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Were the Founding Fathers good with money?

Benjamin Franklin was famous for his frugality, but some of his colleagues were big spenders who were plagued by debt.

By MSN Money Partner Jul 2, 2012 5:03PM

This post comes from Kali Geldis at partner site on MSN MoneyThey may have written the most fundamental document for our nation, but some of the Founding Fathers weren't all that great with basic personal finance.


We talked to the experts about what the Founding Fathers' financial flubs and successes can teach you about minding your money.


Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson's famous financial flaw was his large debt load.


Susan Kern, visiting associate professor at the College of William & Mary and the author of "The Jeffersons at Shadwell," says Thomas Jefferson was the victim of a lavish lifestyle and a declining business.


The third president of the United States was never one to pinch pennies, Kern says.


"His financial records are this amazing trove of details and a tool for historians that give us a very exact notation of things -- where he was buying, what he was buying -- but one wonders if he ever stopped to total the bottom line," she says.


Jefferson would reportedly spend $800 a day (in today's dollars) on groceries while he was in the White House, according to Ted Connolly, a bankruptcy lawyer for Looney & Grossman, who researched the Founding Fathers for a book he wrote. A large portion of that was on wine.


However, Jefferson was also a proponent of taking responsibility for your debts. As a tobacco farmer, Jefferson was habitually using credit to make purchases, since he would not find out how much money he had made on his exports until months after he shipped the goods. This was a common practice for farmers at the time, but one that caused major problems after the Revolutionary War.


"Following the American Revolution, there was still a lot of debt outstanding to creditors in Great Britain," Kern says. "There were a fair number of Americans who did not want to pay them, and Jefferson was not one of them. He wanted to pay them. He was very personally responsible for what he owed." (Post continues below.)

Benjamin Franklin

Of all the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin was the most widely known for his frugality.

Franklin published "Poor Richard's Almanack" for almost two decades and during that time had some choice quotes about money that still apply today. Here are a few:

  • "If you'd know the value of money, go and borrow some."
    "Beware of little expenses: A small leak will sink a great ship."
  • "Patience in market is worth pounds in a year."

Connolly says Franklin's humble beginnings contributed to his frugality. He was one of 17 children, and he had to start his own businesses and build up his own wealth. Franklin died a wealthy man, and his businesses were successful.


"He would be the Warren Buffett of our time," Connolly says. "He'd be the one making the tough decisions."


James Monroe

The fifth president of the United States was, like Jefferson, not the most financially responsible architect of freedom.


Monroe has sizable debt as he reached the end of his life due to the decline of his plantation. Like many tobacco farmers -- Jefferson included -- Monroe's business suffered from the lower price tobacco brought.


Connolly says that Monroe even experienced a deed in lieu of foreclosure over a $25,000 debt, which in today's terms would be somewhere in the area of $750,000 to $1 million.


Monroe also had to ask the federal government for what Connolly calls "a bailout" of sorts. Having racked up some debts while traveling on behalf of the government, Monroe requested that Congress reimburse him for the expenses to the tune of $30,000. Congress eventually granted him the money.


George Washington

Image: One Dollar Bill (© Deborah Harrison/Photographer)Washington was known as one of America's wealthiest presidents, and this is due in part to his land ownership.


Connolly says both George and his wife, Martha, had large holdings of land, but the key to his wealth was his good sense for money.

"His salary as president was 2% of the U.S. budget, which was pretty big at the time," he says. For reference, Connolly says 2% of last year's federal budget was $76 billion, though the budget is obviously much larger today.


Washington was also known as a diligent note-taker. Though he didn't take a salary from the Continental Army, he did make sure he was reimbursed for every expense he incurred, including mutton and a "chariot."


More on and MSN Money:


Were the Founding Fathers good with money???



