The founders' fortunes How money shaped the birth of America

Willard Sterne Randall

Book - 2022

"In 1776, upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers concluded America's most consequential document with a curious note, pledging 'our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.' Lives and honor did indeed hang in the balance, yet just what were their fortunes? How much did the Founders stand to gain or lose through independence? And what lingering consequences did their respective financial stakes have on liberty, justice, and the fate of the fledgling United States of America?"--Provided by the publisher.

Saved in:

2nd Floor Show me where

1 / 1 copies available
Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 973.30922/Randall Checked In
[New York, New York] : Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC [2022]
Main Author
Willard Sterne Randall (author)
Physical Description
x, 325 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (chiefly color) ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 299-305) and index.
  • Prologue
  • Part 1. "The Way to Wealth"
  • Chapter 1. "A Penny Saved"
  • Chapter 2. "My Constant Gain Every Day"
  • Chapter 3. "Join, or Die"
  • Chapter 4. "Who Would Have Thought It?"
  • Chapter 5. "Tribune of the People"
  • Chapter 6. "Between Two Fires"
  • Chapter 7. "The Child Independence Is Born"
  • Chapter 8. "An Ill-Judged Measure"
  • Chapter 9. "What More Can They Desire?"
  • Chapter 10. "Half of England Is Now Land-Mad"
  • Part 2. Breaking Away
  • Chapter 11. "Bone of Our Bone"
  • Chapter 12. "The Prime Conductor"
  • Chapter 13. "Improving Our Fortunes"
  • Chapter 14. "'Tis Time to Part"
  • Chapter 15. "Unpardonable Rebellion"
  • Chapter 16. "Independence Like a Torrent"
  • Chapter 17. "A Free and Independent People"
  • Chapter 18. "Very Useful Here & Much Esteemed"
  • Chapter 19. "For a Little Revenge"
  • Part 3. "The Crisis Is Arrived"
  • Chapter 20. "Discordant Parts"
  • Chapter 21. "The Pests of Society"
  • Chapter 22. "For Want of Pay"
  • Chapter 23. "The Most Sordid Interest"
  • Chapter 24. "Heaven Was Silent"
  • Chapter 25. "I Shall Not Rest"
  • Chapter 26. "The Impending Storm"
  • Chapter 27. "Plain, Honest Men"
  • Chapter 28. "The Dinner Table Bargain"
  • Chapter 29. "Clintonia Borealis"
  • Chapter 30. "The Best Room In This House"
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

In his twelfth book, colonial history scholar and former award-winning reporter Randall re-examines progressive historian Charles Beard's hypothesis that economic forces played an outsized role in shaping the U.S. Constitution. Using sources not available to Beard, Randall shows how the Founders' finances influenced their economic and political decisions, from the French and Indian War to John Adams' presidency. Randall asserts that America's richest colonials were not a monolithic class, describing shifting alliances and rivalries during colonial times and the early days of the republic. Despite substantial riches, the fortunes of many Founders tanked or nearly tanked, Randall reveals, after the revolution. If the revolution had failed, he observes, the British would have hanged, drawn, and quartered the Founders as traitors. The book's strong organization, the conversion of colonial financial sums to modern dollars, and well-paced and lively writing make for an outstanding work of American history and a joy to read. Alongside the financial history, Randall's account of the Founders' world is compelling and highly readable, while his description of French aid during the revolution suggests that FDR got the Lend-Lease idea from Louis XVI. Randall's dry wit drives the true stories of French police searching Ben Franklin's underwear and Sam Adams' beer career.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Historian Randall (Unshackling America) explores in this intriguing yet unsatisfying survey how the founding fathers' personal financial circumstances helped chart the course of the American Revolution. Delving into the business interests and economic considerations of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others, Randall notes that almost all of Connecticut's delegation to the Second Continental Congress in 1775 were land speculators, motivated in no small part by King George III's decree barring them from profiting from the fur trade. He also points out that the resistance movement in Massachusetts was bankrolled by John Hancock, whose merchant empire was threatened by English taxes, and that Benjamin Franklin, contrary to his "Poor Richard" persona, became wealthy by investing the profits from his printing and publishing business in Philadelphia real estate. Unfortunately, Randall downplays other political and cultural factors behind the revolution and risks oversimplifying the motivations and considerations of his subjects, as when he suggests that George Washington's diminished financial circumstances were behind his acceptance of the presidency and its annual salary of $25,000 ($750,000 in today's money). Readers will find Tom Shachtman's The Founding Fortunes to be a more thoughtful and nuanced treatment of the same subject. Agent: Don Fehr, Trident Media Group. (Feb.