THE FOUNDING FORTUNES by Tom Shachtman

THE FOUNDING FORTUNES

How the Wealthy Paid for and Profited From America's Revolution
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KIRKUS REVIEW

An ingenious examination of how money played the central role in the founding of the United States.

As prolific historian Shachtman (How the French Saved America: Soldiers, Sailors, Diplomats, Louis XVI, and the Success of a Revolution, 2017, etc.) points out, fighting Britain was extremely expensive. Lacking the power to tax, the Continental Congress performed terribly in their efforts to supply the army, but this obscures the fact that it spent a great deal of money and many men got rich. Partly, this was inherent in the primitive administration of 18th-century governments. Paid no salary, officials took a commission from money that passed through their hands, a practice that encouraged corruption. It was also not illegal to mix public and private business, so officials purchased from themselves or their friends. Due to slow communication and scanty legal protection, merchants and buyers relied on promises, personal guarantees, risky loans, and favors. Genuinely patriotic merchants like Robert Morris, as well as less admirable figures, took terrible risks and often suffered for it. Morris died poor. The feeble confederation that followed independence exasperated those concerned with foreign affairs, trade, raising capital, and collecting debts but not the average American. Shachtman emphasizes that no mass movement demanded change. The Constitution was championed “by a very small subset of the country’s wealthy. If we add to the fifty-five men who attended the Constitutional Convention, twice or three times that number of nondelegates who later took the lead in urging ratification…the total is at best a few hundred men.” They looked after their own interests, and their priorities were social order, contracts, collecting debts, and a strong currency. However, as the author shows, unlike the ultrawealthy today, most embraced equality of opportunity. Shachtman carries his account past the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, who opposed powerful governments, banks, and (in theory) great wealth. Despite this, the author maintains that his elimination of taxes and regulations increased equality of opportunity without inconveniencing the rich, and America prospered.

A provocative argument that wealthy men built America and did a good job.

Pub Date: Jan. 21st, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-250-16476-6
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2019




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