Founding Fathers--and Legal Dictionaries

James E. Clapp jeclapp at WANS.NET
Mon Jul 30 22:26:58 UTC 2001

In _Random House Webster's Dictionary of the Law_ (2000) I included a rather
lengthy note (excerpted below) about the phrase "founding fathers."  But
first let me take a moment for shameless self-promotion.

Supplemental notes like this one are among the features that set RHWDL apart
from other legal dictionaries.  They provide historical, etymological, usage,
pronunciation, "false friend," or other information in a more relaxed style
than is typical of dictionaries.  Fred Shapiro alluded to this in the final
sentence of the blurb that he generously provided for the press release,
saying (among other things):  "This superb book stands head and shoulders
above all traditional law dictionaries in quality.  . . .  Even more
remarkably, this is a law dictionary that is actually fun to read, with
interesting nuggets on every page."

Needless to say, everybody on this list should get the book!

My note on "founding fathers" begins as follows (italics denoted by
underscoring, small caps--signifying cross references--by caps):

Discussions and decisions on constitutional issues typically include at least
some reference to the writers and adopters of the Constitution or of the
amendment in question, and competing assertions about what they intended,
contemplated, envisioned, were trying to accomplish, hoped to guard against,
would think if they were alive today, would be aghast to learn, and so on.
This somewhat vaguely defined group (see ORIGINAL INTENT) is most commonly
referred to (with or without the capital letters) as the _Framers,_ the
_Founders,_ or the _Founding Fathers._  (See notes at FRAMER and FOUNDER
regarding capitalization.)  The phrase _Founding Fathers_ now has a slightly
archaic ring, both because it is rather flowery and because it so unashamedly
highlights the fact that women were excluded from the American political
process throughout the period that gave rise to the Constitution and most of
its amendments.  As it happens, however, this is by far the newest of these
terms, having made its first appearance in a reported judicial opinion in
1935.  The phrase made its way into Supreme Court usage in 1945, enjoyed a
brief heyday in Supreme Court opinions in the 1970's and 1980's, and has been
on the wane in that court since then.  By contrast, the term _founders_ has
been used in this sense in Supreme Court opinions since at least the
mid-nineteenth century (originally in such phrases as "the founders of the
Republic" and "the founders of our government").  And the term _framers_ has
been in use virtually from the beginning: the Supreme Court's first
invocation of "the framers of the Constitution" occurred in...1796.  . . . .

James E. Clapp
Author of
Random House Webster's Dictionary of the Law

----- Original Message -----
From: <Ittaob at AOL.COM>
Sent: Sunday, July 29, 2001 11:37 PM
Subject: Founding Fathers vs. Founders

    I just read the July 2 Newsweek, which has an article called "Founders
Chic" about Jefferson, Adams, et al. The article calls them the "Founders,"
stating parenthetically "no longer called the Founding Fathers for reasons of
political correctness." This raised several questions in my mind.

    1. When did this happen? I am a well-read attorney (not a linguist), and
this is the first time I've seen the supposed change in terminology. Are
there citations out there? Is this real, or did Newsweek make it up?

    2. Why did this happen? I understand and support avoiding the use of
"men" and other male-derived terms to refer to groups of humans consisting of
men and women.  But, gee, for gosh sakes, the Founding Fathers were all, dare
we say it, men. Why does political correctness even enter into the equation?
To fool some sensitive schoolgirls into thinking, for a year or two, that
there were a few women in the group? I don't get it.

    Will the next article be referring to "T. Jefferson and J. Adams (no
longer called Thomas and John for reasons of political correctness)"?

    By the way, Newsweek elsewhere in the article refers to them as "genuine

    Steve Boatti

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