cover image The Founders’ Fortunes: How Money Shaped the Birth of America

The Founders’ Fortunes: How Money Shaped the Birth of America

Willard Sterne Randall. Dutton, $29 (336p) ISBN 978-1-524745-92-9

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.)