Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Founding Fathers on Too Much Money

From Common Dreams via TYWKIWDBI. Thom Hartmann wrote a wonderful article, a bit old but always relevant.

The Founding Fathers and great wealth
In a letter to Joseph Milligan on April 6, 1816, Thomas Jefferson explicitly suggested that if individuals became so rich that their wealth could influence or challenge government, then their wealth should be decreased upon their death. He wrote, "If the overgrown wealth of an individual be deemed dangerous to the State, the best corrective is the law of equal inheritance to all in equal degree..."

In this, he was making the same argument that the Framers of Pennsylvania tried to make when writing their constitution in 1776. As Kevin Phillips notes in his masterpiece book "Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich," a Sixteenth Article to the Pennsylvania Bill of Rights (that was only "narrowly defeated") declared: "an enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness of mankind, and, therefore, every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property."..

In "Wealth and Democracy," Kevin Phillips notes that: "George Washington, one of the richest Americans, was no more than a wealthy squire in British terms." Phillips says that it wasn't until the 1790' s - a generation after the War of Independence - that the first American accumulated a fortune that would be worth one million of today's dollars. The Founders and Framers were, at best, what today would be called the upper-middle-class in terms of lifestyle, assets, and disposable income.
Is that fascinating, or what? I suppose by the late 1790s it was already too late. By then we already had that sick system of rich guys buying influence from politicians who were themselves becoming rich guys.

What's your opinion?  Please leave a comment.


  1. In Ron Chernow's bio of Washington, he notes Washington, despite having large holdings of land as a land speculator, was actually very cash-poor by the time of his death.

    Contributing to this situation was the fact people--curious visitors and travellers-- would often drop by Mt. Vernon unannounced. It wasn't unusual for Washington to have a dozen or more people stop at Mt. Vernon each day. Every day, Washington was expected to feed and, sometimes, house visitors.

  2. Jefferson died more than $107,000 in debt (quite a sum at that time), his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph and her son and financial manager, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, found it necessary first to sell nearly all of the contents of Monticello and then to sell the plantation itself. His books were sold to the Library of Congress.

    Monticello passed through at least 3 owners before becoming property of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc. which is a private, nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation, the Foundation receives no ongoing federal, state, or local funding in support of its dual mission of preservation and education.

  3. I found this article fascinating in light of all the recent press about tax cuts for the rich.