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


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Comments to AW historical list : “The Signers’ of the Declaration of Independence wealth

“…

We, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are,
and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor. “

Thus ends the historic declaration, almost entirely composed by Thomas Jefferson, which marked the turning point of American history as it effectively created the new nation to be known as the United States of America. The signers of this document entered history as the founding fathers of our great nation and their act is given nowadays far more importance than the military and civilian achievements, which were still needed to affirm and consolidate the so formed nation. For these words actually spelled the emancipation of the British colonies from their mother country and thus signaled the American Revolution, more than the ensuing war, which lasted until 1783 and is far less remembered, except maybe as to the identity of the Continental Armies’ commander-in-chief, George Washington, who incidentally was not a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The fact that America’s act of emancipation is frequently tagged “a revolution by aristocrats” has much to do with the social origins of its leaders. As the list quite well shows, many of the signers were extremely wealthy merchants and land owners, who had much at stakes in a conflict which, if lost, could indeed have cost them their lives, fortunes and honor. Even their eventual victory did not prevent many of them to lose dearly, both in tangible assets and personally. Their signature was assimilated as high treason by the British Crown and most of these men believed that if caught, they would be hanged for it. (Incidentally, although several were captured and imprisoned during the Revolutionary War, none of the Signers was actually hanged). Thus their wealth and social standing in Colonial America does not in any way diminish the merit of our founding fathers. To the contrary, it is the best proof of their idealism, for except the realization of their ideals, they had little to gain and much to lose in a revolution.

The list contains full name, age (in 1776), residence (colony or later state), fortune (expressed in British pounds), (economic) activity and source(s) of wealth. Default order is decreasing by fortune. You can reorder it by name, residence or activity. Fortunes are estimated, based on what information the author has on the assets (and liabilities) of each individual. In many cases such appraisal is only summarily possible and for the smaller fortunes the figures 1000 pound and 100 pound have been used to quantify modest wealth (upper middle class) and no significant property (lower middle class). It is the opinion of the author that none of the signers could be qualified as “poor”. All seemed to own their home and even the notoriously neediest of them, Samuel Adams, was the owner of an inherited brewery, although obviously not a profitable one.

To appreciate the wealth of the signers in present day’s terms is difficult, as statistics for price indexes do not reach that far back. Benjamin Franklin’s 1790 estate of $150’000 can be set equivalent to $4.83 billion in 1996 (using the GDP deflator based model of Klepper and Gunther*), which would mean that 10’000 pound (equivalent of $45’000) in these days would be roughly the same as $1.5 billion in 1996 (or $1.7 billion today). But that would mean that even those signers without significant property (except their homesteads personal belongings), estimated at 200 pounds would be worth $17 million today. This is too much but the discrepancy may well stem from the GDP deflator model rather than the estimates. Wealth in relation to GDP of a country with a population of 3.9 million can simply not be compared to that with a (much larger) country of 250 million people. If we adjust for population growth, the relations become more acceptable : from $260’000 for the poorer members of our list to about $290 million for the richest. This seems about reasonable, if we compare the Continental Congress of 1776 to the present US Congress.

The wealth of some members of this illustrious list has been in our opinion generally overestimated in popular sources, because of myths and the lack of reliable data. Charles Carroll of Carollton was the largest landowner of Maryland, with an estimated 80’000 acres at the height of his wealth. But these we would estimate worth some 55’000 pounds. Allowing for an equivalent amount for slaves and another 90’000 pounds for financial assets (the Carrolls were large lenders) and a participation in the Baltimore Iron Works, we can estimate the total Carroll fortune at 200’000 pounds (or $900’000) at best. But Charles Carroll had not inherited all of his father’s property by the time he signed the Declaration of Independence and the popular estimate of his fortune at $2 million “at the outset of the American Revolution” seems a gross overestimate. Could it be related to the casual words a fellow signer said as Carroll apposed his signature : “there go several millions” ? A similar myth is the amount ‘Governor’ Thomas Nelson allegedly lost, as documented in his profile.

Other signers besides Carroll, who were still to inherit the major portion of their wealth in 1776, include Arthur Middleton II and Thomas Heyward jr, both of South Carolina. In his memorial painting of 1817 called “Declaration of Independence”, John Trumbull, the famous portraitist and son of the only Colonial governor who embraced the patriot cause, added four influent non-signers on his painting. These were John Dickinson of Delaware, George Clinton of New York, Robert R. Livingston also of New York and Thomas Willing of Philadelphia. The latter two would also qualify for a list of Colonial America’s wealthiest people, as would George Washington and Philip John Schuyler, both non-signers but military leaders of the American Revolutionary War. A “revolution by aristocrats”, thus seems quite appropriate a label for the struggle that liberated the American colonies from the British Crown.

As usual, the AW profiles try to focus on the economic and social aspects of the covered people, whereas their political careers are just shortly summarized. In case of such essentially political figures as the signers of the Declaration of Independence, this may not be that adequate. Fortunately we can recommend the following excellent resources, where you will find good biographical sketches of the signers :

ColonialHall.com < http://www.colonialhall.com/biodoi.php  >
Virtualology < http://www.virtualology.com/declarationofindependence/  >
ushistory.org < http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/signers/index.htm  >

*Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther : “The wealthy 100 : From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates – a Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present “
< http://service.bfast.com/bfast/click?bfmid=2181&sourceid=31709884&categoryid=rn_oop >

   

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