In 1776, as they lined up in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Founders attested quite literally to its final words, “We pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” What exactly were their fortunes?
A little over a century ago, Columbia University professor Charles A. Beard asserted that all the Founders were rich and in it for the money. But does Beard’s analysis hold up in the light of a modern investigation using financial records he did not possess?
Examination of the Founders’ lives and their gains and losses through three turbulent decades of breaking away from Great Britain and building a new nation provides a much more nuanced picture.
Some of the Founders were not rich. Samuel Adams, who first raised the alarm of growing Parliamentary pocket-picking of American colonists—“taxation without representation is tyranny”—was born to a Boston malt merchant who tried to set up a mortgage bank. The British not only shut it down but ordered the elder Adams to repay all the loans, bankrupting him. He could no longer afford his son’s expenses at Harvard. The future revolutionary wound up waiting on the tables of his wealthier friends— and hating the British.
His friend, John Hancock, born the son of an impecunious country parson, was adopted by his childless uncle, probably the richest merchant in New England. After completing Harvard, young Hancock learned the whale oil exporting business, at 26 taking over the firm and diversifying it by creating a network of stores and ships that made him even wealthier.
The two men became the leaders of resistance to Britain’s tax policies, and when they fled British troops searching for them in Lexington, Hancock crammed the family fortune into a carriage to invest in the revolution. Turning to the chronically-disheveled Adams, he said, “You can’t go to Congress looking like that.” And bought him a new suit.
The first of the grievances enumerated in the Declaration of Independence was that Britain had banned all banks and colonial currencies. While James Madison, son of a wealthy planter, took his seat in Congress, his horse was evicted from a stable nearby. Philadelphians would not accept Virginia currency.
For the Second Continental Congress, George Washington arrived in a coach drawn by matched horses with liveried outriders. As the threadbare son of a thrice-widowed single mother, he could not afford dancing lessons—the ticket to Tidewater society— and had to borrow a horse to ride off to fight in the French and Indian War.
But that soon changed when after five years of frontier warfare, he married the colony’s wealthiest widow. As the British continued to impose hefty taxes, Washington had to turn to British brokers and bankers and slid into debt. Studying his records, he calculated that the British government and bankers were taking seventy-five percent of his profits.