The Founding Fathers ended their Declaration of Independence with this solemn oath: “We pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” In his superb The Founders’ Fortunes: How Money Shaped the Birth of America, historian and biographer Willard Sterne Randall explores in extensive detail the economic circumstances of the budding republic. It also offers a history of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among others, as businessmen.
The need for money was a major factor for individuals and governments before the American Revolution, and its importance only increased throughout the war and postwar periods. English settlers had risked their lives and fortunes for many years to establish new colonies, which vastly increased England’s commerce. Yet, facing a huge debt, Parliament sought to gain even more revenue by taxing American colonists. Their opposition sparked the resistance that led to the Revolutionary War.
The 1764 Currency Act had outlawed all colonial currency. Lack of money for Washington’s troops was an ongoing problem during the war, as well as a problem for keeping promises to veterans afterward. When the war ended, the new country was in a depression that prevented them from being financially independent. In addition to these highlights, Randall covers smuggling, war profiteering and privateering, establishing a stable currency, economic diplomacy and much more.
The personal stories of the Founding Fathers’ wealth are especially interesting. For example, Washington and Jefferson were land rich but cash poor, despite their possession of hundreds of enslaved people. Randall explores less well-known figures, as well, such as three patriotic and wealthy men named Robert Morris, Silas Deane and James Wilson. They (and their money) played important roles in winning the war and securing America’s government, but each died in debt.
Randall is a biographer of Washington, Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, so he knows his territory well. The Founders’ Fortunes will hold readers’ interests with its carefully drawn portraits of personalities and insightful analyses of events.