Patriotism today tends to conjure notions of loyalty to country and battlefield courage, but little more. Partisan attempts to capture patriotism for one side and to accuse the other of lacking it is one reason for the narrowness of the current definition, but another is not looking to history for other examples. One of the most significant comes from this country’s founding era, when small numbers of Americans, most of them very wealthy, practiced an “economic patriotism” that put their country’s interests ahead of their own, risking—and sometimes losing—their financial well-being.
An early version surfaced during the late colonial period, among a handful of wealthy merchants in Boston; Charleston, South Carolina; and other American cities. The American Revolution began with the urban working class, mostly in the northeastern colonies. But only when a few wealthy merchants threw their weight behind the fledgling movement did resistance to British rule gain momentum.
Most of the wealthy took no action at all. More than 40 percent of the colonists were Tories, and among the well-off the percentage of Tories was higher. Even those wealthy colonists who favored the rebels’ cause were reluctant to get involved. The reason was not subtle: They derived their fortune almost exclusively from trade with Great Britain, as part of what Adam Smith would soon label the British mercantile system.
The spur for change among the colonists began when Parliament, following the French and Indian War, became greedy. Noting how well the Americans were paying back the mother country for protection during that war, Parliament decided to raise even more money from the colonies through the Stamp Act of 1765. A few leading traders—John Hancock in Boston, Henry Laurens in Charleston, and others in Philadelphia, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island—then led the resistance against the tax. While the tax would have hit them harder than the lower classes, their objections were not only personal. They took issue with “taxation without representation,” and with a rate that felt arbitrary and out of proportion with the costs of the British protection of American soil and resources. Many of them refused to pass the tax on to their American customers, which is what their merchant colleagues suggested, and some stopped doing business with Great Britain altogether, which severely decreased their income.
American resistance to the Stamp Act forced its retraction in 1766, but Parliament tried again to overtax Americans with the Townshend Acts. These pushed the colonists further down the road toward outright rebellion. In 1769, to fight taxation without representation, many colonies embraced “nonimportation,” a pledge not to buy anything from Great Britain or its Caribbean colonies, to pressure Parliament to roll back the Townshend Acts. Colony-wide councils enforced this pledge. Laurens chaired the South Carolina council, and Hancock was part of Boston’s. Thomas Jefferson had to apologize to Virginia’s council for ordering 14 pairs of sash windows from London, and surrendered the windows upon their arrival. Nonimportation worked, contributing to the repeal of all the Townshend Acts except for the tax on imported tea. That last one was the reason for the Boston Tea Party of December 1773.
A new form of economic patriotism began with the start of battlefield combat: spending money and extending credit for the cause. Hancock and a few of his fellow merchants, along with George Washington, Philip Schuyler, and other high-ranking officers, paid to outfit and equip regiments, and promised future land grants to enlistees. The commercial merchants Joseph Trumbull, Thomas Mifflin, and Jeremiah Wadsworth used the business credit they had built up over the years to buy supplies for the armed forces. They understood that they would be repaid only if the rebelling colonies won the war, and only in Continental dollars, which began to lose value within months of their issue. By the spring of 1778, when Wadsworth was nominated as chief commissary, he had advanced the equivalent of 75,000 Continental dollars and hadn’t even been paid in Continentals. Hundreds of lesser-ranked federal and state commissaries whose names are now mostly lost to history were in the same fix, having extended their personal credit, and then the credit of their families and friends, to supply the armies, without being reimbursed.
A third form of economic patriotism came to the fore in the spring of 1780. Those months were particularly difficult and desperate times for the Revolution. When, if ever, substantial French assistance might arrive was unknown, and mutinies and desertions had meanwhile whittled away Washington’s army. Savannah, Georgia, had fallen, and Charleston was on the brink of being lost. It was questionable whether the United States of America could survive another year, let alone win the war. At this important juncture, 97 wealthy Philadelphians stepped up to help the army.
Led by the merchants Robert Morris, Thomas Willing, and William Bingham, as well as the lawyer James Wilson, they raised £315,000—an average of £3,250 each, which was more than the ordinary American worker earned in a lifetime—to buy supplies for the troops. The supplies lasted the army for a crucial three months, during which time General Rochambeau’s troops arrived in Newport and a path to eventual victory became discernible.
After the war, the remnants of the bank that had been set up to buy supplies for the army were rolled into the Bank of North America; its practices were so geared toward augmenting the wealth of the wealthy and refusing credit to all others that the Pennsylvania State Assembly sought to de-charter it. Many Americans became convinced that, as the patrician Gouverneur Morris put it at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, “The Rich will strive to establish their dominance and enslave the rest. They always did. They always will. They will have the same effect [here] as elsewhere if we do not by the power of government keep them in their proper spheres.”
Morris supported confining the rich to a Senate and the masses to a House of Representatives to balance each other’s interests, and further offsetting the power of both legislative branches through a strong president and an independent judiciary.
The convention’s delegates were wealthy, although fewer were heirs to fortunes than at the Continental Congresses of 1774–75, and they included a substantial number of self-made men. Yet as a group, they too practiced economic patriotism. While they agreed that the Constitution should protect contracts and private property and facilitate capitalism in other ways, they also championed the rights of those who possessed little or no property. Of course, they were only thinking in terms of white men in that regard—excluded from the benefits of the Constitution were women, enslaved people, Native Americans, and, in some states, those who practiced religions other than Protestantism. Even worse, slavery was embedded in the Constitution, a compromise deemed necessary to induce enough states to adopt it.
In the final strophe of the Founders’ era, the War of 1812, a handful of wealthy men practiced a new form of economic patriotism. While a few, like William Gray of Salem, paid for repairs to “Old Ironsides” (the USS Constitution), and other commissioned ships and donated them to the Navy, in 1813, a handful risked their entire fortunes in service of the country.
James Madison had narrowly been reelected as president, but he and his Democrat Republican policies were opposed at every turn by the Federalists, who still held power in New England, and whose private banks controlled the country’s finances after the charter of Hamilton’s Bank of the United States had been allowed to expire. By the spring of 1813, with the war at full blast, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin tried to float a $16 million loan to fund the armed forces. Gray bought several hundred thousand dollars of it, but the Federalist-controlled private banks refused to accept the bulk of it for resale. In March, Gallatin warned Madison, “We have hardly enough money to last till the end of the month.” Had the loan failed, the United States might have had to prematurely sue for peace.
In this crisis, three of the country’s wealthiest citizens, Stephen Girard, John Jacob Astor, and David Parish—immigrants all—stepped up. Gallatin persuaded them to buy the remainder of the loan, over $10 million, which was more than their combined net worth. They retained $1 million apiece of it and resold the rest to insurance companies and banks, who then resold smaller amounts to individuals. The government obtained the needed funds and was able to prosecute the war to its close in 1815.
This history suggests the value of a broader understanding of patriotism, one that goes beyond saluting-the-flag loyalty and battlefield bravery. Zeal, ingenuity, and a willingness to endure a bit of self-sacrifice can be translated into new instances of economic patriotism today. Patriotism of any sort should be more widespread, and Americans should more regularly find and create opportunities to advance the country’s interests—even when it comes at a personal cost.