Very few people know the name of Thomas Fitzsimons. He was one of the least well-known Founding Fathers of the United States who usually played a subordinate role to some other key figure such that historical glory has proved elusiveness.
Nevertheless, Fitzsimons could claim to be one of the most prosperous of all the founding fathers, building an estate much larger than that of his peers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and even Benjamin Franklin.
Fitzsimons was born in Ballykilty, in County Cork, Ireland in 1741. This was the worst time to be born into the world in the entire history of Ireland. The history books recall this great famine as “The Year of the Slaughter” (or the “Biliain an Air”) because the potatoes failed to an oomycete infection, the grains frosted, the milk spoiled, and the lakes were both frigid and contaminated. These conditions resulted in the death of over a third of Ireland’s population.
Thomas Fitzsimons’ father saw fifty babies get buried in the cemetery outside St. Catherine’s Church—as starvation took hold when poor families couldn’t even scrounge together a simple oatmeal breakfast—and began plotting to leave Ireland. The problem is, when you can’t come up with the ability to feed yourself each day, you can’t afford a transatlantic one-way trip for your family, and this reality forced the elder Fitzsimons to delay his Irish exodus until the conditions turned.
The tragedy of the Fitzsimons family tale is that once Thomas and his six siblings arrived in the United States, his father died shortly thereafter because he gave most of his food rations on the voyage to his children to ensure their survival.
Keenly aware of his father’s sacrifice, Thomas Fitzsimons relied upon his intensive Roman Catholic faith and concluded that every day of his life was a gift from God, and from that, he could act like as a trustee over his talents that God bestowed upon him, and he chose to spend every day with a superhuman work ethic as a way of respecting the Lord’s blessings. In many ways, he was more religious version of Alexander Hamilton with a larger focus on private industry. His life went on to serve as a blueprint for German immigrant Henry Parsons Crowell, the founder of Quaker Oats who also adopted the manic work ethic worldview as a form of stewardship and gratitude for the capabilities that God bestowed upon him.
As a way to honor his faith while also getting a little something for himself, Fitzsimons began to act as a crop broker between the American colonies and the Old World. He would pay American farmers for their food and tobacco, and then ship it anywhere he could—the West Indies, China, Spain, Portugal, and even his old home of Ireland.
He became one of the original “low cost producers” because he charged much less than many others in the trade, as he found it immoral to charge fees for those who needed food. As a consequence, the demand for his brokering services soared and he ended up generating the kind of wealth that those who were charging high fees all along could only dream of.
What is interesting though is that he did not build legendary riches until he began to explore ancillary business opportunities that arose after his international food trade. He began building his own ships, sparing no cost to ensure reliability, and generated enormous profits as the Pennsylvania food trade largely flowed through him—farmers either exported crops through him, or his peers used his ships because they wanted to ensure that their own food trades would reach their destination. In Fitzsimons’ first year of business as a ship operator, he made more than he did in all of his previous years as a food broker combined.
As Fitzsimons began to learn about the sharp fears that fellow crop brokers and farmers shared in exporting their foodstuffs across the ocean, he began to have meetings with a Massachusetts ship merchant named Samuel Blodget to discuss marine insurance that would provide insurance coverage for the contents of merchant ships in exchange for an upfront fee.
Blodget had gained notoriety for launching an annuity fund in which people would invest their savings with him, he would return monthly payments, and whoever survived the longest would split 50% of the remains with him as a sort of lottery payout. Unfortunately, this idea quickly failed as the people receiving money from the annuity fund wanted higher payouts rather than the remote possibility of a one-time lottery win, but Blodget established himself as a man who was capable of pooling capital and creating risk pools with some type of systematic payout structure.
This caught Fitzsimons’ attention, and Fitzsimons helped Blodget raise capital for a company they started called the “Insurance Company of North America.” Of the $600,000 in initial stock, Fitzsimons owned $250,000 of it. This enabled Fitzsimons to collect a triple fee from his efforts—he made money brokering a crop relationship between a Northeastern Farmer and a European food importer, he made money when the goods got shipped on boats that he owned, and he also made money by selling insurance that guaranteed a rate on his boats.
He had an extreme incentive to deliver quality, based on his own sense of morality and competitive instincts, and earned extremely high fees from insurance premiums because almost of his ships reached their destination. There was even the legend that he had 100 ships run consecutively without the need for an insurance payout, proving that Fitzsimons came up with a brilliant idea at a brilliant time and brilliantly executed upon it.
His economic success also paved the way for political clout. Fitzsimons was a delegate to the Continental Convention and represented Pennsylvania in the House of Representatives. He was a leading abolitionist of his time, breaking with the farmers that funded much of his wealth by advocating for an end to slavery. Furthermore, he recognized that George Washington wouldn’t always be President, and his passion for senate ratification of Treaties is why the American executive branch does not wield that power exclusively. He said: “I trust it will be found consistent with the principles of liberty and calculated to unite and bind together the members of a great country.”
Fitzsimons’ political influence dimmed when he lost an election to John Swanwick, as he angered Pennsylvanians by supporting higher taxes (for the rich and poor alike) on the theory that a country, just like a person, should pay off any debt incurred. Unfortunately for us, he never left re-entered the political sphere again after the people of Pennsylvania spoke out against him.
That doesn’t mean his influence ended, however. He used his dividends—yes, dividends—from the Insurance Company of North America to fund Georgetown. Don’t mistake the public’s ignorance of Fitzsimons’ contributions for a lack of a legacy. That Insurance Company of North America he capitalized? That today is known as Cigna—that’s right, when you sign up for the Obamacare exchanges—you are potentially entering into an insurance agreement with the successor entity of Fitzsimons’ life work. If you look at the lifetime contributions of Georgetown alumni, you can know that the arc of history would’ve bent a little bit differently if he didn’t provide the capital to make it all possible.
Fitzsimons had that amazing work ethic that you often see in people who feel indebted by the tangible sacrifices that others make on their behalf. Whatever pain and sacrifice that it requires to be that industrious was at least offset by that knowledge that there was hardly any gap between the man Fitzsimons was and the man he could have been.
Also, it is important to remember that there is no obligation to be wedded to your first efforts in life. The crop brokerage provided a healthy living for Fitzsimons, but he was able to shape American politics through his wealth that arose from shipping, and he was able to help capitalize through his efforts in the insurance industry. Sometimes, your first ideas can be highly informative in letting you know what other lucrative opportunities await. The first idea got him in the game, but his second and third ensured he’d win it.