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Trump Isn’t the First Entrepreneur to Become President

Marcus Licinius Crassus Louvre
Marcus Licinius Crassus (Louvre)
By cjh1452000 (Own work) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons 

“Now, housing development is an area in which President-elect Trump and his family have significant business interests,” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) affirmed to Dr. Ben Carson at the January 13th confirmation hearing for his appointment as Secretary of Housing in Trump’s cabinet. “Can you assure me that not a single taxpayer dollar that you give out will financially benefit the President-elect or his family?” Clearly, President-elect Trump’s entrepreneurial career is still a source of controversy, as it is likely to remain for the duration of his political career.

 In recent years, we have had prominent entrepreneurs like Michael Bloomberg and Darrell Issa leverage their entrepreneurial success as a stepping stone to public office, albeit not at the presidential level. Yet, even at that level, Trump will not be the first entrepreneur in the Oval Office. Former newspaper magnate President Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) made his name as an entrepreneur before entering politics, as did President Andrew Johnson (1865-1869), who had established a large tailoring business. However, the phenomenon of the entrepreneur-politician extends much further back in history than the late nineteenth century. In fact, it is almost as old as politics itself.

Phoenicia: Government Of, By, and For the Entrepreneurs

  The “cradle of civilization,” Ancient Mesopotamia, was also the cradle of entrepreneurship in many respects. Labor specialization, business and debt contracts, and even the concept of economic mobility itself can be traced to Mesopotamia’s merchant-entrepreneurs. Yet these entrepreneurs were generally subservient to the twin pillars of Mesopotamian civilization, the temple and the palace. Even during periods in which the merchant-entrepreneurs gained the upper hand in trade and other commercial matters, ultimate decision-making power on military, legal, and other matters lay with the palace and temple, not the merchants’ karum (merchant assembly).

Yet, in the middle of the second millennium B.C.E., another Western Asian civilization emerged that, despite its strong Mesopotamian influences, allowed its entrepreneurs to take the reins of political leadership. Situated on a narrow strip of coastal land in modern-day Lebanon, the Phoenicians became the “masters of the sea,” as the Greeks described them. Leveraging their superior nautical skill, coupled with considerable business acumen, Phoenicia’s merchant-sailors proceeded to convert much of the known world into their own trading network. Unlike the Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans, the enterprising Phoenicians viewed all undertakings through the lens of commerce.

Consequently, Phoenicia was a civilization governed, from top to bottom, by its entrepreneurs. As the Italian archaeologist Aldo Massa observed, “The true masters of the [Phoenician] cities were the heads of the leading families, or rather of the leading business houses.” Aside from being “the custodians of the national wealth and the masters of huge business empires,” collectively, these captains of family-run enterprises “used to form what really amounted to a senate, regardless of the name it was actually given.” Typically, these were the same families who profited the most from the jealously guarded network of Phoenician trade routes and, later, colonies.

Marcus Licinius Crassus: Real Estate Speculator/Consul of Rome

Prior to becoming imperial Rome, the most powerful nation of the ancient world was known as the Roman Republic (509 B.C.E. – 27 B.C.E.). The highest office in the Republic was that of consul and, between 60 and 55 B.C.E., Marcus Licinius Crassus held that position twice. Born into a prosperous patrician family in 115 B.C.E, Crassus grew a sizable inheritance into an enormous one through the purchase of a special class of distressed properties – wooden residences (the norm in Rome at the time) that were on fire!

Crassus had an uncanny knack for appearing in the midst of a blazing inferno with money and an entourage of slaves. Then, in addition to the afflicted property, he would also purchase the surrounding properties for a fraction of their market price, convincing their owners that it was better to obtain something from him before the flames consumed their homes too. Despite these controversial methods, over time Crassus laid claim to most of Rome and he became the wealthiest Roman of the era.

However, mere wealth was not enough for a man of Crassus’ ambition. The Roman real estate magnate had his eye on high political office and he began to use his considerable fortune to that end. An opportune moment came in the slave rebellion of 73 B.C.E. led by Spartacus, the former gladiator known to many through the 1960 film starring Kirk Douglas. After several Roman legions failed to quell the revolt, Crassus led his own self-funded expedition that subdued the rebellion successfully. Thirteen years later, the brash real estate entrepreneur became consul of Rome and part of The First Triumvirate, alongside Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar.  

The Entrepreneur-Politicians of the New World

The heyday of Islamic enterprise and China’s Tang and Song Dynasties, both occurring during the Middle Ages, are replete with examples of entrepreneurs attaining significant political influence. Yet, in both instances, other authorities, mainly religious and monarchic, often prevailed over the ambitions of entrepreneurs. However, by the early sixteenth century, a more domineering breed of entrepreneur-politician was emerging among the European colonists of the New World. In the wake of Christopher Columbus’s expeditions, ambitious entrepreneurs in Western Europe were eager to make their fortunes in the trade of gold, sugar, and slaves.

One of these young men was the Spaniard Hernán Cortés. Whereas Columbus had an appetite for calculated risks, Cortés’s entire life had been marked by an astonishing recklessness. For example, shortly before leaving Spain in his early twenties, he sustained a serious injury after leaping from the bedroom balcony of a married woman. Moreover, during his time in the island colony of Hispaniola (home to the modern-day states of the Dominican Republic and Haiti) and, later, Cuba, Cortés had amassed significant debts. Nonetheless, sensing that more profitable expeditions lay in the more populated territories of the Mayans and Aztecs (modern-day Mexico), he borrowed another eight thousand pesos from a group of Spanish merchants.

Then, in 1519, without the Cuban governor’s blessing, he made his way to the mainland with six hundred men, each of whom was promised an equal share of the spoils. Over the next two years of alliances and battles with the competing indigenous civilizations of the territory, Cortés and his men seized the largest bounty of treasure in human history. By 1521, he was known as the first governor of New Spain.

This pattern of economic adventurer turned administrator became far more common in the Americas than in the more established framework of the Old World. So, for better or worse, the phenomenon of the entrepreneur-politician is well-entrenched in human history, particularly in our uniquely entrepreneurial hemisphere and country.