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George Calvert. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-12252).

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Calvert, George (1580?–15 April 1632), first Lord Baltimore and colonial entrepreneur, was born in Kiplin, Yorkshire, the son of Leonard Calvert, a gentleman of modest means, and a woman named Crossland, perhaps Alicia or Alice, or Grace. Calvert received a broad education through formal study and extensive travel. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Trinity College, Oxford, in 1597 and in 1605 an honorary master’s degree from that university. He gained fluency in Spanish, French, and Italian in his sojourns on the European continent. By his mid-twenties this preparation and his obvious talents in administration and diplomacy brought appointment as private secretary to Sir Robert Cecil, a privy councilor and secretary of state, through whom Calvert acquired still other patronage and the attention of the king. Marriage by 1605 to Anne Mynne of Hertfordshire probably also assisted Calvert’s career; she was related to several prominent families active in government circles and in early trading and colonizing ventures....

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Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Lithograph on paper, 1832, by Albert Newsam. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Carroll of Carrollton, Charles (19 September 1737–14 November 1832), planter, businessman, investor, and the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the last of the signers to die, was born in Annapolis, Maryland, the son of Charles Carroll of Annapolis, a planter, and his common-law wife, Elizabeth Brooke. An only child, Carroll was sent at the age of ten to the Jesuit college of St. Omers, in French Flanders, where Maryland’s Catholic gentry sent their sons because the colony’s laws, which denied “papists” the right to vote, hold office, practice law, and worship publicly, also forbade them to maintain religious schools. Young Carroll studied abroad for sixteen years, ending with a thesis in philosophy at the college of Louis le Grand in Paris in 1757. After reading civil law in Bourges and Paris, he moved to London in September 1759 to pursue the common law at the Inns of Court. However, his antipathy for the discipline, which he regarded as “founded upon and still subsisting by villainy,” became so intense that he ultimately defied his father’s intention that he formally enter the Inner Temple, one of the four Inns of Court. Finding the paternal insistence on his acquiring the social graces more to his liking, he became adept at dancing, drawing, and fencing and mastered Italian, bookkeeping, and surveying, practical skills the elder Carroll deemed essential for success as a landowner and man of business....

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Duer, William (18 March 1743–07 May 1799), businessman and politician, was born in Devonshire, England, the son of John Duer, a wealthy squire, and Frances Frye. After graduating from Eton, Duer joined the British army and traveled to India, where he later served as secretary to Lord Clive, governor-general of the East India Company. Duer soon fell ill, however, and returned to England. His father’s subsequent death left him in possession of a large inheritance, which included an estate in the West Indies. By 1768 Duer was actively managing his estate and trading with prominent businessmen in New York, including ...

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Few, William (08 June 1748–16 July 1828), lawyer, politician, and banker, was born near Baltimore, Maryland, the son of William Few, a failed tobacco planter turned frontier farmer, and Mary Wheeler. Few’s family moved in 1758 to North Carolina, where young William received little formal schooling but enough skills and enough love for reading that the future Founding Father was able to educate himself. In the early 1770s, the Few family joined the Regulator movement, rural westerners’ sometimes violent opposition to unrepresentative coastal political control. The family lost one of William’s brothers, the family farm, and the family fortune in the struggle for more local autonomy. The Fews then moved to Georgia, leaving William behind to settle the family’s affairs, to farm, and to teach himself law....

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Flora, William (fl. 1775–1818), war hero and businessman, was born probably in the vicinity of Portsmouth, Virginia, the son of free black parents, whose names are unknown. On the eve of the American Revolution fewer than 2,000 free blacks lived in Virginia. The colony’s statutes forbade the manumission of slaves except those who exposed an incipient slave uprising. Consequently, Flora, who was known as “Billy,” was probably descended from Africans who arrived in Virginia before 1640, when blacks were treated like indentured servants rather than slaves....

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Johnson, Sir William (1715–11 July 1774), merchant, land speculator, and royal official among the Iroquois Indians, was born in County Meath, Ireland, the son of Christopher Johnson and Anne Warren, members of the gentry. William’s mother provided the family connections that started her son on the way to fortune. Her brother, Vice Admiral ...

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McDougall, Alexander (1732–09 June 1786), revolutionary leader and banker, was born on the island of Islay, off the western coast of Scotland, the son of Ronald McDougall, a dairyman and milk dealer, and Elizabeth (maiden name unknown). McDougall migrated to New York with his parents at the age of six. They initially planned to settle on the province’s northern frontier but remained in New York City instead. McDougall’s father prospered there, but the son went to sea. Returning briefly to Islay in 1751, he married Nancy McDougall, a distant relative. They had three children before her death in 1763. In 1767 he married Hannah Bostwick. They had no children....

