How many Founding Fathers finished college?

Four in seven—about the same as the nation's graduation rate

Emily Hatton, Staff WriterEmily Hatton, staff writer

This Saturday marks the 239th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Given that the EAB Daily Briefing team views all major news through the lens of higher ed, it got us thinking: Did the nation's Founding Fathers even finish college?

First, we needed to narrow down the definition of Founding Fathers, and historian Richard Morris identified seven "key" leaders from the extensive group that created the United States. Of this cohort, four graduated from college—nearly mirroring today's 59% college completion rate.

Alexander Hamilton: Didn't finish college

In 1773, the future first treasury secretary arrived in New York from the British West Indies in order to attend King's College, now known as Columbia University, at age 16. However, he left school just one year later to begin a political career.

Benjamin Franklin: Didn't attend college

Even though he served as a drafter of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, Franklin had no formal higher education himself. However, he was the primary founder of a school in 1751 that later became the University of Pennsylvania.

He served on the board of trustees from 1749 to 1790, and served as the school president for seven of those years. Additionally, he oversaw the hiring of the school's first provost in 1754.

George Washington: Didn't attend college

Although the leader of the Continental Army and first U.S president never attended college himself, he sat on the board of Chestertown, Maryland's Washington College—then known as College at Chester—and accepted an honorary degree from the school in 1789.

In 1782 Washington gave the college a founding gift of 50 guineas, served on the board of visitors and governors for five years, and allowed the institution to bear his name.

The donation—the largest of the year—went toward scientific equipment.

Each year, Washington College celebrates its namesake with the "Birthday Ball."

James Madison: Graduated college

The fourth U.S. president attended the College of New Jersey, which eventually became known as Princeton University. He enrolled in 1769 and graduated in 1771 after completing his studies in Latin, Greek, science, and philosophy. But he stayed for an extra term to study philosophy and Hebrew with the university president Rev. John Witherspoon.

Madison went on to write the first drafts of the U.S. Constitution, co-write the Federalist Papers, and sponsor the Bill of Rights. He also served on a financial board to help create the University of Virginia, and assumed leadership of the school in 1826 when Thomas Jefferson died.

John Adams: Graduated law school

The second president of the United States—and first vice president—began studying on a scholarship at Harvard University at age 16. Upon graduating in 1755 at age 20, he studied law, earning his master's degree from Harvard and was admitted to the bar in 1758.

John Jay: Graduated law school

Jay studied at King's College (now Columbia University) from 1760 to 1764 in the conventional classical program. He then became a law clerk and was admitted to the bar in 1768.

Along with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, he penned the Federalist Papers. He also served as the secretary of foreign affairs, and later became the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thomas Jefferson: Graduated law school

In 1760, Jefferson entered the philosophy school at the College of William & Mary, where he was known to study up to 15 hours a day. Upon completing his studies in 1762, he read law for five years under George Wythe, who later would become William & Mary's first law professor in 1779.

Additionally, in 1779 the future third president of the United States and principal author of the Declaration of Independence drafted a proposal, "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," that inspired William & Mary's "Jeffersonian Reorganization." The overhaul closed the institution's grammar and divinity schools, and added "law of nature and nations" instruction to moral philosophy. New professor positions were created for law and police, modern language, and anatomy and medicine. The restructuring also created the first elective system.

Not yet through with higher education, he founded the University of Virginia in 1819 to education students in public service and practical affairs. Jefferson planned curriculum, hired the first faculty members, and designed the Academical Village—inspiration for other schools' campus greens.  Although he did not support granting degrees, which he called "artificial embellishments," the school eventually began to do so.


Like what you're reading?

Subscribe now to see all of our latest articles, infographics, and expert research.

Subscribe today →


Next in Today's Briefing

Professor: Digital natives are not 'a new species'

Next Briefing

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague