How Donald Trump Is Like John Hancock

The complicated political dynamics between rich presidential candidates and poorer ones far predate the 20th century.


Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The wealth, or lack of it, of the presidential candidates, or potential presidential candidates, is emerging as an issue in the presidential race.

On the Democratic side of things, the matter was thrown into sharp relief by the juxtaposition of the two big news items of the weekend. First, Maureen Dowd's New York Times column reported that Vice President Biden is taking a fresh look at whether to run. Ms. Dowd reported a conversation between Biden and his dying son in which Beau Biden said, "Dad, I know you don't give a damn about money." And second, Hillary and Bill Clinton reported adjusted gross income totaling about $139 million for the years 2007 through 2014, including $875,000 for four speeches to Goldman Sachs.

On the Republican side, the last 8 public polls indicate that the leading candidate is also the wealthiest one—Donald Trump, who declared his net worth to be $10 billion (Bloomberg reports the actual figure is closer to $2.9 billion). Trump is trailed by the former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, who earned a reported $28.5 million in household adjusted gross income for 2007 through 2013; and by the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker. Walker makes a point on the campaign trail of talking about working at McDonald's and using coupons to shop for discounted clothing. "We didn't inherit fame or fortune from our family," Walker says.

Plenty of pundits predicted that economic inequality would be an issue in this presidential campaign. But most people thought the discussion would be about inequality of income and wealth among ordinary Americans, not among the presidential candidates themselves.

The wealthier the candidates are, the more eager they are to connect with the concerns of ordinary Americans. The former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, wrote recently that Trump "has tapped into America's great populist tradition by speaking to concerns of working class voters." She praised Trump by writing, "He may be a billionaire, but refreshingly, there's nothing elitist about him." Hillary Clinton, for her part, says she is running because "everyday Americans need a champion."

There is no shortage of precedents for wealthy politicians with a common touch. John Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt often get mentioned; Reagan sometimes, too. But the complicated political dynamics between rich candidates and poorer ones, and between both and the voters, far predate the 20th century.

Samuel Adams—the sparkplug of the American Revolution, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the man who gave the order to start the Boston Tea Party, and who gave the name to the Boston Massacre—was, in relative financial terms, the Joseph Biden or Scott Walker of his day. Adams was so poor that when he went off to the Continental Congress at Philadelphia for the first time, the people of Boston had to take up a collection to buy him a new suit. "I glory in being what the World calls, a poor Man," Adams wrote to his wife from Philadelphia on November 24, 1780.

The Donald Trump (or perhaps Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush) of that time and place was John Hancock. Hancock's inherited shipping fortune was vast. Just as Trump affects a family coat of arms, Hancock ordered a punch bowl from China decorated with a crest of a hand and three cocks. Trump has his private jet; Hancock had a team of white horses. Adams worried that people would vote for Hancock as president of the Congress, or as governor of Massachusetts, because of his wealth.

"I hope our country will never see the time, when either riches or the want of them will be the leading considerations in the choice of public officers," Adams wrote to Elbridge Gerry on January 2, 1776. "The giving such a preference to riches is both dishonourable and dangerous to government."

Hancock and Adams feuded but eventually reconciled. Both eventually served as governor of Massachusetts, though Hancock was elected first, and Adams assumed the office only after Hancock's death. Adams' warning about the danger of preferring rich politicians was surely motivated in part by his feelings of resentment toward Hancock, who was simultaneously an ally and a rival. But it also may have stemmed from Adams' feeling about King George III, who for all his crown jewels and castles turned out to be a ruler unwilling to respond in any meaningful way to the colonists' opposition to taxation without representation.

Wealth can buy admiration but it can also bring isolation. Samuel Adams had a point when he cautioned against it becoming a big factor in voter decisions. We'd be better off spending less time thinking about how much money the candidates do or don't have and more time considering how likely their policies are to help enrich or impoverish the rest of us.