Why The Founding Fathers Were Broke

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Why the founding fathers were broke, and why in the grand scheme of time and humanity, it doesn't matter.

It’s so interesting to me how many versions there are of the founding fathers.  From politics to religion, many different people associate many different ideals with each one, sometimes correctly, sometime erroneously, and sometimes both.  These were men founding a democratic republic in a world where Western society was still largely ruled by monarchies.   They had a lot of ideas.  They said a lot of things.  Over the courses of their lives, they sometimes contradicted themselves.

Their situations changed from birth until death, too.  They were born British citizens, and died founders of a new country that not too many people wanted to do business with.  Many of them were, in fact, broke after the birth of America.

George Washington

Washington had some rich parents.  His dad made his living farming, and he inherited his estate (Mount Vernon.)   Washington himself made some money as a soldier, rising to the rank of Major during the French and Indian War, but gave up the whole military thing for a while to go back to his plantation and marry into some more money.

He then led American rebels against British forces to win the American Revolution.  He lost more battles than he won, but he also won the war.  Post-war, America’s trade was limited as most of its ships had been destroyed and Britain cut off any economic ties not only with England itself, but also the British part of the Caribbean.  We had taken on massive amounts of debt to fund the war.  Inflation was out of control.  To top it off, we had defeated Britain, but didn’t really have a replacement government ready to go.  At least not one everyone agreed on.  So fixing the economy took some time.

What that meant was that while Washington owned a lot of land, the people he leased it out to weren’t necessarily paying him what they owed.  It was a huge class issue, and the government at the time slightly took the side of the tenants, lightening burdens for debtors (who, at that time, could face prison.)

Washington was sometimes reluctant to take positions of power.  He wouldn’t have taken command of American rebel forces if it hadn’t been for idealism and honor.  But he mostly took the presidency because he was broke.  When he was president, he was very generous with funding programs and guests, putting everything on his tab while waving away a salary.  When he checked out, Congress paid him back everything he had billed, but the money had lost most of its value to inflation.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was also born to a wealthy, land-owning family.  Both Jefferson’s and Washington’s wealth were built on slave labor.

Jefferson also married a wealthy widow named Martha. I don’t mean to assert that either marriage was loveless, but it’s worth noting that neither of these men married someone of a different economic status than themselves.

Though Martha’s half-sister — Sally Hemings — did bear his children after his first wife passed away, there was definitely a massive imbalance of power in that instance between slave owner and enslaved woman — that’s not love, either.

From what we know of Hemings, she was an amazing woman. As a teenager, she negotiated with Jefferson — one of the most powerful men in the world — for ‘extraordinary privileges’ for herself. And for her children’s freedom when they reached the age of 21.

Jefferson’s Personal Finances

Economically, the same thing happened to Jefferson as it did to Washington.  During the war, he had racked up some personal and business debts.  After the war, when he tried to pay with American money; the Brits that he owed to flat out turned it down, saying it wasn’t real currency. He was in trouble.  And then his father-in-law died, passing his debts on to Jefferson.

Jefferson still lived a life of high society, though.  He outspent what his slave labor earned.  He served as an Ambassador to France, and the President, keeping up appearances all the while. He kept on racking up debt.  He lived long enough to see another period of economic turmoil in 1819, which didn’t help.  And he cosigned on a pretty big loan with a friend.  The friend died a year later.

He made some bad decisions, and had terrible timing.

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was not a president, or a great military leader, but was a shining example of the pen fortifying the sword.  His pamphlet, Common Sense, rallied the American people to the cause of independence.

He was born solidly middle class, and married a house servant purely for love (which was abnormal at the time.)  She passed away in childbirth, and then he married a teacher.  He tried his hand at many trades, but was pretty much broke all the time.  At the worst of it, he and the teacher split.

He came to America, and found his calling as a writer for a magazine.  As things heated up between the American colonists and the British, he firmly chose a side and wrote his epic pamphlet.  It tipped the colonists’ feeling of trepidation in confronting the crown towards outrage and a willingness to fight back.  It was the unifying force behind colonial political opinion.

During the war, he served as a military secretary.  While he was serving under Washington, he wrote a series of pamphlets called American Crisis that kept the troops’ morale up.

