The Founding Fathers Didn’t Anticipate Billionaires

It’s quite expensive to found an entirely new country. In Tom Shachtman’s book The Founding Fortunes, he explores how the founding fathers prioritized opportunity for every level of social class and how capitalism got its start. Shachtman defines an ideal — individual economic patriotism — as a “willingness to forego one’s own material gain to support the people’s common cause.”

His exploration of this economic, social construct is a fascinating juxtaposition to how our economic classes interact today. We spoke with Shachtman about what we can learn from the Founding Fathers and how their ideals are relevant now.

What can we learn from the founding fathers’ approach to politics and money?

The founders were all wealthy men, raised in an environment in which economic class was very important and highly stratified — prior to the Revolution, there were almost no ‘self-made millionaires’ in America. So the founders felt the obligation to break the political bond with Great Britain and the British social structures that kept the lower classes permanently poor and subordinate. They succeeded in both. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, many of the delegates were self-made wealthy.

How have the core ideals around wealth changed for America?

In the early republic days, for an individual to take advantage of ‘equal economic opportunity’ did not require much help from others; but today, the things that are known to assist people in advancing – college degrees, bank loans, access to capital, to name just a few – are expensive and not equally available to all. So would-be entrepreneurs, and those who want to get better jobs, need society’s assistance to achieve these modest goals. 

As for our core ideas about wealth, in the early republic, the goal for achievement was individual independence, not to amass money for its own sake or to use it in buying expensive toys; today, we see wealth as a goal more than as a means to an end, and society downplays the social obligations that come with wealth.

How does individual economic patriotism apply to today’s billionaires? Are those ideas relevant?  

I define ‘individual economic patriotism’ as an individual taking actions that benefit society as a whole and not necessarily themselves. That is certainly still applicable to today. We all need to do so if we can. But even more fundamentally, we need to expand our understanding of patriotism. It is not only about saluting the flag. 

Paying taxes properly is patriotic; the very wealthy should not employ their resources to evade paying their fair share of taxes. Patriotism could also mean encouraging the ultra-wealthy to contribute to society in other ways. How about naming a new Navy cruiser the U.S.S. Bill Gates in exchange for his paying the $5 billion cost of construction?  

How has capitalism evolved? Why do so many people feel it no longer serves us?

Capitalism was much purer and more rapacious in its early days. It was made steadily less awful by-laws to cure its most exploitative abuses, child labor, unsafe working conditions and minimum wages. Some people think capitalism no longer serves because they are unable to ‘get ahead’ and believe the deck is stacked against them. In many senses, it is. 

To improve the ways for individuals to get ahead, there are solutions available, but most of these have been rejected because they derive from socialism, which has been unduly vilified by ‘free market’ zealots who refuse to acknowledge that unbridled capitalism is not the answer to everything. To unstack the deck, we need to think outside the box of free-market capitalism.  

Your book mentions an early instance of gerrymandering. How do we see this happen today? 

Gerrymandering has become the principal way for current holders of power to ensure that they will continue to hold it by rearranging electoral districts to minimize the voting power of those likely to vote for their opponents. It is the equivalent of the maxim of the bullying pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” 

The founding fathers used data from the 1790 and 1800 censuses to readjust the numbers of representatives in various areas so that each district contained approximately the same number of inhabitants. That produced seismic changes in the country’s governance as people in the ‘West’ were able to better offset the old-line power on the Atlantic Coast. To get rid of gerrymandering today, we should use census data as the basis for exerting federal power to override state districting and draw boundaries based more firmly and equitable on the principle of one-man-one-vote.

About the author

Tom Shachtman
Tom Shachtman

Tom Shachtman is the author of How the French Saved America, and many other histories, as well as documentaries for ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and BBC, and has taught at New York University and lectured at Harvard, Stanford, Georgia Tech, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress. He is a former chairman of The Writers Room in Manhattan and an occasional columnist for the Lakeville Journal of Northwest Connecticut.

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Danika Miller

Personal Finance Reporter

Danika Miller is a personal finance reporter at The Simple Dollar who specializes in banking, savings, budgeting, home insurance, and auto insurance. Her reporting has also been featured at,, and elsewhere.

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    Andrea Perez
    Personal Finance Editor

    Andrea Perez is an editor at The Simple Dollar who leads our news and opinion coverage. She specializes in financial policy, banking, and investing.