In The Founding Fortunes, historian Tom Shachtman reveals the ways in which a dozen notable Revolutionaries deeply affected the finances and birth of the new country while making and losing their fortunes.
While history teaches that successful revolutions depend on participation by the common man, the establishment of a stable and independent United States first required wealthy colonials uniting to disrupt the very system that had enriched them, and then funding a very long war. While some fortunes were made during the war at the expense of the poor, many of the wealthy embraced the goal of obtaining for their poorer countrymen an unprecedented equality of opportunity, along with independence.
In addition to nuanced views of the well-known wealthy such as Robert Morris and John Hancock, and of the less wealthy but influential Alexander Hamilton, The Founding Fortunes offers insight into the contributions of those often overlooked by popular history: Henry Laurens, the plantation owner who replaced Hancock as President of Congress; pioneering businessmen William Bingham, Jeremiah Wadsworth, and Stephen Girard; privateer magnate Elias Hasket Derby; and Hamilton’s successors at Treasury, Oliver Wolcott, Jr. and Albert Gallatin.
The Founders dealt with tariffs, taxes on the wealthy, the national debt, regional disparities, the census as it affected finances, and how much of what America needs should be manufactured at home in ways that remain startlingly relevant. Revelatory and insightful, The Founding Fortunes provides a riveting history of economic patriotism that still resonates today.
Historian Shachtman (How the French Saved America) offers a comprehensive survey of the economic factors that led to the Revolutionary War and explores how wealthy merchants, plantation owners, and privateers supported and benefited from the conflict in this workmanlike account. Among the ranks of affluent colonists whose resistance to British rule went against their own interests, Shachtman lists John Dickinson, a lawyer and Pennsylvania land owner who called on patriots to protest the 1767 Townshend Acts by refusing to import household staples including sugar and mustard, as well as luxury items such as silk garments and jewelry. Nonimportation of British goods also boosted American manufacturing and led to "a modest redistribution of wealth," according to a historian quoted by Shachtman. Debunking the myth of the Continental Army soldier as a yeoman farmer, Shachtman shows that most were young, poor, and propertyless. (George Washington recruited his Virginia regiment by promising enrollees 100 acres of land at the end of their service.) To equip and feed the army, prosperous merchants such as Thomas Mifflin, Washington's quartermaster general, extended their personal credit to purchase supplies. Shachtman marshals his evidence efficiently and enlivens his account with bold, direct statements ("the Constitution was as much about capitalism as democracy"). Colonial history buffs will savor this sharply focused study.