The founding fortunes How the wealthy paid for and profited from America's revolution

Tom Shachtman, 1942-

Book - 2020

"In The Founding Fortunes, historian Tom Shachtman offers an in-depth look at a time when money became as vital as guns in securing victory on the Revolutionary War's battlefields, and how some of America's wealthiest men risked their fortunes to aid the new country even as they reaped benefits from its independence. While history teaches that successful revolutions depend on participation by the common man, the establishment of a stable and independent United States first require...d 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. Tom Shachtman tells this story through tracing the lives of a dozen men who made and lost fortunes, and deeply affected the finances of the new country. 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. Revelatory and insightful, The Founding Fortunes provides a riveting history of economic patriotism that still resonates today"--

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New York : St. Martin's Press 2020.
First edition
Physical Description
xi, 338 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 297-320) and index.
Main Author
Tom Shachtman, 1942- (author)
  • Part one: Colonial matters, 1763-1776, Offensive acts
  • Resistance becomes rebellion
  • Pledging lives and fortunes
  • Part two: The Revolutionary War, 1776-1781. Blood, property, and profit
  • Valley Forge dreams
  • Interlude: assault on Fort Wilson
  • Bricks without straw: the path to Yorktown
  • Part three: Victory and aftermath, 1781-1789. Triumph, and the costs of war
  • Targets of ire
  • Curing the defects
  • Part four: The federalist ascendancy, 1789-1796. Washington: creating the establishment
  • Progress, panic, and paternalism
  • New resistance to authority
  • Part five: Parties, populism, and striving for economic independence, 1797-1813. Adams: necessary transitions
  • Jefferson: the pendulum swing
  • Madison: a war for economic freedom.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (Jan.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Kirkus Book Review

An ingenious examination of how money played the central role in the founding of the United States.As prolific historian Shachtman (How the French Saved America: Soldiers, Sailors, Diplomats, Louis XVI, and the Success of a Revolution, 2017, etc.) points out, fighting Britain was extremely expensive. Lacking the power to tax, the Continental Congress performed terribly in their efforts to supply the army, but this obscures the fact that it spent a great deal of money and many men got rich. Partly, this was inherent in the primitive administration of 18th-century governments. Paid no salary, officials took a commission from money that passed through their hands, a practice that encouraged corruption. It was also not illegal to mix public and private business, so officials purchased from themselves or their friends. Due to slow communication and scanty legal protection, merchants and buyers relied on promises, personal guarantees, risky loans, and favors. Genuinely patriotic merchants like Robert Morris, as well as less admirable figures, took terrible risks and often suffered for it. Morris died poor. The feeble confederation that followed independence exasperated those concerned with foreign affairs, trade, raising capital, and collecting debts but not the average American. Shachtman emphasizes that no mass movement demanded change. The Constitution was championed "by a very small subset of the country's wealthy. If we add to the fifty-five men who attended the Constitutional Convention, twice or three times that number of nondelegates who later took the lead in urging ratificationthe total is at best a few hundred men." They looked after their own interests, and their priorities were social order, contracts, collecting debts, and a strong currency. However, as the author shows, unlike the ultrawealthy today, most embraced equality of opportunity. Shachtman carries his account past the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, who opposed powerful governments, banks, and (in theory) great wealth. Despite this, the author maintains that his elimination of taxes and regulations increased equality of opportunity without inconveniencing the rich, and America prospered.A provocative argument that wealthy men built America and did a good job. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.