Madison had a large impact on early U.S. history even though he is also the country’s shortest President thus far, standing just 5 feet and 4 inches tall. That makes Madison a full foot shorter than America’s tallest President, Abraham Lincoln (and no, that height doesn’t include Lincoln’s signature stovepipe hat).

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John Hancock Was Accused of Smuggling

Portrait of John Hancock.
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On May 24, 1775, John Hancock became the presiding officer over the Second Continental Congress. A little more than a year later, his signature became famous when he wrote his name in grandiose letters, taking up some 6 square inches, on the Declaration of Independence. (Legend says Hancock wanted the king to be able to see it without spectacles.) However, Hancock was also known as an importer, and — at least when it came to British tea — was accused of being a smuggler. The British seized his sloop Liberty in 1768 because of suspected smuggling, which instigated a riot. Luckily, fellow founding father and lawyer John Adams cleared Hancock of all charges, and there was only flimsy evidence for the charges in the first place.

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Sam Adams Might Never Have Brewed Beer

Bottles of Samuel Adams beer.
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Sam Adams was the most influential member of the Sons of Liberty, a loosely organized political organization that formed in opposition to the Stamp Act in 1765. But to many Americans, he’s also the name behind one of the most successful beer brands in the U.S. The company says it picked the name because its founder, Jim Koch, “shared a similar spirit in leading the fight for independence and the opportunity for all Americans to pursue happiness and follow their dreams.” That’s good, because it’s not clear whether Sam Adams actually ever brewed beer. After his father’s death in 1748, Adams inherited his malt house, which is where grains are converted into malt that’s then sold to brewers. But within only a few years, the business was bankrupt and the malt house itself was crumbling; the whole family estate was then put up for auction. Adams proved more effective as a political firebrand than as a “maltster.”

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George Washington Lost More Battles Than He Won

American General and later the first President of the United States, George Washington.
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General George Washington embodies the phrase “losing the battle but winning the war,” because during the American Revolution, he lost more battles than he won. Despite some experience in the British army, Washington had little experience fielding a large fighting force, and the Continental Army was filled with soldiers who were far from professional fighters. However, Washington’s resilience, determination, and long-term strategy eventually won the day. According to Washington’s aide Alexander Hamilton, the plan was simple: “Our hopes are not placed in any particular city, or spot of ground, but in preserving a good army … to take advantage of favorable opportunities, and waste and defeat the enemy by piecemeal.” Washington, also aided by competent generals such as Nathanael Greene and assisted by the French Navy, decisively ended British ambitions in the colonies at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.

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Benjamin Franklin Invented a Musical Instrument Used by Mozart and Beethoven

Czech glass harmonica from the first half of the nineteenth century.
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In the mid-1700s, while serving as a delegate for the American colonies in Europe, Benjamin Franklin experienced a popular musical performance — singing glasses. Intrigued by the beautiful sound of a wet finger on glass, Franklin developed an instrument known as a “glass armonica” in 1761. Working with a glassblower in London, Franklin altered the thickness of glass bowls, interlocked along a rod, in order to produce a range of pitches.

Far from being one of Franklin’s odder ideas (like his failed phonetic alphabet), the glass armonica was an 18th-century sensation. Some of the era’s greatest composers, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, wrote music for the instrument. However, it was largely forgotten by the 1820s — many musicians complained of dizziness and other symptoms after playing it, with some blaming lead poisoning or the instrument’s vibrations as the cause. Today, a few musicians still practice the subtle, ethereal art of the glass armonica.

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Alexander Hamilton Was Captain of One of the Oldest U.S. Army Regiments in Existence

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle makes it way along the Hudson River.
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Alexander Hamilton is known for many things — he was the prolific writer behind the Federalist Papers, the first secretary of the treasury, the creator of the U.S. Coast Guard, and the inspiration for one of Broadway’s biggest musicals. What’s less celebrated about Hamilton is his military career, though when fighting broke out, the eager immigrant from Nevis island in the Caribbean joined the cause. On March 14, 1776, Hamilton was named captain of the New York Provincial Company of Artillery, and soon fought in the battles at Kip’s Bay and White Plains, among others. Hamilton slowly climbed up the military ladder, first serving as General George Washington’s aide and then as commander of a light infantry battalion at the decisive Battle of Yorktown. However, it’s his original artillery company that holds a singular distinction. Known today as 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment, Hamilton’s former artillery unit is one of the oldest active regiments still serving in the U.S. Army.