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Randall, award-winning biographer of several Founding Fathers, re-assesses Charles Beard's argument regarding the economic objectives of wealthy elites in designing the Constitution. Drawing on material unavailable to Beard, Randall examines the financial successes, failures, and motives of key figures, all prominent businessmen, whose monetary health was affected by British mercantile policies. Most were involved in risky land speculation and other schemes to expand their wealth, and fortunes fluctuated significantly pre- and post-Revolution, leaving many of them in debt. The war resulted in grave financial hardships manifested in increased trade restrictions, lack of a dependable currency, conflicts and policy constraints in the "West," unemployment, rioting, discord among the states, and lack of capital and credit. The Constitution's defenders argued that only a stable, unified national government could address grievous threats to political and economic independence. In an engaging style, Randall skillfully compiles material from extensive research regarding the compelling impact of the Founders' personal financial interests on their political decision-making--from rebelling against Britain through ratifying the Constitution--but contends that they were not driven exclusively by personal gain. VERDICT This accessible, concise, yet informative work would benefit from a conclusion summarizing Randall's observations. It will appeal to general readers and academics.--Margaret Kappanadze

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A detailed look at the economic roots of the American Revolution and the early republic. Randall, the prizewinning expert on the founding era, focuses on a handful of key figures, including Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, John and Samuel Adams, and Robert Morris, perhaps the wealthiest American of his time. For many of them, especially Franklin and Washington, the possibility of acquiring large tracts of unclaimed land to the west of the original Colonies was a key to building wealth. However, British interests saw the possible settlement of the interior as a loosening of the mother country's economic and political control, and therein lay the seeds of conflict. Other policies--e.g., requirements that goods shipped to England be carried by English ships with English crews--also stifled Colonial enterprise. With the accession of King George III in 1761, a determination emerged to make the Colonies more profitable so as to pay off the massive bills the empire faced after the Seven Years' War with France. Randall deftly follows these currents as they played out in the lives of the key founders, with numerous ups and downs for each of them during the war. Most felt the impact of post-Revolutionary inflation and other economic ills that led to the creation of the Constitution, largely at the hands of Hamilton, the economic mastermind of the era. Randall also discusses the impact of slavery on the decisions of the founders--notably, the infamous three-fifths clause, which "assured that slaveholding states would control the House of Representatives." Like Randall's previous works, especially Unshackling America, the narrative is well written and packed with human interest, providing a valuable update to the Revolutionary-era history many readers may not have studied since high school. A vivid history of how America paid for its Revolution and why the Founding Fathers made the decisions they did. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter One "A Penny Saved" Dirty, cold, and hungry, seventeen-year-old runaway apprentice Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia on a sunny Sunday morning in 1723 after sleeping all night in an open boat he had helped row across the Delaware River. From the foot of Market Street, he could see, beyond a waterfront crowded with ships and piles of cargo, solid rows of brick houses, a three-block-long covered market, and families dressed in clean clothes heading to the Friends Meeting House. Following them inside, he fell asleep; awakened by a smiling Quaker, he got directions to a nearby bakery, where he spent his last Dutch dollar. Already a master printer, the tall, barrel-chested Ben Franklin came to the largest town in America, as George Washington would half a century later, with the promise of a job, something he felt he could never find in Boston, where he had antagonized Puritans and politicians with his satirical writings. Selling half his library, Franklin had found a berth on a Dutch ship that took him to even smaller New York City. There, he