After the war, he was broke again.  He went to Congress to try to get payment for all he had done to help win the war.  They gave him land (we can all guess how that turned out, based on the previous two landowners,) and $3k reimbursement for money he had spent on war-related efforts.

Paine was fiery, which was what the colonists needed at the time.  But as a result, he wasn’t very tactful, and made a lot enemies.  He lived in France during their own Revolution, and was imprisoned by the Jacobins.  They meant to execute him, but by some lucky miracle the guy who was supposed to get him out of his cell forgot.  Before anyone could notice the error, Robespierre had been beheaded.

He wrote more pamphlets,  hung out with Napoleon, came back to America, and convinced Jefferson to make the Louisiana Purchase.  But he never really had any serious money.  He died penniless.  I’m not sure if he didn’t manage his money well, or he got into a career that didn’t pay well.  It was probably a combination of both.

They weren’t all broke.  And why does it matter?

Then there were men like Benjamin Franklin.  A rags to riches story.  A man who was not only constantly curious, but also invested in and expanded businesses he knew inside and out.  Maybe not the best family man.  Sound familiar?

Buffett. I’m talking about Buffett.

The point is this: as we make our journeys through life, money can make us comfortable.  It can make some things easier.  It can be a powerful tool.

But it does not dictate the legacy we leave behind.

We are important. No matter how much money we have or don’t have.  We can make positive changes in the world around us, because the most important currency doesn’t lie with dollars and cents; it lies with inspiration and ideas.

38 thoughts on “Why The Founding Fathers Were Broke

    1. Femme @ femmefrugality

      Yes, and that in many cases, they weren’t immune to economic upheaval. Worth noting that these men, at least (Franklin may or may not be an exception) were vehemently opposed to paper money being introduced. No wonder why as debtors wouldn’t accept it and inflation killed any type of their wealth!

  1. kay ~ the barefoot minimalist

    Wow, Femme! You made that so interesting, tying these men to finances (or the lack thereof) so seamlessly. And then you wrapped it all up with a great moral to the story! NICE! 🙂 Happy Independence Day, FF ! 😀

  2. budgetsaresexy

    Dayummm! Favorite read all day – thx for writing this up! I had known about Jefferson and Franklin, but not much about the others’ debts/money. Fascinating stuff.

    1. Femme @ femmefrugality

      Thrilled you liked it! Funny story… this post idea started out as money tips from the founding fathers, but aside from Franklin I was pretty much coming up dry (or hypocritical.) So I switched gears. Ha.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      So true. It was a brave thing the people did, going from a known government to establishing something completely from scratch.

  3. Mel

    What an excellent thing to read on the 4th of July!! (I also love the picture.) I had no idea that so many of the founding fathers were flat broke, that’s so crazy.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      I know right? I think we hold them on such a high pedestal that we expect them to be echelons of righteousness in every respect, but really, they were just flawed human beings like everyone else who has ever lived on this planet. I honestly think that makes their stories more powerful.

  4. vmorgan456

    Love it! It was great knowing about these facts that we don’t really hear about. Have a great Sunday!

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      History beyond what they typically teach us in school is pretty awesome. Hope yours was great, too!

  5. broketwentysomething

    I love history and money stories! So thanks for mixing up the two for me! I’ve done a bit of research on Thomas Jefferson in the past (I played Martha Jefferson in the musical 1776 once), but I never realized what kind of a mess his financial life actually was. Great post idea!

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  7. Toni @ Debt Free Divas

    You had me at history + finances. I can be such a geek about these things. Thanks for the excellent slice of story. Who knew Donald Trump and Ben Franklin had so much in common. I think they probably have the same hairline too. Ha!

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    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Yes! I don’t know about four or five, but there was at least one. However, he served under the Articles of Confederation….our first try at self-governance that didn’t pan out so well. Washington was the first president under the Constitution that we use and recognize today.

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  12. Eric Bowlin

    Really interesting. I love history and know a lot about our founding fathers but there were definitely a few things I learned. For example, I never knew Paine hung out with Napoleon!

    Thanks for the great post!

  13. Tawnya

    I really like the message at the end. You don’t need to be wealthy to make a great impact on the world. Even if you’re not as famous as the founding fathers, the work we do every day is important in its own way.


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