Jul 4, 2012 1:16PM
I gave up on reading interesting comments from fellow posters after coming across 10 dating solicitation comments.  And that is page 1 ONLY!  I am getting very tired of these kinds of postings.  It makes the whole idea of debate and commenting opinions on an article pointless.  Moderators--remove these types of postings please.
Jul 3, 2012 10:45PM
I wonder what the founders would have thought of our modern day banking and credit score nonsense
Jul 4, 2012 10:52AM
Would Thomas Jefferson have voted for Citizens United, a law that allows foreign corporations to buy our politicians with millions in undisclosed, unlimited campaign contributions. Now Chinese corporations can influence our government into making favorable decisions in trade and commerce. I think Thomas Jefferson would be hanging some Judges for treason.
Jul 4, 2012 10:17AM
Jul 3, 2012 10:10PM
George Washington also started distilling whiskey, a sure sell among the tea-scorning colonials, which secured his fortunes at the end of his life and business career.

Were the Founding Fathers good with money???



Jul 3, 2012 8:59PM
Absolutely they were better with was still backed by gold and they controlled it.

The Corporate owned Bankers and the politicians that they bought is why our country is in a mess and going to crash!
Jul 4, 2012 12:24PM
If we were to follow the fore fathers, there probably wouldn't be a Federal Reserve, we'd still be on the gold standard, and the rest of us wouldn't necessarily be left paying interest to use the monetary notes that the Fed prints (as opposed to how Article 1 of the Constitution suggests wrt our own monetary system and who does or does not control the money supply)....
Jul 4, 2012 4:51AM
The " Founding Fathers " are turning over in their graves for all the corruption that has been going on especially the last couple decades of how the super rich has taken over the political system.  If 2008 wasn't enough to show the public how the whotehouse & Congress was being manipulaed by Past & Present Wall Street CEOs I don't know what will make you believe how this country can be Hi- Jacked by all the greed of Wall Str CEOs of which some got extra bonus for going bancrupt in 2008, Richard Fuld of Lehmen Brothers bank. Now hiding in Idaho.There would of been Congressional hearings after one another until those responsible for the collaspe of just about everything would of went to prison for Treason The political system has turned into a group of Cowards with their hands out to Wall Street.
Jul 4, 2012 1:46AM
The good old days, when no one was "too big to fail" and didn't expect constant government handouts to keep them afloat after making bad financial decisions.

Jul 3, 2012 11:22PM
Obama could learn from the founding fathers. He's never had a job in his life.
Jul 4, 2012 9:09AM
LMFAO, some of these posts are ridiculous especially the ones that are from the sex starved idiots.
Jul 3, 2012 8:39PM
Obama has racked up trillions in under 4 years. Had to top all them crackers somehow, no?
Jul 4, 2012 7:57AM
Book title: "The best way to rob a bank is to own one"
Jul 4, 2012 7:53AM
"Tis against some Men's Principle to pay Interest, and seems against others Interest to pay the Principal. " -- Ben Franklin
Jul 4, 2012 7:55AM
"in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes " -- Benjamin Franklin
Jul 4, 2012 5:27PM
Our Founding Father's were a lot better managing money than OBAMA!! This FOOL cannot even pass a BUDGET! Something "We The people" must do each and every month. When is this MORON going to wake up and smell the coffee???
Jul 4, 2012 2:14AM
and yet none of them asked to be bailed out or expected anyone else to take their load!!!
Jul 4, 2012 12:16PM
By the way.....for those of you who think all I do is bash Obama, who I hate.  I voted for him in 2008 and he lied to me, and everyone else.  He has done just the opposite of what he said, and is in my book a total Jerk and liar.  But, having said that.....most all politians today are lyng Jerks.  I which we had some Washingtons, Abe the tall, Ronald Reagans around today.  90% of all those Democrats and Republicans are all Jerks, and get bought off, by foreign governments or big business.  Obama, has been bought off, has never lead anyhting or anyone,  He is the speaking mouth, with a big smile, for all liberial socialist Marxist.  He had no experience , when He became President, and shows that everyday.  The rest of the world, laughs, at this Jerk.  Oh, well....lets just vote him out of office, and look for another George Washington.
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