On this Independence Day, 2011 I have been thinking about the summer of ’76 and America’s Founding Fathers. Their importance to the world has been analyzed every way imaginable; thousands of books have been written about their efforts and accomplishments, and they are held up to generations as examples of great political and military leaders. But today I am inspired more by their entrepreneurial spirit and accomplishments and the lessons they hold for us today.
Modern entrepreneurs tend to approach their ventures using the problem-opportunity-solution framework, and in many ways the American Revolution was born of that approach. The founders early on identified the core issues and articulated the “problem;” they recognized the “opportunity” represented by the immense resources of the colonies; and they designed a “solution” in a new kind of government, ruled by the people themselves. Revolutionary, for sure, but also incorporating all of the traditional hallmarks of entrepreneurism. This is not a surprise, considering the people who were involved in this effort. This was, by any measure, an extraordinary collection of individuals – accomplished, powerful, and brave. But as a group they were also creative, successful, and entrepreneurial. The seven men who are collectively known as America’s “Founding Fathers” each had meaningful success in their business ventures and this success, in many ways, informed their approach to founding a new vision for government and a strategy for accomplishing that dream.
1. Benjamin Franklin.
Perhaps the most famous entrepreneur of them all, Franklin had an active life as publisher, author, and inventor, prior to his success as a statesman and diplomat. He was most famous as the founder and publisher of the famous Poor Richard’s Almanac, and for his scientific discoveries and inventions, which included writings in physics, and theories of electricity, as well as patents for the Franklin Stove, lightning rod, bifocals, and an early odometer for carriages. Franklin was also known for founding the first public fire department in Philadelphia, as well as the first public lending library. After the revolution he went on to be appointed as the first Postmaster General and established the new nation’s postal system which ultimately became the US Post Office.
The third of Franklin’s famous 13 virtues could serve as his motto for his approach to business and life: “Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
2. John Adams.
Adams was a successful lawyer and writer in the years leading up to the American Revolution. He was an intellectually gifted student and was known for his analysis of contemporary court cases. His rise to prominence came along with his opposition to the Stamp Act in 1765 and the articles and letters he published and his passionate advocacy for the colonies and rights of the Colonialists. In spite of his concern that it might limit his career, Adams went on to defend in court the British soldiers accused of murder in the infamous Boston Massacre of 1770. His spirited defense led the the acquittal of 6 of the 8 soldiers charged and reduced charges for the other two. He ultimately went on to establish himself as a leading thinker on government and a guiding light as each of the new states wrote its own constitution. Adams was the first Vice President under George Washington and went on to become our 2nd President when he was elected in 1796.
3. George Washington.
Most famous as a military officer and the commanding General of the Continental Army, Washington was born into business and helped to manage his family’s plantations and other affairs. He was trained as a surveyor and mapmaker and was appointed the official surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia in 1749. He leveraged his abilities and knowledge to pursue acquisitions of land in Virginia and Ohio, and successfully diversified his family’s holdings away from tobacco and into milling, horse breeding, weaving, and distilling.
Washington’s entrepreneurial spirit is perhaps best illustrated by his ability to lead his ragtag army through significant victories against the British, but more importantly through defeats which might have thwarted many others. Perhaps the best story of his creativity and leadership is how, after his humiliating defeat and retreat from New York, he was able to reassemble his troops and stage the surprise attacks and victories at Trenton and Princeton, which arguably turned the course of the war in the Colonist’s favor.
4. James Madison.
Another scion of a tobacco-plating family, Madison was educated in business and law and pursued a political career from an early age. Madison is known as the “Father of the Constitution” and shared responsibility for writing the Federalist Papers, as well as for drafting the original Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, and the most critical portion of that document.
His greatest entrepreneurial achievement would come after the Revolution, when as Secretary of state under Thomas Jefferson, he oversaw the Louisiana Purchase, which effectively doubled the nation’s size, and has gone down in history as the single greatest land acquisition of all time.
5. Thomas Jefferson.
The 3rd President of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was an accomplished planter, architect, and attorney. He successfully built his property holdings and established a successful law practice, representing many of Virginia’s most prominent families and businesses.
But it was as a writer and political philosopher that Jefferson left his greatest mark and his ability to build coalitions, influence political movements, and leverage internal strife that led to his ultimate victory in Presidential politics It was his vision of expansion for the country, that best expressed his entrepreneurial spirit, courage, and determination. In addition to the Louisiana Purchase, these qualities were on vivid display in his planning and successful execution of the great Lewis and Clark expedition to survey the American frontier
6. Alexander Hamilton.
The principal author of the early economic policies of the United States, Hamilton was celebrated (and reviled by many) for his determination, intellect, and capacity for conflict in business and politics. Orphaned at a young age, Hamilton went on to study in Boston and New York and in 1775 organized and led the New York Provincial Company of Artillery which fought in the battles of New York and Trenton under General Washington and went on to become one of Washington’s aides before being given a command of his own.
It was as Washington’s first Secretary of the Treasury that Hamilton exerted his greatest influence. The five reports he wrote during his tenure would establish the economic foundation for the country and establish a framework for the relationship of business to government that exists to this day. Without Hamilton we would not have the ability to operate our businesses, leverage credit markets, manufacture goods, trade internationally, or benefit from import duties. Imaginative, creative, and forceful, Hamilton serves as a great model for entrepreneurs and business people of all stripes.
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