In July 1776, when America’s Founding Fathers voted to sign their names to the Declaration of Independence, they pledged to risk “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” Their lives and honor did indeed hang in the balance, but just what were their fortunes? And how much did the Founders stand to gain or lose through America’s war for independence?
Below, a look at how five of the nation’s Founders made their livings, how they invested in the revolutionary cause—and what they gained and lost.
Publisher. Statesman. Entrepreneur. Inventor. Land speculator. Benjamin Franklin, the 10th son of a soap maker, grew his wealth—and reputation—in myriad ways. Along with a thriving business printing everything from books to sermons to currency, he published his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, and his best-selling Poor Richard’s Almanack. He invested his profits in 89 rental properties in his home city of Philadelphia—and in land speculation further west. In two colonial-era wars, he organized the defense of the pacifist Quaker city, designing and building forts, contributing money for weapons and selling them from his bookshop. By his early 40s, he was one of the wealthiest Americans, with an aggregate income of £2,000 a year, or $300,000 today.
Franklin was on a diplomatic mission in France in 1777, negotiating military and financial support for the war, when the British captured Philadelphia. Troops trashed his rental properties and looted his home, which they had used as headquarters for their secret service. When he finally returned home, Franklin, a favorite of French king Louis XVI, received a special going-away present: a snuffbox encrusted with 401 diamonds. Franklin’s revelation of the gift (which would be valued around $270,000 today) caused an uproar in the Constitutional Convention, leading to a stricter emoluments clause. But because Franklin had been so honest and offered the diamonds as a gift to the nation, Congress said he could keep the gems to pass on to his daughter.
George Washington accumulated vast acreage—more than 50,000 acres by his death—by shrewd speculation in frontier land he surveyed. Marrying one of the richest widows in Virginia, he developed a taste for fine things. At their Mount Vernon estate, he diversified their income, switching the primary cash crop from tobacco to wheat and starting a profitable whiskey distillery.
When Washington became the colony’s unrivaled choice to lead revolutionary forces against the British, he declined a salary, asking only to be reimbursed for his expenses. Over the the war’s eight years, the meticulous record keeper shelled out $160,074 (about $5 million in today’s dollars)—including paying a network of 500 spies and feeding his staff officers. Congress would only quibble about $8 of his income expense accounting, but paid him in heavily depreciated Continental currency.
War wreaked havoc with Washington’s finances in other ways. In 1781, British raiders hauled away much of Mount Vernon’s livestock and 17 enslaved workers. With Washington away fighting—and neglecting his farm businesses—for so long, he lost 50 percent of his net worth. And a postwar depression made it impossible for Washington to collect rents for his frontier land holdings.
In 1787, when he was elected to the Constitutional Convention to help formulate “a more perfect union,” the land-rich, cash-poor war hero had to borrow money from a neighbor to spend four months in the expensive capital of Philadelphia. And when he was unanimously elected America’s first President, he wrote to a relative that he needed the salary: Without a pension, he could no longer afford his retirement at Mount Vernon.
Born to a threadbare country parson, John Hancock was adopted by his childless uncle, a wealthy Boston merchant. After attending Harvard College, Hancock mastered the family import-export business, expanding it to include building ships that carried whale oil to Britain and returned crammed with consumer goods for his chain of retail stores.
Hancock, who employed hundreds, grew in popularity as he supported the town’s poor, bankrolled the nascent independence movement and spent at least £100,000 outfitting an artillery company. Winning a series of elections, as town selectman and provincial legislator, he distinguished himself as the city’s most popular radical leader. Hancock led protests against British taxation and organized boycotts of British goods. After the Boston Tea Party, he shipped all the tea in his warehouses back to England, at his own expense.
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Ordered arrested for treason, he took refuge in a church basement with Samuel Adams while British troops searched for them in Lexington and Concord. In a carriage stuffed with gold, silver and negotiable notes to bankroll the revolution, New England’s wealthiest merchant escaped to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. Elected its president unanimously, he was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Robert Morris, America’s first billionaire, was known as the chief financier of the American revolution. The illegitimate son of a Liverpool tobacco trader grew up in Maryland before becoming a youthful partner in an international trading house in Philadelphia. He grew rich building ships, cramming them with Chesapeake tobacco and trading it at an enormous profit for goods from Europe and beyond.
A Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress, he received its authorization to create a navy committee and commission a squadron of ships to raid British commerce. Congress paid him to build two of its first four ships, including what its captain, John Barry, called “the finest ship in America.” Morris invested heavily in privateering ships that disrupted British military and trade vessels, and he used his global contacts to help import munitions for the war effort, earning millions in commissions.
With no banks in the British colonies, Continental currency had no backing and had become virtually worthless. After Congress asked Morris to become superintendent of finance, he immediately set up the first Bank of the United States. Selling shares and making short-term loans, Morris made private credit the foundation of public credit.
At war’s end, Washington refused to send the troops home without back pay, but the Treasury was empty. Morris said the only solution was to issue notes backed by his own credit. He personally signed 6,000 notes stamped “Public Debt” in denominations of $5 to $100.
In the postwar depression, he speculated unsuccessfully in frontier lands and became bankrupt. He spent three years in a debtors’ prison only blocks from Independence Hall.
Thomas Jefferson, orphaned at 11, received a classical education at William and Mary College before studying law for seven years. His frontier practice yielded little cash. He abandoned it when he married the daughter of a wealthy slave trader who left much cash but even more debt. A compulsive shopper, Jefferson overspent his income from growing tobacco as he built his Virginia mountaintop retreat, Monticello, and wrote a summary of the struggle with Britain.
Elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, the first democratically elected legislature in the colonies, Jefferson earned a place in Virginia’s delegation to Congress with his brilliant writing. Appointed to the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, he worked alone for three weeks on the draft, then endured three days of vetting that deleted his condemnation of the slave trade. Refusing another term, he returned to Virginia to revise its law code.
When the British invaded Virginia, they destroyed one of his plantations and stole or killed his horses. Pursued for two days by cavalry, he came away with a lifelong loathing of England and used the episode to rationalize his refusal to pay his mounting debts to British merchants.
Succeeding Franklin as minister to France, he far outspent his diplomat’s modest salary, purchasing so many books and artworks that it cost him $80,000 to ship them home to join Washington’s Cabinet as secretary of state. Jefferson’s lifelong spending spree lasted for 50 years after he wrote the nation’s founding document.
The reward for so many of the Founding Fathers was not in cash. Their reward was an independent new nation.
Willard Sterne Randall, author of The Founders' Fortunes: How Money Shaped the Birth of America, won the National Magazine Award during a 17-year journalism career before graduate studies at Princeton. Author of six Founding Father biographies, he is professor emeritus of history at Champlain College.