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Constitution Daily

A Salute to the Four Founding Fathers Born in Ireland

When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, half of its foreign-born delegates were born in Ireland. For St. Patrick’s Day, here’s a look at these forgotten figures.

By the time of the convention in May 1787, almost all of the 55 delegates who took part in the discussions that summer were born in America. The exceptions were Alexander Hamilton (from the West Indies), James Wilson (Scotland), William Richardson Davie and Robert Morris (England), and the four delegates born in Ireland.

Here’s a look at the four men who played varying roles in the Constitution’s creation.

William Paterson

Paterson represented New Jersey at the convention, but he was born in County Antrim, Ireland, in 1745. He came over to America at the age of two with his family. Young William graduated from Princeton at the age of 18 and soon became a prominent lawyer.

Paterson served as New Jersey’s first attorney general before the Constitutional Convention. He was only at the convention until late July, but he co-authored the New Jersey, or Paterson, Plan, which sought to protect smaller states against larger ones. Under the Paterson Plan, there would be one legislature with equal representation from each state.

Part of the Paterson Plan was kept in the Connecticut Compromise, which established the House of Representatives (with representation based on population) and the Senate (which embodied part of Paterson’s plan).

After the convention, Paterson became a Senator, the Governor of New Jersey, and then a Supreme Court Justice for 13 years until his death in 1806.

James McHenry

Born in Ballymena, County Antrim, Ireland, in 1753, McHenry is better-known today for the fort that was later named after him in Baltimore. McHenry was educated in Ireland and came to America in his late teens, with his family soon following him over.

McHenry continued his education at Newark Academy in Delaware and studied medicine for two years with Dr. Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia. He also was on General George Washington’s staff and he served at Valley Forge, and with the Marquis de Lafayette.

Unfortunately, a family illness kept McHenry away from much of the Constitutional Convention. McHenry later served as Secretary of War for Presidents Washington and Adams.

Pierce Butler

Butler was born in 1744 in County Carlow, Ireland, and his father was Sir Richard Butler, who was a member of Parliament and a baronet. He also served in the King’s military for a time.

Butler moved to South Carolina when he married into a wealthy family. He became a planter and a local political and militia leader, and he was elected to represent South Carolina at the Constitutional Convention. Once there, Butler attended most of the sessions in Philadelphia and he was part of the James Madison-James Wilson caucus. Butler also supported slavery in the South.

Thomas Fitzsimons

Fitzsimons was born in Ireland in 1741, and like James McHenry, he made the journey across the Atlantic in his late teens.

Fitzsimons started a mercantile career in Philadelphia and he went into business with one of his brothers-in-law. Their firm, George Meade and Company, was one of the leading commercial houses in Philadelphia. He also supported the revolutionary cause and paid for supplies to help in the fight against the British.

After the war, Fitzsimons served in the Continental Congress and while he attended the Constitutional Convention as a delegate from Pennsylvania and active in the debates. After the convention, Fitzsimons served three terms in the U.S. House, until he went back to his private life.




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