Willard Sterne Randall: Our Founding Fathers Were Broke

Roundup: Talking About History

Willard Sterne Randall is the author of six Founding Father biographies, including George Washington: A Life, Thomas Jefferson: A Life and, most recently Ethan Allen: His Life and Times, published by W.W. Norton. A former investigative reporter, he is a presidential scholar who participated in C-SPAN’s 2000 and 2009 rankings of the presidents.

In March 1789, as he prepared to leave his beloved Mount Vernon and drive to his first inauguration in New York City, George Washington dashed off letters to his closest friends and nephews. Washington had not sought the presidency, preferring, after 15 years of warfare, to rusticate in retirement and tend his Potomac acres. To Henry Knox, his old comrade-in-arms, he wrote, “My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” But Washington had more than an abiding sense of civic duty drawing him back into public life: he was broke.

To his favorite nephew, George Augustine Washington, he confided in writing on March 31 what many of his old friends already knew: “Necessity (if this [his unanimous election] had not happened) would have forced me into (frugality) as my means are not adequate to the expense at which I have lived since my retirement to what is called private life.” In other words, he needed the job.

Recent news coverage comparing the assets and income of Mitt Romney with America’s presidents have wildly overstated the wealth of the Founding Fathers, who should be more appropriately labeled the Foundering Fathers. What the oft-quoted ranking of presidential fortunes by the gurus at 24/7 Wall Street completely misconstrues is that early Americans lived in a largely cashless society, where millions of acres were virtually worthless because nobody had any cash to buy or even rent them. The 24/7 report asserts that George Washington was far and away the richest of all presidents because he owned 60,000 acres and 300 slaves. In fact, he managed 35,000 acres that was largely on the frontiers of western Pennsylvania and present-day West Virginia, where many of his former Revolutionary War troops were his cashless tenants, unable to pay their rent....

It seems to me futile to try to rank order the wealth of presidents and presidential wannabes over time. The value of land, stock, and livestock vary so widely and so wildly that it becomes little more than a pointless, if not purely political, guessing game.  Wealth can only be counted if it’s liquid. Even Mitt Romney would drink something or other to that.

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