Although “taxation without representation” was the buzz phrase of the American colonies’ rebellion, the first Continental Congress in 1774 was highly unrepresentative, made up almost exclusively of the very wealthy — men who were between 10 and 20 times as rich as the average American, and whose wealth was inherited.
The exceptions were two leading firebrands, Samuel Adams of Massachusetts and Patrick Henry of Virginia. Knowing of Adams’ impoverished state, the Boston Sons of Liberty commissioned for him a special suit with gold knee buckles, so that he would not appear to his fellow delegates as too poor and therefore have his ideas dismissed. As for Henry, the other delegates compared his outfit to that of a threadbare rural minister and refused to put him on the important committees.
As I explain in my new book, The Founding Fortunes: How the Wealthy Paid For and Profited From America’s Revolution, that first Congress’s rich delegates, and their successors to Continental Congresses throughout the Revolutionary War, frequently acted as though they represented not only their wealthy constituents but also the vast majority of their neighbors who were much poorer. These Congresses did feature some self-dealing by delegates in contracts to supply the armed forces; that was tolerated because these merchant-delegates were the only purveyors with the resources and the credit to advance for the cause. The same delegates did look out for the poor by agreeing to price controls on everyday items being sold to civilians, and by working to reduce gouging and monopolistic practices.