John Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence" sits in the United States Capitol

John Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence" sits in the United States Capitol

The Founding Generation Showed Their Patriotism With Their Money

History suggests the value of a broader understanding of patriotism, one that goes beyond saluting-the-flag loyalty and battlefield bravery.

Patriotism today tends to conjure notions of loyalty to country and battlefield courage, but little more. Partisan attempts to capture patriotism for one side and to accuse the other of lacking it is one reason for the narrowness of the current definition, but another is not looking to history for other examples. One of the most significant comes from this country’s founding era, when small numbers of Americans, most of them very wealthy, practiced an “economic patriotism” that put their country’s interests ahead of their own, risking—and sometimes losing—their financial well-being.

An early version surfaced during the late colonial period, among a handful of wealthy merchants in Boston; Charleston, South Carolina; and other American cities. The American Revolution began with the urban working class, mostly in the northeastern colonies. But only when a few wealthy merchants threw their weight behind the fledgling movement did resistance to British rule gain momentum.

Most of the wealthy took no action at all. More than 40 percent of the colonists were Tories, and among the well-off the percentage of Tories was higher. Even those wealthy colonists who favored the rebels’ cause were reluctant to get involved. The reason was not subtle: They derived their fortune almost exclusively from trade with Great Britain, as part of what Adam Smith would soon label the British mercantile system.

The spur for change among the colonists began when Parliament, following the French and Indian War, became greedy. Noting how well the Americans were paying back the mother country for protection during that war, Parliament decided to raise even more money from the colonies through the Stamp Act of 1765. A few leading traders—John Hancock in Boston, Henry Laurens in Charleston, and others in Philadelphia, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island—then led the resistance against the tax. While the tax would have hit them harder than the lower classes, their objections were not only personal. They took issue with “taxation without representation,” and with a rate that felt arbitrary and out of proportion with the costs of the British protection of American soil and resources. Many of them refused to pass the tax on to their American customers, which is what their merchant colleagues suggested, and some stopped doing business with Great Britain altogether, which severely decreased their income.

American resistance to the Stamp Act forced its retraction in 1766, but Parliament tried again to overtax Americans with the Townshend Acts. These pushed the colonists further down the road toward outright rebellion. In 1769, to fight taxation without representation, many colonies embraced “nonimportation,” a pledge not to buy anything from Great Britain or its Caribbean colonies, to pressure Parliament to roll back the Townshend Acts. Colony-wide councils enforced this pledge. Laurens chaired the South Carolina council, and Hancock was part of Boston’s. Thomas Jefferson had to apologize to Virginia’s council for ordering 14 pairs of sash windows from London, and surrendered the windows upon their arrival. Nonimportation worked, contributing to the repeal of all the Townshend Acts except for the tax on imported tea. That last one was the reason for the Boston Tea Party of December 1773.

A new form of economic patriotism began with the start of battlefield combat: spending money and extending credit for the cause. Hancock and a few of his fellow merchants, along with George Washington, Philip Schuyler, and other high-ranking officers, paid to outfit and equip regiments, and promised future land grants to enlistees. The commercial merchants Joseph Trumbull, Thomas Mifflin, and Jeremiah Wadsworth used the business credit they had built up over the years to buy supplies for the armed forces. They understood that they would be repaid only if the rebelling colonies won the war, and only in Continental dollars, which began to lose value within months of their issue. By the spring of 1778, when Wadsworth was nominated as chief commissary, he had advanced the equivalent of 75,000 Continental dollars and hadn’t even been paid in Continentals. Hundreds of lesser-ranked federal and state commissaries whose names are now mostly lost to history were in the same fix, having extended their personal credit, and then the credit of their families and friends, to supply the armies, without being reimbursed.

A third form of economic patriotism came to the fore in the spring of 1780. Those months were particularly difficult and desperate times for the Revolution. When, if ever, substantial French assistance might arrive was unknown, and mutinies and desertions had meanwhile whittled away Washington’s army. Savannah, Georgia, had fallen, and Charleston was on the brink of being lost. It was questionable whether the United States of America could survive another year, let alone win the war. At this important juncture, 97 wealthy Philadelphians stepped up to help the army.

Led by the merchants Robert Morris, Thomas Willing, and William Bingham, as well as the lawyer James Wilson, they raised £315,000—an average of £3,250 each, which was more than the ordinary American worker earned in a lifetime—to buy supplies for the troops. The supplies lasted the army for a crucial three months, during which time General Rochambeau’s troops arrived in Newport and a path to eventual victory became discernable.

After the war, the remnants of the bank that had been set up to buy supplies for the army were rolled into the Bank of North America; its practices were so geared toward augmenting the wealth of the wealthy and refusing credit to all others that the Pennsylvania State Assembly sought to de-charter it. Many Americans became convinced that, as the patrician Gouverneur Morris put it at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, “The Rich will strive to establish their dominance and enslave the rest. They always did. They always will. They will have the same effect [here] as elsewhere if we do not by the power of government keep them in their proper spheres.”

Morris supported confining the rich to a Senate and the masses to a House of Representatives to balance each other’s interests, and further offsetting the power of both legislative branches through a strong president and an independent judiciary.

The convention’s delegates were wealthy, although fewer were heirs to fortunes than at the Continental Congresses of 1774–75, and they included a substantial number of self-made men. Yet as a group, they too practiced economic patriotism. While they agreed that the Constitution should protect contracts and private property and facilitate capitalism in other ways, they also championed the rights of those who possessed little or no property. Of course, they were only thinking in terms of white men in that regard—excluded from the benefits of the Constitution were women, enslaved people, Native Americans, and, in some states, those who practiced religions other than Protestantism. Even worse, slavery was embedded in the Constitution, a compromise deemed necessary to induce enough states to adopt it.

In the final strophe of the Founders’ era, the War of 1812, a handful of wealthy men practiced a new form of economic patriotism. While a few, like William Gray of Salem, paid for repairs to “Old Ironsides” (the USS Constitution), and other commissioned ships and donated them to the Navy, in 1813, a handful risked their entire fortunes in service of the country.

James Madison had narrowly been reelected as president, but he and his Democrat Republican policies were opposed at every turn by the Federalists, who still held power in New England, and whose private banks controlled the country’s finances after the charter of Hamilton’s Bank of the United States had been allowed to expire. By the spring of 1813, with the war at full blast, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin tried to float a $16 million loan to fund the armed forces. Gray bought several hundred thousand dollars of it, but the Federalist-controlled private banks refused to accept the bulk of it for resale. In March, Gallatin warned Madison, “We have hardly enough money to last till the end of the month.” Had the loan failed, the United States might have had to prematurely sue for peace.

In this crisis, three of the country’s wealthiest citizens, Stephen Girard, John Jacob Astor, and David Parish—immigrants all—stepped up. Gallatin persuaded them to buy the remainder of the loan, over $10 million, which was more than their combined net worth. They retained $1 million apiece of it and resold the rest to insurance companies and banks, who then resold smaller amounts to individuals. The government obtained the needed funds and was able to prosecute the war to its close in 1815.

This history suggests the value of a broader understanding of patriotism, one that goes beyond saluting-the-flag loyalty and battlefield bravery. Zeal, ingenuity, and a willingness to endure a bit of self-sacrifice can be translated into new instances of economic patriotism today. Patriotism of any sort should be more widespread, and Americans should more regularly find and create opportunities to advance the country’s interests—even when it comes at a personal cost.

This story is part of the project “The Battle for the Constitution,” in partnership with the National Constitution Center.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.