Lessons in Legacy Planning: What Did the Founding Fathers Want In Their Wills?
6 min read

Lessons in Legacy Planning: What Did the Founding Fathers Want In Their Wills?

What did the founding fathers try to achieve in their Wills? What can we learn from them? This article dives into the Wills of the Founding Fathers and how they may provide valuable insights when crafting your own Will. Keep reading to learn more.

Share this article:

The Founding Fathers of the United States were complicated men who laid the foundations of the nation we know and love today. You probably think you’ve heard all the stories:

  • George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and confessed to the crime.

  • Thomas Jefferson was a farmer who made good bourbon.

  • Abe Lincoln was born in a log cabin.

  • Alexander Hamilton was in the room where it happened!

But I’m pretty sure you haven’t heard the stories of these men and their Last Wills and Testaments. Each one of them had political legacies that last until today, but what did they try to achieve with their Wills? Were they more concerned with their personal property or their loved ones? Did they make any special bequests? And did any of them actually die without a Will? In this article, we delve into the Wills of some prominent Founding Fathers to glean valuable insights that can inspire your own estate plans.

George Washington 

George Washington was the first President of the United States. Many people expected Washington to be president for life, and his acolyte Alexander Hamilton argued that he should absolutely never step down. Foreign powers assumed he would simply declare himself king. However, Washington was inspired by other rulers, like Cincinnatus, who willingly gave up power. And so, after serving one term as president, he retired to his farm at Mount Vernon. The night before Washington died, he asked his wife Martha to bring him his two Wills. After reviewing them, he threw one in the fire and told her to probate the Will he had written six months earlier.  

Washington’s handwritten Will is 15 pages long and it reflects his strong sense of duty toward the new nation. Washington left all of his personal property to Martha. He freed slaves that he had purchased in his lifetime and professed a dislike of slavery. However, he did not free the people enslaved by his wife’s estate, which she inherited from her first husband. Washington freed his personal valet William Lee and gave him a $30 annuity. Washington had purchased Lee and his brother when they were teenagers. Lee served alongside Washington during the Revolutionary War. During the War, Washington is said to have changed his mind about slavery. Washington left money for a school that eventually became Washington & Lee University and for the creation of a school for orphans. But not all of his wishes were fulfilled. He left money for the establishment of a university in the District of Columbia but this never came to pass. He forgave the debts owed to him. Washington’s Will is thoughtful and well-executed. He reviewed it when he knew he was gravely ill. This meticulousness is something everyone should strive for when planning their estate.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, is responsible for ensuring that the United States has freedom of religion. Jefferson became the third president of the United States and he is responsible for the saying “all men are created equal.” Jefferson’s major accomplishments include the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which laid the groundwork for America’s westward expansion. He was also a strong proponent of individual rights.

Jefferson is not without contradictions; he spoke out against the international slave trade and yet bought and sold people during his lifetime. In Jefferson’s Will, he does not free any of his 600 slaves. However, a codicil manumitted five people, including the sons of Sally Hemings, who may have been his sons. Jefferson bequeathed his vast library to form the foundation of the Library of Congress. This act demonstrated his commitment to the preservation of knowledge and the dissemination of ideas. Jefferson's will is a reminder that your intellectual contributions do have inherent value. If you are drafting a Will, you should consider artistic or literary works you’ve written, and include your digital assets among your objects of value.  

Benjamin Franklin 

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston and moved to Philadelphia as a young man. His affinity for both cities would become a big part of his Last Will and Testament. Franklin was a true polymath who excelled in various fields, including science, writing, politics, and diplomacy. Franklin is best known for his contributions to electricity, including the invention of the lightning rod. Franklin was also a prolific writer and publisher who was known for his wit. 

The most fascinating part of Franklin’s Will is a codicil that he added to the main document. In the codicil, he bequeathed 1,000 pounds to Boston and Philadelphia. The money would be handled as follows: for the first 100 years, the money would accrue interest. Then it would be given to fund loans for young men who wanted to start their own business. At the end of another 100 years, the cities could take 75% of the principal and use it for public works. The other 25% should be left for another 100 years. Although Franklin predicted there would be a lot of bickering about the money, and there was, both cities invested the money well. The lesson here is that you can leave some money for philanthropic works. You can also consider leaving money in trust to your loved ones with certain stipulations attached.

Alexander Hamilton 

Alexander Hamilton was an early American statesman who devised the U.S. Treasury, the economy, and author of most of the Federalist Papers, which were pamphlets that helped convince the American people to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Americans now know a lot more about Hamilton because of the popular Broadway musical “Hamilton.” Hamilton was killed by then-Vice President Aaron Burr, who shot him in a duel. When Hamilton, who was something of a legendary hothead, agreed to the duel, he asked his friend Nathanial Pendleton to help him write up a Will, just in case.

Hamilton made his three friends executors of his estate. The first was John Church, husband of  Angelica Schuyler, who played a memorable role in the “Hamilton musical.” Nicholas Fish was a friend from the Revolutionary War. Fish named his son Hamilton. Hamilton Fish became governor of New York and Secretary of State. Pendleton was a close friend who served as Hamilton’s second in his fatal duel with Aaron Burr. , and he helped Hamilton put his affairs in order before the duel. Hamilton did not have considerable wealth and never owned a slave. He did not have a lot to leave his family, stating that because of his public service, he never acquired a lot of money. In his Will, he told his children that he knew their mother would provide for them and that she had been “the most devoted” and “best” of mothers.

What can people learn from Hamilton’s Last Will? First of all, do not get in a duel. Second, you can use the Will to include personal sentiments that you want your loved ones to heed in your absence. 

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was undoubtedly one of America’s best presidents and great orators. He is responsible for holding the Union together, winning the Civil War, and emancipating the slaves. Lincoln won a second term and then was murdered by a treasonous actor, John Wilkes Booth, who was as famous in the 19th century as Leonardo DiCaprio is today. Despite all of Lincoln’s accomplishments, he failed estate planning. That’s because President Abraham Lincoln did not have a Last Will and Testament! It makes no sense for Lincoln, who was a celebrated lawyer and well aware of the many threats against his life, to have ignored his Will. But like so many other Americans, Lincoln never sat down to write his Will.

At the time of his assassination, the Lincoln estate had a value of about $110,000. His Will was probated in Illinois, which divided his estate among his widow and sons. However, since Lincoln held assets in other states, this led to several delays and claims against the estate. Lincoln’s family asked Supreme Court Justice David Davis to administer his estate and the court agreed. However, the family argued with Davis over Lincoln’s valuable papers and books. The battle over the Lincoln estate went on for years. The one lesson you can learn from Lincoln is that you must write your Will right away.

Scroll Down
Share this article:
Let’s begin! First, what’s your name?

Your name that’s stated on your driver’s license, birth certificate, or passport.