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Morris, Robert (20 January 1735–08 May 1806), preeminent merchant and revolutionary financier, was born in Liverpool, England, the son of Robert Morris, Sr., an ironmonger and later a tobacco agent in Maryland, and Elizabeth Murphet. Shortly after Morris joined his father in Maryland in 1747, his father placed him in the care of Robert Greenway of Philadelphia, who obtained an apprenticeship for Robert in the established Philadelphia mercantile house of Charles Willing. Morris quickly displayed exceptional talent and resourcefulness in commerce, sometimes serving as supercargo on the firm’s vessels. He also became a lifetime friend of Charles Willing’s son ...

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Haym Salomon. Sketch by C. Noar. Courtesy of the National Archives (NWDNS-148-GW-1124).

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Salomon, Haym (1740–06 January 1785), New York financier and patriot, was apparently born in Lissa, Poland, of Jewish parents. He traveled widely in his youth, becoming fluent in most European languages and acquiring considerable business skills before coming to the colonies. Despite the tradition that he left Poland in 1772 at the time of the first partition, he may have migrated as early as 1764 or perhaps as late as 1776. Most likely, he arrived in New York City shortly before the outbreak of the Revolution and soon established himself as a successful commission merchant. While there is no evidence of his participation in prerevolutionary political affairs, he immediately cast his lot with the patriots once hostilities began. Warmly recommended by Leonard Gansevoort, the Albany patriot, as a strong supporter of the American cause, Salomon, in June 1776, offered his services as sutler to the American forces under General ...

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Smith, John (1580–21 June 1631), colonial governor, promoter, and historian, was born in Willoughby by Alford in Lincolnshire, the son of George Smith, a yeoman, and Alice Rickard. His earliest schooling may have been under Francis Marbury, father of Anne Hutchinson, who was schoolmaster in Alford. Toward the end of his life Smith published an autobiography, one of the first examples of the modern genre, which he titled ...

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John Smith. Illustration from The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith, 1629, depicting Smith's 1607 capture. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-99524).

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Spotswood, Alexander (1676–07 June 1740), lieutenant governor of Virginia and industrial entrepreneur, was born in northern Africa in the city of Tangier, the son of Robert Spotswood, a physician, and Catherine Elliott. The family was staunchly royalist. Alexander’s father was personal physician to the first earl of Middleton, briefly the most powerful politician in Restoration Scotland, but later exiled as governor of Tangier. The earl’s personal physician accompanied him and acted also as physician to the garrison. Alexander was first taken to England at the age of seven. His father died when he was eleven, just before the Glorious Revolution of 1688. After William III had displaced James II, Alexander did not follow the second earl of Middleton into Jacobitism and exile, but chose to make his first career in the British army created by William III to fight his wars against Louis XIV of France. He was commissioned ensign in the earl of Bath’s foot regiment on 20 May 1693. Promoted lieutenant on 1 January 1696, he continued his military career under Queen Anne, fighting in the War of the Spanish Succession under the command of the duke of Marlborough. A captain before 1704, he was wounded at the battle of Blenheim in 1704 and captured at Oudenarde in 1708 but immediately exchanged. He was primarily active in army supply, particularly grain, being lieutenant quartermaster under Lord Cadogan, rising to lieutenant colonel....

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Vassall, John (1625–1688), colonial entrepreneur and a founder of Charles Town colony on the Cape Fear River, was born in Stepney, Middlesex County, England, to a family that was heavily involved in overseas trade and American colonization. He was the son of William Vassall and Anne King and the grandson of a French Huguenot refugee, John Vassall, who became a successful merchant and was an investor in the Virginia Company. William Vassall and his brother Samuel were involved in the founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony, where William brought his family in 1635, settling first in Roxbury and then in Scituate in Plymouth colony. Samuel Vassall, a London merchant, participated in colonial trade, was an alderman of London and a member of Parliament, served on the Commission for Plantations, and in 1630–1633 attempted to seat a colony in Carolana. In 1648 William Vassall moved to Barbados where he became a planter-merchant residing in St. Michael’s Parish....

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Willing, Thomas (19 December 1731–19 January 1821), merchant, political leader, and banker, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Charles Willing, a successful merchant and, later, mayor of Philadelphia, and Anne Shippen, granddaughter of Edward Shippen, the first mayor of Philadelphia. The Willings in 1740 sent young Thomas to England to be educated. He first went to school at Bath between 1740 and 1743 and then attended Robert Wheeler’s school at Wells, Somersetshire. Willing went to London in September 1748 and for six months took courses in business at the Watt’s Academy. The same year he began to read law at the Inner Temple....