America at work
America’s Entrepreneurial Roots: A Nation Founded by Small Business Owners
J.D. Harrison and Sarah Byrne | June 30, 2017

The United States may be the most successful startup experiment ever launched, complete with the greatest entrepreneurial manifesto (the Declaration of Independence) ever written and the most brilliant business plan (the Constitution) even conceived. Not unlike modern day startups, our nation was founded by a group of innovators who firmly believed they had a better solution to a timeless challenge – in their case, how to organize and run a country.

But then, America’s enterprising roots and enduring entrepreneurial spirit won’t be a surprise once you understand the backgrounds of our founding fathers–many of whom, it turns out, were successful small business owners themselves. Here’s a look at some of the entrepreneurial stories behind several of the notable signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson

The primary author of the Declaration of Independence and eventual third president of the United States was a successful landowner, lawyer and farmer before joining the Continental Congress. In 1794, Jefferson added a nail-making business to his blacksmith shop at his Monticello estate, looking to find a new source of income while he restored some of the depleted soil on his farms. Nails were reportedly expensive at the time, and the small nail business proved quite profitable. Jefferson and his family continued to operate the nailery for more than 30 years until the time of his death.

Ben Franklin

This founding father had many talents hidden up his sleeve. At the age of 21, he already owned his own newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. This newspaper was one of Franklin’s successes that carried on for 25 years after his death. Back then, printing required more time and money to get the job done well, and Franklin was admired for his hard work and dedication to the craft. And the newspaper did more than update the community on recent news and events – it helped establish income through the sales of entertainment.

Alexander Hamilton

Founder of both The National Bank and The New York Post, Alexander Hamilton was an enormously successful entrepreneur before he was a politician (and long before he was center stage on Broadway). Although Hamilton had some obstacles during his childhood growing up, he did not let that hold him back. By the age of 29, he had founded the Bank of New York. Some even call Hamilton America’s first capitalist. He was a strong supporter of small businesses and a firm believer that free enterprise and free markets were a force for good in society.

John Jay

John Jay, one of the authors of the federalist papers and one of the statesmen at the center of drafting the Constitution, was before that a highly respected lawyer and successful entrepreneur. Jay studied law at Kings College in New York (what would later become Columbia University) and established a legal practice in the city before opening his own law office in 1771. Jay later served as governor of New York and Supreme Court Chief Justice.

George Washington

Our nation’s first CEO, if you will, was an entrepreneur in his own right. In addition to owning and managing one of the largest farming plantations in the region, Washington owned a thriving distillery that grew to be one of the largest in the country, producing more than 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey. With a sharp mind for business, Washington would prove to be a strong leader in the early years as we looked to lower our national debt and strengthen America’s credit.

Related: The new face of small business in America