also failed to find work, but he had learned of an opening in a Philadelphia printshop, a ninety-mile trudge across New Jersey. Born in Boston, the eighth of seventeen children of an immigrant candle and soap maker, Franklin was editing and publishing his own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, within five years of his arrival in Philadelphia, by age twenty-two. In its premiere issue, in October 1729, Franklin advertised his first book publication, Isaac Watts's metrical Psalms of David, a perennial bestseller. Yet Franklin's greatest success as a publisher was to come from his own pen. In 1732, he launched Poor Richard's Almanack. Written in a witty, rural vernacular, it combined Puritan moralizing, weather forecasts, household hints, and memorable proverbs that counseled industry and thrift. It would go on to sell, on average, ten thousand copies a year-one copy a year for every one hundred colonists-making it, after the Bible, colonial America's most popular reading matter. To sell such a large number of books, Franklin found that he had to operate on an ambitious, intercolonial scale. Setting type and printing pages in his own Philadelphia printshop, he then shipped the pages off to be bound and sold by printer partners, often his relatives and former apprentices, in Boston, Newport, New York, Williamsburg, and Charleston. Franklin practiced what Poor Richard preached. ÒKeep thy shop and thy shop will keep thee,Ó Poor Richard counseled in June 1735. In ÒAdvice of a young Tradesman, written by an old one,Ó Franklin admonished: Remember that TIME is money. . . . Remember that CREDIT is money. . . . The Way to Wealth is as plain as the Way to market. It depends chiefly on two words, INDUSTRY and FRUGALITY. Posing as a "wise old man" delivering a "harangue" to "the People attending an Auction," Franklin filled "the little spaces" at the margins of his calendar with proverbs. "Clergy and the Gentry" purchased Poor Richard, he later explained in his autobiography, "to distribute gratis among their poor Parishioners and Tenants." Franklin's proverbs linked "the Means of procuring Wealth" with "securing Virtue, it being more difficult for a Man in Want to always act honestly. . . . It is hard for an empty Sack to stand upright."1 Opening a stationery shop in the front of his house on Market Street, he sold paper, tea, coffee, cheese, slates, pencils and lampblack, Crown soap that his siblings made in Boston, iron stoves of his own invention, lottery tickets, and even slaves, whom he advertised in the Gazette. He imported books from London; his 1744 catalog listed six hundred titles. To cater to "Friends here of Different Tastes," he ordered pamphlets about "everything good or bad that makes a Noise and has a Run."2 On November 8, 1739, the Gazette noted the arrival in Philadelphia of a young evangelist. The Reverend George Whitefield, a twenty-five-year-old Anglican priest, was preaching his way from Rhode Island to Georgia, everywhere drawing unprecedented crowds. His fire-and-brimstone sermons were igniting a religious revival movement that would shake the political and social foundations of the mainland British colonies while at the same time greatly enhancing Benjamin Franklin's fortune. Eventually barred from most churches by envious clergy, Whitefield preached in the streets and in open fields in a voice so loud and so clear that he could be heard two blocks away by as many as twenty-five thousand auditors, at least according to Franklin's unverifiable estimate. Whitefield had arrived in colonial America from Great Britain already so popular that few churches could safely accommodate his legion of listeners. At Old South Church in Boston, the Gazette reported, "vast numbers of people crowded in there before the time of the service." When "some persons [were] breaking a board to make a seat," some "imprudent person" shouted that the gallery was collapsing, setting off a panic: Some jumped out of the galleries into the seats below, others out of the windows, and those below pressing hastily to get out, several were thrown down and trod upon, whereby many were much bruised, and some had their bones broke. According to the details provided the Gazette-probably by Franklin's sister Jane, a Whitefield devotee-five of the faithful perished.3 Sometimes warned by express riders of Whitefield's approach to a town, thousands would pour in from the countryside to see and hear the celebrated golden-haired evangelist. One report from the Gazette's Newport correspondent (also a relative of Franklin's) noted that Whitefield had to preach twice in the same day in the Anglican church to overflow congregations. The normally tightfisted Franklin attended one of Whitefield's Philadelphia sermons. In his Autobiography, Franklin recalled that he was well aware beforehand of the evangelist's mission to raise funds to build an orphanage in Georgia: I perceived he intended to finish with a Collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my Pocket an Handful of Copper Money, three or four silver Dollars and five Pistoles in Gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the Coppers. Another stroke of his Oratory made me ashamed'd of that, and determined me to give the Silver; and he finished so admirably, that I empty'd my Pockets wholly in to the Collector's Dish, Gold and all.4 Franklin recognized a business opportunity, and printer and preacher met before Whitefield concluded his first visit to Philadelphia. Together, the two men forged a mutually beneficial publishing partnership. The itinerant evangelist went off preaching all the way to Georgia while Franklin rushed to publish his sermons. In addition, Franklin contracted to publish American editions of Whitefield's Journals and Sermons, as well as any other books he would write in America. In November 1739, Franklin announced in the Gazette his first printing of the Whitefield sermons. Within days, orders for two hundred complete sets poured in. Whitefield's style, a blend of autobiography, Christian discourse, and travelogue written in plain English, proved an instant success. Soon Franklin was shipping boxes of the books up and down the Atlantic coast and deep into the hinterland to general stores, bookstores, and printshops. Between 1739 and 1741, Franklin printed 110 Whitefield titles. The profits from Franklin's association with the evangelist outstripped those from his own bestselling Almanack. In 1740 alone, the sales of Whitefield's writings and printed sermons accounted for 30 percent of all works published in America.5 Enjoying his most successful year ever, Franklin hurried to publish a popular versification of Ralph Erskine's Gospel Sonnets as well as a second edition of Watts's Psalms, and a first of his Hymns and Spiritual Psalms. He recruited two partners for the enterprise, his former apprentice James Parker in New York and Charles Harrison in Boston. Franklin printed the first and last sheets, Parker the rest, and Harrison bound them. It marked the first instance of dividing the production and distribution of books. While he always made more money from the Gazette and the Almanack-together accounting for roughly half his income-Franklin grasped that book publishing was more prestigious and increased his reputation not only with other printer-publishers but with the reading public. For the first time in America, Franklin published fellow printer Samuel Richardson's Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded, arguably the first English novel. Selling at six shillings when a loaf of bread cost a penny (in other words, the equivalent of 120 loaves), the novel was considered a luxury. This time, Franklin shipped off unbound lots to Boston, New York, and Williamsburg, where one of his readers was young George Washington. Selling subscriptions to his books through his Gazette, Franklin soon had more subscribers than copies, so he gave preference to anyone who paid in advance or came to his shop with cash in hand. His account ledgers show thousands of retail transactions. When Franklin began to carry out scientific experiments, he publicized his innovations in newspapers from Massachusetts to Georgia, bringing him even more customers and readers. Investing the profits in real estate, he eventually acquired eighty-nine rental properties in Philadelphia. Appointed by the province's assembly as Pennsylvania's official printer, Franklin found that each year's new laws guaranteed his newspaper's profitability. He soon also won appointment as clerk to the Pennsylvania Assembly. From his entrepreneurial springboard, Franklin won his first political office as a member of the town's common council. And when the imperial postal lords in London criticized the tardy remittances of accounts by rival printer Andrew Bradford, Franklin lobbied through contacts in London for the lucrative post of Philadelphia's postmaster. His accurate record-keeping and ability to transform losses into profits paved the way for him to next win appointment as joint postmaster general for British North America. Franklin soon proved to be as adept a postmaster general as he was a printer and publisher. He gave detailed instructions to postmasters and introduced a uniform system of accounting and standardized forms for all post offices, reforms that tripled the number of deliveries between Philadelphia and New York and doubled those to New England. Visiting all post offices as far south as Virginia, he tripled revenues, for the first time giving the British colonies an efficient postal service. In a position carrying the prestige of a royal official, he shared an annual salary of £600 (roughly $110,000 today). For the first time, he received a rare government expense account that enabled him to travel the length of the continent at will and to ship his newspapers and Poor Richard's Almanack postage-free. The Franklin-Whitefield