A Classification of American Wealth
History and genealogy of the wealthy families of America - Sponsors

 Part 1 : Colonial and Mercantile America  Part 2 : America in the Gilded Age
 Part 3 : America in the Twentieth Century  Encyclopedia of American Wealth

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  Chronicles of American Wealth / Nr 28 / May 15, 2006

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Content :

1 – Update of Chapter 2 : “ Slavery – boon and bane of the Antebellum South "
2 –
New thematic list : “ Plantation Owners & Slaveholders (1860)
3 –
Who was the first American millionaire ?


Update of Chapter 2 : An Aristocracy of Planters 
Slavery – boon and bane of the Antebellum South "

Slavery is doubtlessly one of the darkest chapters of American history. An institution as ancient as mankind whose evil character was never really put in question on moral grounds. Christianity from its earliest days was the religion which taught equality of men before God, yet many good Christians owned slaves in America during Colonial times and in the Antebellum South of the United States. In a rare form of religious denial, some even attributed the color of their skins to God’s judgment, claiming that “Black” was a divine sign of inferiority and thus justifying slave ownership as a God given right to the white race.

The aberration of such thoughts was well known to our founding fathers though. The economic importance of slavery, in particular to the Southern colonies (and later states) prevented from the start, that black people be included in the Bills of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. After all, many among the most prominent of our forefathers, including four of our five first presidents, were plantation owners and slaveholders. Yet these aristocratic revolutionaries obviously had more than a slight uneasiness about the issue of slavery, as their conscience started to rebel against an evil, they perfectly knew was one.

Thomas Jefferson in his notes on the State of Virginia expressed these feelings, when he said : “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever . . .”. Other Southern aristocrats, such as Robert Carter III and John Randolph of Roanoke, wealthy descendents of Virginia’s plutocracy and themselves public figures, relieved their conscience by manumitting (ie setting free) their slaves in their wills. George Washington did likewise, but stipulated that the manumission will be effective only after his widow’s death. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would doubtlessly have followed the example, had their financial situation permitted.

Continued as an update of Chapter 2 “An Aristocracy of Planters” at “A Classification of American Wealth”.


New thematic list : " Plantation Owners & Slaveholders (1860) "

The new thematic list Plantation Owners & Slaveholders (1860) at Encyclopedia of American Wealth complements the present update of Chapter 2 about the role of slavery in the outstanding economic success of the Antebellum South and its eventual demise in Civil War.

The list contains names, estimated fortunes and some details on their assets of 100 among the wealthiest plantation owners and large slaveholders of the Antebellum South at the eve of the Secession War (1860). 

The data is essentially based on the census lists of 1860 as well as the analysis and verification of some notable transcripts. Census or tax list data were adjusted for whatever additional information was available. While not exhaustive, the list is meant to give a good picture of the Southern Aristocracy of large plantation owners, at the eve of Civil War. 

The list is derived from a larger list still in process of some 800 plantation owners with fortunes exceeding $200’000 in 1860 and/or some 200 slaves or more. It is headed by 26 millionaires including the famous doctors
Stephen Duncan and Haller Nutt, the former a self-made man, the latter married into the wealthy Routh-Williams family of Louisiana. 

Less notorious,
J. A. S. Acklen, who is the only planter with a reported (not estimated) fortune of $3’000’000, according the 1860 census. This prompted his inclusion although his reported wealth formally belonged to his wife, the former Adelicia (Hayes) Franklin, who inherited it from her first husband, slave trader Issac Franklin, and retained ownership through a pre-nuptial agreement. 

Like with other wealth classification lists, the thematic list Plantation Owners & Slaveholders (1860) is in no way final but just the first step in a process of updating our coverage of the wealthy individuals and families of the Antebellum South. The wealth classification lists of 1850 (individuals and families) have already been updated at the occasion. Other lists will follow.

Browse the thematic list
Plantation Owners & Slaveholders (1860) or other wealth classification lists and read more about the wealthy Americans and wealthy American families of the past at "Encyclopedia of American Wealth ".


Who was America’s first millionaire ? 

I found this rather trivial question several times in recent readers questions and since a web site entitled “A Classification of American Wealth ” should answer this spontaneously, I decided to add my answer to this edition of “ Chronicles of American Wealth ”.

The difficulty in answering this question stems from the definition of the word "millionaire" itself. What currency should be used ? Before the American revolution, all accounts in the thirteen American colonies were kept in Sterling pounds, but that currency was virtually absent as far as specie was concerned. Most transactions involving money were paid in Spanish Dollars.

The first introduction of a form of US currency consisted of a$2'000'000 issue of bills of credit by the Continental Congress in June 1775. But the value of this paper money against specie (Spanish dollars or Sterling pounds) continuously declined with every new issue. 

In 1792, a national coinage system was introduced, with a new coin called "silver-dollar", equivalent in value to the then prevailing Spanish dollar. This can be considered the first use of what later became the US Dollar.

Now to the early millionaires.

To my knowledge no American in colonial times (ie up to 1776) ever was a millionaire in Sterling pounds. 

After the American revolution, there were a number of men who made fortunes equivalent (in dollars) to one million or more.
Elias Hasket Derby (1739-1799), the wealthiest shipping merchant of Salem and a man who pioneered US International trade, is sometimes quoted as the first American millionaire. 

But other men and also a woman were probably equally rich, although a precise assessment is not possible. Stephen Van Rensselaer III (1764-1839)owned about 1 million acres land around Albany, the (present) state capital of New York. His estate was estimated at $10 million in 1845, although his heirs had a hard time to keep just a fraction of that, because the manorial title to their lands was no longer valid. 

Margaret (Beekman) Livingston (1724-1800), heiress to her father's 240'000 acres in Dutchess County and to a share of her husband's large fortune was probably a millionaire as well, by the time she died. Again, most of her wealth was in land used by tenant farmers, and its yield was thus considerably lower than that of similar amounts of money invested in other activities.

Other likely early millionaires include William Bingham (1752-1804),a merchant and banker from Philadelphia,
William Gray (1750-1825),another shipping merchant from Salem and later Boston and Charles Carroll III of Carrolton, who was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence. 

Several Americans made huge fortunes during the Revolutionary War but later lost them through large scale speculation. These include
Robert Morris (1734-1806), the financier of the American Revolution and a likely millionaire before 1790, as well as William Duer (1747-1799).Both men ended ruined and in debtor's jail though.

The word "millionaire" actually appeared only in 1843, when it was coined to qualify
Peter Lorillard (1763-1843), a wealthy tobacco merchant from New York. Lorillard was certainly not the first American to own one million dollars worth of property, nor was he the richest American in his days (that was John Jacob Astor). But he may have been the first to be actually called a "millionaire".

Browse through the wealth classification lists from 1675 to 1950 and read more about the wealthy Americans and wealthy American families of the past at
"Encyclopedia of American Wealth ".

hank you for your support. Enjoy reading.

D. C. Shouter
May 2006 


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