“I’m out for presidents to represent me.”
No group of individuals has been more revered and lionized in America than the Founding Fathers.
They put their lives and livelihood on the line for freedom, fighting for a “more perfect union,” and striving to create a new government in the new world. For their effort, they have been treated as deities by Americans for more than two-and-a-half centuries.
But, despite our best efforts to turn them into historical superheroes, the Founders were not perfect, a fact that has been made abundantly clear in recent decades as more scholarly research peels back the layers of the men that created America.
Most of them owned slaves. Many distrusted the poor and uneducated. As was the custom of the time, they viewed everyone that wasn’t a white male as inferior.
Perhaps most surprising, they weren’t very savvy with money – either the taxpayers’ or their own.
There are scores of pundits that claim that our national debt is a travesty and a repudiation of the ideals on which this nation is based, that if the Founders could see it now, they’d be horrified.
The truth is, at least some of the men that helped build the country actually loved a national debt:
Both the young Alexander Hamilton and his mentor Robert Morris believed that a domestic debt, supported by federal taxes collected from all the states, would unify the country. It would concentrate wealth, and yoke that wealth to a consolidated government. The goal was a nation capable of grand projects — ultimately an economic empire to compete with England’s…Other famous founders worked with Morris and Hamilton in building nationhood around the public debt.
While a national debt is a political discussion with cogent arguments on both sides, many people will point to individual debt as a personal failure, something that befalls only those that are weak-willed or lacking in discipline.
Well, guess what?
Just as they did with the national account, at least some of the more famous Founders were deep in personal debt. Benjamin Franklin, writing as Poor Richard, proclaimed, “The second vice is lying; the first is running in debt,” but he was the exception among his brethren.
Let’s start with naive idealist Thomas Jefferson. “Jefferson would reportedly spend $800 a day (in today’s dollars) on groceries while he was in the White House…a large portion of that was on wine.” He also constantly renovated Monticello, bought books on credit, and loaned money to farmers, many of whom never paid him and back and, of those that did, at least some paid in worthless Continental currency. Many point to Jefferson’s decision to sell his private library to the Library of Congress as proof of his generosity. After all, the library had been destroyed by the British during the War of 1812 and Jefferson had an extensive collection that would help the young nation replenish its resources. But it’s not like it was a completely altruistic move. He sold his books rather than donate them, using much of the proceeds to pay down some debt.
Jefferson was far from alone. The Father of America, George Washington, had wanted to retire after winning the Revolutionary War, but he returned from Mount Vernon because the country needed a steady head as the chief executive while it struggled to survive on its own. Right? Eh. In reality, Washington would have been content to stay in Virginia, but after also being paid in Continental currency and having his estate raided by the British, he was close to insolvency and took the highest job in the land largely for the paycheck.
George Washington worked a job he didn’t want because he needed the money. The Founding Fathers – they’re just like us!
Even my personal hero John Adams, a much more frugal man than his frenemy Jefferson, was only saved from financial ruin – including the loss of his family home at Peacefield – through the generosity of his son, John Quincy. If not for that, he would probably would not have been able to hang onto the home he adored.
The second generation followed the same path.
Alexander Hamilton, the man that created the nation’s financial system was not without his monetary troubles:
Hamilton received a politely humiliating note from a cashier at the Bank of New York – the bank that Hamilton himself had founded – reminding him that his ‘account, by the former ones being charged, is now overdrawn $5300.’
Only a few years after having been the Vice President of the United States, Hamilton’s rival Aaron Burr was living in France, owing petty debts to Parisian shopkeepers.
His low point came when, after pawning nearly everything, he finally landed work translating a book into French – only to discover it was a volume containing ‘abuse and libels’ about himself. He took the job all the same.
In fact, Burr and Hamilton were so both indebted to the same man, a contractor named Ezra Weeks, that when his brother Levi was arrested and tried for murder, they not only teamed up for the defense, but did so without charging a fee.
Virtually all of us agree that having zero debt is a better way to live, but despite what some “experts” may believe, shit happens, life gets in the way, and sometimes you need to borrow to put food (or books) on the table.
So the next time you feel badly about that Visa bill, remember that just because these guys are on your money doesn’t mean they had a lot of it themselves.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.