A few years ago, I first came across the book, 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 190 years old, the book reveals a surprising thing that almost all the Founding Fathers had in common -- something that probably never occurs to most people today.

Take for example what Goodrich had to say about Thomas Stone, a Maryland lawyer who was one of the the 56 signers. When Stone wanted to continue his education, Goodrich explains, he faced a problem that will be familiar to many people today.

He didn't have the money, so he had to borrow it. In other words, he was the founding father who had to take out the 18th century equivalent of student loans.

As a result, he had to wait to get married, start a family and do the one other big thing he wanted to do: go into business for himself. First, he had to pay off the loans.

I don't know if many others among the Founding Fathers ever had to take out student loans -- but the second half of Stone's story is what most of them had in common.

To a man, almost all of them were 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), almost all of them were 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. And 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.)
  • There's also Carter Braxton, a wealthy slaver and farmer. I suppose he was technically in business for himself, but by all accounts, slaves were a big part of it. So I'm not inclined to celebrate him as an entrepreneur -- just to point out his history.
  • The signers included the wealthiest man in the colonies at the time, Charles Carroll of Maryland, who ran a giant plantation, and inherited a fortune worth the modern-day equivalent of about a half a billion dollars (including many slaves). But, I don't see a lot of "pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled" in his story.  

Still, these are the exceptions to the rule. Overall, the Founding Fathers, including those who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and others (like George Washington and Patrick Henry) who weren't there to do so, but obviously contributed greatly, largely had a common background.

And without that bcakground -- and the appetite for risk and insistence on owning their futures to the maximum extent possible -- it's easy to imagine they might never have had the courage to declare independence and build a new country.