publishing collaboration was so profitable that Franklin and his family were able to move to a larger house four doors down Market Street. Proof of their casting aside of Poor Richard's frugality appeared almost immediately in the Gazette: they were robbed. The list of stolen goods included a silk-lined coat and a beaver hat. In the spring of 1742, news arrived that King George II had declared war on Spain. The Gazette spread the news that Spanish privateers were attacking British merchants who were trading illegally with Spanish colonies around the Caribbean. Gazette readers soon learned of the British invasion of Florida; of Frederick the Great's invasion of Silesia; and of the death of Emperor Charles VI. As British coastal colonies braced for attacks, Scottish merchants in Philadelphia fitted out a privateer, the George, to carry the fight to the Spanish, only to be rebuffed when they sought an appropriation from the pacifist, Quaker-dominated Pennsylvania Assembly. When France joined forces with Spain against Great Britain, the Gazette's columns brimmed not only with accounts of distant fighting but with tales of Spanish and French privateers boldly sailing into Delaware Bay and capturing four ships bound for Philadelphia. In New England, militias boarded a British fleet to besiege the French fortress at Louisbourg. In New York, French-led Indians from Canada attacked and burned Saratoga and attacked Albany. Pennsylvania German volunteers rode north with Franklin's only son, William, who wore the red uniform of a Grenadier Guards ensign. Leading dangerous patrols, young Franklin was promoted to the highest provincial rank: captain. The war finally reached the peaceable domain of the Quakers. Portuguese and Spanish privateers raided up the Delaware River, sacking plantations within thirty miles of Philadelphia and capturing a ship only a few miles south of the undefended city. After sixty-five years of peaceful relations with the natives since its founding by William Penn, the province of Pennsylvania, owned outright by the Penn family, had never made any provision for defense. As the raids drew closer to Philadelphia and the assembly still refused to appropriate funds for defense, Franklin, who had much to lose from an Indian raid, broke into print, arguing in his Gazette that Quaker doctrine was not "absolutely against defensive war."6 In Plain Truth, a pamphlet he wrote and distributed free in English and in German, Franklin argued that protection and obedience were reciprocal obligations. In exchange for the people's obedience, government was duty bound to protect them. Franklin summoned a mass meeting of citizens and called for five hundred signatures on a petition to the assembly. He got one thousand, but the assembly still refused. Franklin then appealed for volunteers to form a militia: twenty thousand Scots Presbyterians and Pennsylvania Germans flocked to colors he designed. Franklin formed the Association for General Defense and created a lottery whose proceeds would be used to order cannon and small arms from Boston, then he rode off to New York City to borrow guns from that province's government. Franklin's militiamen drilled throughout Pennsylvania with "good Muskets, all fitted well with Bayonets," some of which Franklin had sold them.7 Franklin designed and, with hundreds of volunteers, built and armed two river forts. One, called the Association Fort, ran along some four hundred feet of shoreline and bristled with borrowed cannon. The other, an eleven-gun battery within walking distance of Franklin's home and businesses, protected Society Hill and his own considerable property. Franklin set an example for other merchants by contributing cash to the city's defense-and took his turn on guard duty at night. Despite six years of constant imperial crisis, Franklin's business interests flourished, largely because of his association with George Whitefield. When European diplomats finally met in Paris and, to the disgust of Americans, halted the fighting, the rival empires returned all conquered territory to the status quo antebellum. After disbanding his militia, Franklin emerged as a leading intercolonial figure and spokesman for the new mercantile class. For the first time, he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. He made his former journeyman printer David Hall a full partner in his Philadelphia printing and book distribution business, and over the next eighteen years the profits from Franklin & Hall awarded Franklin with an average £467 per annum (about $76,000 today). Adding income from partnerships in New York and Charleston and receipts from his Philadelphia rental properties, Franklin's aggregate income amounted to £2,000 a year (approximately $300,000 today), making him among the wealthiest Americans. Excerpted from The Founders' Fortunes: How Money Shaped the Birth of America by Willard Sterne Randall All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.