Yet another go at the Founding Fathers? Well, to judge from historian and documentary filmmaker Tom Shachtman’s new book, “The Founding Fortunes,” Yes and No. Subtitled “How the Wealthy Paid for and Profited from America’s Revolution,” Shachtman’s analysis of the years 1763-1813 merits a yes because he does revisit some of the big names and battles of the day. But the answer is also no because “The Founding Fortunes” is not just another look at Colonial and post-Colonial politics and economics. Shachtman has a timely and provocative take on who in America supported the War for Independence, and why.
Relying on hundreds of historical documents and contemporary scholarship, Shachtman’s out to dispel what he calls “myths” about some of the movers and shakers of the day. And to suggest, by comparison, the less-than-generous or suspect ambitions of some of the wealthy today who would influence current events under the heading of patriotism.
It’s a complicated and complex story Shachtman lays out and, admittedly, not always easy to follow because of the extraordinary detail about matters the general reader may know little about – banking, investment, tariffs, taxes, the national debt, bonds, import duties, even privateering (as opposed to piracy). The story can be challenging because of the changing policies and procedures of the early presidents and their administrations, not to mention heady quotations from the pamphleteers, among them Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and Tom Paine.
Still, an overall theme emerges: The American Revolution at critical junctures relied on select monied men – not the Southern slaveholders who had inherited their land or privilege, but wealthy entrepreneurs. They funded what they saw as the public good – particularly George Washington’s endangered military operations, and they shored up the failing economies of various states, sacrificing their private fortunes, some falling into inextricable debt. Among the most influential of these donors, Shachtman notes pointedly, with a nod to the present, were immigrants, notably the French-born Albert Gallatin, congressman, secretary of the treasury, minister for France and Great Britain.
“The Founding Fortunes” makes clear just how entrenched slavery was by 1776, two-thirds of American exports depending on slave labor. Jefferson, who owned slaves, comes out better here than in many revisionary assessments today. He excoriated slavery, even deleting John Locke’s list of property, which included slaves, as an inalienable right in The Declaration of Independence, leaving “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Washington also continues to emerge a smarter and more virtuous leader than most American schoolchildren remember.
The book also presents nuggets to mull over, such as the fact that Boston Tea Party participants blackened their faces and dressed up as the Mohawk people, and that the number of women who participated in various activities of the rebellion was surprisingly high. In short, “The Founding Fortunes” satisfies two main criteria for taking another look at a well-known subject: correcting the historical record and adding new information. Yes, there were corrupt, venal and treacherous rich, but there were also those who risked their fortunes to create a new nation.