The Founding Fathers Were (Mostly) Entrepreneurs

July 3, 2014

Nearly all who signed the Declaration of Independence ran their own businesses.  The Big Names, the Renaissance Men, have familiar stories; yes.  But it is true of most of the less well known signatories as well.

foundingGeorge Washington’s success as an entre- preneur recently earned him the moniker Founding CEO.  Born neither poor nor rich, with a father who died while he was just 11 years old, Washington transformed Mount Vernon “from a sleepy tobacco farm into an early industiral village.”

Ben Franklin ran several businesses and never patented a single of his many famous inventions, seeing them as gifts to the public.  An early open-source advocate?

Thomas Jefferson invented many small practical devices (e.g. the swivel chair) but, like Franklin, had no interest in commercialization.  Furthermore, if you count these sorts of things as entrepreneurial – and we do – he founded the University of Virginia and the middle part of the country known as The Louisiana Purchase.  Jefferson however (and unhelpfully) was not exactly a huge fan of finance:

The system of banking we have both equally and ever reprobated. I contemplate it as a blot left in all our constitutions, which, if not covered, will end in their destruction, which is already hit by the gamblers in corruption, and is sweeping away in its progress the fortunes and morals of our citizens.

Letter to John Taylor, 1816

Well, nobody’s perfect.  That kind of attitude is what lands you on the $2 bill.  More seriously, his view of banks seems to have reflected his distaste for public debt and inter-generational debt.  (He inherited his father-in-law’s estate and its debts, which took years to pay off and contributed to his own personal financial difficulties.)  We can imagine he would have felt differently about the type of financial backing that allowed yeoman entrepreneurs to pursue happiness.

This 2013 piece by Bill Murphy Jr. in Inc. magazine tells the stories of the less famous self-made men behind the Declaration of Independence:  “Doctors, lawyers, merchants (and a few ne’er do well heirs).”  The merchants were entrepreneurs, obviously, but even those doctors and lawyers would have had an entrepreneurial bent, typically arranging their own educations or apprenticeships, hustling up clients, and running the business end of their own practices.

We hope all our readers and their families enjoy a Happy Independence Day.

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