Viral Claim Says Every US Founding Father Was a Felon. Here Are the Facts

Getty Images (painting by John Trumbull)
Getty Images (painting by John Trumbull)

In the wake of former U.S. President Donald Trump's landmark felony convictions in a hush-money case involving a porn star, many of his supporters took to social media to support him.

Conservative commentator Benny Johnson posted a short video to TikTok and YouTube comparing Donald Trump's status to the country's Founding Fathers, telling viewers in the caption that "EVERY founding father was a FELON."

This claim spread across social media (with conservative author and filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza — convicted of a campaign-finance felony in 2014 and later pardoned by Trump — mistakenly claiming the U.S. Constitution was signed in 1776).

Johnson gave us a lot of information to unpack in just a few short words.

Who Were the Founding Fathers?

This question might sound a bit silly, but the term "Founding Fathers" doesn't have a strict definition.

There's a rather large pool of names we could choose from, in fact. The National Archives stores documents from a "Big Seven" list, consisting of the first four presidents (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison), Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. The Encyclopedia Britannica leaves off Jay in place of Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Marshall and George Mason. Some lists simply combine the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, but this leaves out some military figures and others who never served at a national level.

In this case, Johnson specifically called attention to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, claiming that their signatures "guaranteed that the Founding Fathers would be treated as felons." Among those 56 signers, the most famous names are John Hancock, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Franklin and Jefferson.

In order to figure out whether the Founding Fathers were actually felons, however, we first need to know what a felony is.

What Is a Felony and What Is a Felon?

In the United States, a felony is a serious crime generally punishable by more than one year in prison — it's as simple as that. Because the United Kingdom does not consistently differentiate between felonies and misdemeanors, we'll use the American definition (it won't end up mattering, for reasons we'll explain later). Therefore, one might assume every person who has committed a crime classified as a felony is a felon.

However, this approach is wrong — a felon is someone who has been convicted of a felony. As an example: You couldn't accurately call O.J. Simpson a murderer for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman because he was not convicted on (felony) murder charges. Therefore, he was not a felon until 2008, when he was convicted of the felony of robbery.

A common critique of this approach is that the meaning and sentiment of the statement is understandable whether the word "felon" is technically the correct term. However, this is a slippery slope — when sharing information online, it's best to be as precise as possible.

Did the Founding Fathers Commit Felonies?

In his video, Johnson never explicitly stated what crime the Founding Fathers supposedly committed, but based on his argument it's clear that the crime in question was signing the Declaration of Independence — ergo, treason.

Logically, this makes sense: Signing a document that declared an open revolt against the British Empire seems like the textbook definition of treason. Furthermore, treason is so special that it's the only crime defined directly in the U.S. Constitution:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted.

A treason charge doesn't always lead to a conviction — after the American Civil War, many Confederate leaders were charged with treason, but the charges were later dropped. Even earlier, former Vice President Aaron Burr — who was indicted on a murder charge (later dropped) for shooting and killing Hamilton in a 1804 duel — was acquitted on a treason charge in 1807 for allegedly attempting to found his own independent country. But these examples bring up another, even more important point: Treason is a crime defined by the victors. In the words of the author John Harington:

Treason doth never prosper; what's the reason?

For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

In other words, determining whether the Founding Fathers committed treason is a moot point because the American Revolution succeeded. The Founding Fathers certainly understood when they signed the Declaration of Independence that doing so would risk charges of treason. However, that was also part of why they signed the Declaration — they believed the British were restricting the individual liberties of the colonies.

In fact, according to the annotated version of the U.S. Constitution on, the reason the definition of treason is so strict in the United States is because of how often it was misused in England, with authorities essentially leveling charges of treason against people who had simply criticized the government.

From the British perspective, yes, the Founding Fathers had committed a felony (indeed, a few Founding Fathers were jailed during the course of the American Revolution). But from the American perspective, the Founding Fathers were not felons: They were rebels who felt that British rule was unjust.

Additionally, not all of the Founding Fathers faced repercussions for their "seditious" activities: As an example, Franklin and John Adams spent a large part of the American Revolution in France petitioning for military aid and international recognition, outside of British jurisdiction and influence. By the time they returned, the United States was an independent nation, nullifying any possible repercussions.


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