Found an old book

Student loans in the 18th century, signers of the Declaration of Independence, and stripping out the slavers. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

A few years ago, I first came across Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, which was written by a pastor named Rev. Charles A. Goodrich in 1829.

Even though it's now 191 years old, the book reveals some surprising truths about some of the Founding Fathers. Take for example what Goodrich had to say about Thomas Stone, a Maryland lawyer who was one of the the 56 signers. 

When he wanted to continue his education, Goodrich explains, Stone faced a very 21st century problem despite living in the 18th century: taking out student loans, and struggling later to pay them off.

Carrying that debt meant Stone waited later than his peers to get married and start a family, or to do the one other big thing he wanted to do: go into business for himself. (Then he died at age 45, so it’s kind of a sad story, loans or or loans.)

Another interesting point: with a very few exceptions, almost all 56 signers were almost all entrepreneurs.

They had varying degrees of success, but besides having the courage to sign the Declaration (which would have been an act of treason if the United States had lost the Revolutionary War), they were almost all in business for themselves.

A few years ago, after I first came across Lives of the Signers, I put together a compendium of some of these founders. When you list them like this, it's striking.

A few examples:

  • John Hancock of Massachusetts—government contractor. (He inherited a large and successful business from his uncle, and “secured profitable government contracts” during the French and Indian War, according to Goodrich.)

  • Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania—inventor, business owner, publisher, writer, and statesman.

  • George Taylor of Pennsylvania—an immigrant who arrived in the New World destitute, worked as a manual laborer, and ultimately married his boss's widow (after the boss died, obviously). He took over the business in the process.

  • George Walton of Georgia—a carpenter's apprentice who scrounged scrap wood in order to read law at night, and who eventually became a lawyer.

  • Roger Sherman of Connecticut, who began his career as a shoemaker and eventually became a successful trader.

  • Francis Lewis of New York—another immigrant, from Wales, who became a trader in Europe but ultimately lost everything and died "in comparative poverty," according to Goodrich.

Granted, there were exceptions, at least by modern standards. 

Sam Adams inherited a lot of money and later worked for his father, but his own business ventures were unsuccessful. (Also, he didn't actually brew beer, despite the fact that his name was borrowed two centuries later by the Boston Beer Company.)

And, there were some slaveowners — signers like Carter Braxton and Charles Carroll. I’m just not going to give them credit for being entrepreneurs since they literally had to enslave other people to compile their wealth.

Carroll didn’t just make his fortune from slavery; he inherited the whole thing — valued at about $500 million in modern dollars. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse that he inherited it and kept it.

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, too, as did George Washington. (But Washington never signed the Declaration, so he’s not in the book.)

Still, strip out those whose fortunes hinged on slavery. Focus instead on the others, and think about the appetite for risk and insistence on owning their futures to the maximum extent possible.

Without that, would it ever have occurred to them to build a new country to begin with? Sounds like a subject for another book.


You know… just for fun, I pulled up the birth dates and death dates of all of the founders last evening, dumped them in a spreadsheet, and calculated that their average length of life was 65, and their median age at death was 56 years.

Thomas Lynch Jr. of South Carolina was lost at sea with his wife at age 30 in 1779. And wouldn’t you know, it was Charles Carroll who outlived everyone else, surviving to age 95 in 1832.

Two takeaways:

First, being part of the elite paid off; with the exception of Lynch, all the signers vastly exceeded the 38-year life expectancy of an average white male during that time.

Second, and this is a little more personal: It appears I might need a hobby.


7 other things worth your time

  • A divided Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Louisiana law regulating abortion clinics. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the four more liberal justices in the 5 to 4 decision. (Associated Press).

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a 6,000-word paper with its guidance on reopening schools in the fall. Short version: they’re in favor of it, with restrictions. (NPR)

  • Remington Arms Co., America's oldest gun maker, is preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and is in advanced talks for a sale to the Navajo Nation. (St. Louis Today)

  • Less than half Americans surveyed are able to to identify “Afghanistan” as the country that provided Al-Qaeda with safe haven prior to 9/11, despite the U.S. being at war there for nearly two decades. (National Geographic, Gallup, opens as .pdf)

  • India banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps, for endangering the “national security and defence of India.” Meanwhile, Twitch temporarily banned President Trump, and Reddit banned both giant pro-Trump and anti-Trump grops for hate speech. (Techcrunch, The Verge, Business Insider)

  • Gilead Sciences says it plans to charge hopsitals $3,120 per patient for its Covid-19 drug remdesivir. “Under the company’s plans, Gilead will charge a higher price for most patients in the U.S., and a lower price for the rest of the developed world where governments directly negotiate drug prices.” (WSJ, $)

  • Broadway will shut down at least through at least January 3, 2021, and Cirque de Soleil quickly filed for bankruptcy protection. “The Broadway experience can be deeply personal but it is also, crucially, communal,” said a spokesperson said. “The alchemy of 1,000 strangers bonding into a single audience fueling each performer on stage and behind the scenes will be possible again when Broadway theaters can safely host full houses.” (NBC News)

I wrote about some of this at Inc.com in the past. If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. You can also just send an email to signup@understandably.com.


And of course, please share Understandably! Seriously, that’s the #1 thing we need right now, is for people who enjoy this newsletter to encourage friends and family to sign up as well. Thank you!

Share

One-click review and feedback: