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Some little known facts about our nation’s founding fathers

Few figures in U.S. history are as well known as the Founding Fathers — a cadre of generals, writers, politicians, lawyers, and one particular dentist who fought for and founded the United States. Although many of us know the broad facts about America’s founders, and almost as many myths (George Washington never actually cut down a cherry tree, for instance), there are still many little-known stories about these famous figures. Here are seven facts about the Founding Fathers that may surprise you.

Paul Revere was a pioneering dentist

Paul Revere went down in history for his famous “Midnight Ride,” when, as the story goes, he warned the residents of Lexington, Massachusetts, that “the British are coming” (though he likely never said that exact phrase). But what few people know is that Revere was also a local dentist. In 1770, five years before his “Midnight Ride,” Revere placed an ad in the Boston Gazette that read, “Fix [teeth] as well as any Surgeon-Dentist who ever came from London.” What’s more, Revere was the first person in the U.S. to practice dental forensics. One of Revere’s patients was physician Joseph Warren, the Patriot who alerted Revere about the British advance the night of April 18, 1775. Warren was killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill a few months later, and it took nine months — after the British evacuated Boston — for Revere to search the mass graves for his friend. As Warren’s dentist, Revere was able to successfully identify the body by noticing his own dental handiwork, the first known use of dental forensics in the new nation. 

Benjamin Franklin invented an instrument that was used by Mozart and Beethoven

In the mid-1700s, while spending time in Europe, Benjamin Franklin experienced what was a popular musical performance at the time: 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. Franklin had his share of odd ideas over the years (such as his failed phonetic alphabet), but 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, which may have been due to lead poisoning (the instrument used lead paint to color code each bowl) or the instrument’s vibrations. Today, a few musicians still practice the subtle, ethereal art of the glass armonica. 

Alexander Hamilton likely lied about his age

Thanks to the hit 2015 musical Hamilton, America’s first treasury secretary is now one of the most famous Founding Fathers. Yet historians are still unclear on one very basic piece of information about him: his age. Hamilton always insisted that he was born in 1757, but official documents from the Caribbean island of Nevis, where Hamilton was born, state the year as 1755. Experts have debated the reason behind this discrepancy, and most believe Hamilton lied about his age on purpose. Why? Well, there are a couple theories. One theory put forward by historians takes us back to 1768, when Hamilton was (probably) 13. That year his mother died, and since his father had abandoned the family years earlier, Hamilton was effectively an orphan. To score an apprenticeship with a local businessman, Hamilton may have lied and said he was 11, which was a more appropriate age to begin training for a trade. Ron Chernow, author of the biography Alexander Hamilton (the literary inspiration behind the musical), has offered a different theory, suggesting Hamilton might have altered his age on his application to Princeton to appear as a prodigy in the eyes of his peers. 

Thomas Jefferson wrote his own epitaph and left out that he’d been president

Before his death, Thomas Jefferson outlined a few specific instructions for his burial; for instance, he wanted the obelisk to be made of coarse stone. Always the writer, Jefferson also crafted his own epitaph highlighting the achievements for which he hoped to be remembered, and, as he put it, “not a word more.” It reads: “Here was buried / Thomas Jefferson / Author of the Declaration of American Independence / of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom / & Father of the University of Virginia.” 

Strangely, nowhere on this epitaph does Jefferson state that he was President of an entire nation; he also fails to mention that he served as governor of Virginia, secretary of state, and Vice President. It’s possible that Jefferson was more proud of his intellectual contributions than the moments he held power. In 1883, Jefferson’s descendants donated the original gravestone to the University of Missouri — a campus designed in a similar fashion to Jefferson’s University of Virginia and the first university in the region acquired by the Louisiana Purchase. Today, a new gravestone marks the founding father’s final resting place, but the epitaph remains the same — still omitting Jefferson’s time as the nation’s chief executive.

Thomas Paine wasn’t popular until long after he was dead

Writer and political activist Thomas Paine played a unique role in America’s road to independence. Instead of fighting with a sword and musket (he didn’t prove to be a very good soldier), Paine fought for his fledgling country with his pen. One of his most important works is the political pamphlet Common Sense. Published on January 10, 1776, it lays out the American colonies’ united cause against the British Empire and King George III, and was one of the bestselling works in 18th-century America. His follow-up pamphlet The American Crisis (published between 1776 and 1783) opened with the iconic line, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” and gave much-needed encouragement to the struggling Continental Army. 

Without Paine’s writing, which stirred up the revolutionary spirit throughout the colonies and persuaded many Patriots to fight on, there may not be an America, so it’s strange that at the time of his death (and for more than a century afterward), many Americans didn’t think very highly of him. When Paine died in 1809, only six people attended his funeral in New York’s Greenwich Village — an obituary at the time even wrote, “He had lived long, done some good, and much harm.” The “harm” referred to his radical anti-Christian viewsfound throughout his work The Age of Reason. Although Paine was actually a deist and not an atheist, his reasoning was too controversial for a deeply religious America, and many U.S. schools avoided teaching Paine because of his radical views. But times changed, and in 1937 an article in the Times of London referred to Paine as “America’s Voltaire,” a reference to the influential 18th-century French writer who also questioned religious beliefs. Paine’s legacy has been on the mend ever since with statues and memorials dedicated to him throughout the U.S. Today his former cottage in New Rochelle, New York, is considered a U.S. National Historic Landmark.

George Washington lost more battles than he won

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 and assisted by the French navy, decisively ended British ambitions in the colonies at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. 

James Madison is the shortest president (so far)

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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