Mother’s Milk of the Revolution

Right from the beginning, a commercial spirit and the wealth it generated were essential to creating and constituting America.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their “lives,” their “fortunes,” and their “sacred honor” to advance the revolutionary cause. Their lives have been the subject of innumerable biographies. Their sense of honor has been often explicated in terms of the philosophies of both collective and individual self-governance that they espoused. But much less has been written on how their personal fortunes contributed to the revolution and the foundation of the Republic. Thus, The Founders’ Fortunes: How Money Shaped the Birth of America, the latest effort of the historian Willard Sterne Randall, fills an important gap in our understanding. If at times diffused and insufficiently theorized, the book shows that right from the beginning, a commercial spirit and the wealth it generated were essential to creating and constituting America.

Gratitude to the One Percent

It is not too much to say that without the money and acumen of the richest Americans, the Revolution would have failed. Robert Morris, a Pennsylvania merchant now little remembered, was the wealthiest man on the continent in 1776. He played multiple, indispensable roles in seeing the revolution through. He sat on key committees in the Continental Congress early in the Revolution and used his knowledge to scrounge enough money to keep the troops supplied. He even used his own credit when it was hardly clear that the credit of the Congress or any state would have sufficed. Later in 1781, when finances became even more rickety, he took over as Superintendent of Finance. There, Morris came up with the idea of the Bank of North America. This bank issued its own notes that replaced the Continentals which had continually lost value. They were not backed by tangible assets, like gold, and were widely counterfeited. In contrast, the notes of the Bank of North America were ultimately backed by precious metals.

The Bank of North America deserves to be better known for constitutional as well as revolutionary history, because it provides neglected evidence in support of the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States—the most controverted legal question in the early republic. If the Continental Congress was accepted as having the power to establish a bank, why would Congress under the Constitution not have the power as well, given that it was widely understood that Congress was given more ample commercial authority than its predecessor?

Robert Morris was far from the only member of the wealthy elite who used their own resources to keep the colonists’ efforts afloat. John Hancock spent the equivalent of ten million dollars today to raise and supply an entire private regiment that provided key service in the North.