Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin: You Didn't Build That

Obama's not the only one who has ever suggested you can't do it all on your own.

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When President Obama said at a rally earlier month that "if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own … if you've got a business, you didn't build that," he started a political firestorm, and an opposing "I built that" campaign from Mitt Romney. But it turns out Obama didn't build that argument from scratch, either. And his comments seem to be closer to the founding fathers' principles than opponents might like to believe.

As noticed by Reddit, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, two men who literally built the country, expressed similar sentiments in the 1700s. And, reading the passages suggests that they wouldn't take all the credit for founding the country, either.

In a Christmas Day letter to Robert Morris in 1783, Franklin wrote that "the remissness of our people in paying taxes is highly blameable," and that "all property…seems to me to be the creature of public convention."

He continues:

"All the Property that is necessary to a man, for the conservation of the individual and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all property superfluous to such purposes is the property of the publick, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other laws dispose of it, whenever the welfare of the publick shall demand such disposition. He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire and live among savages."

Paine, in 1795's Agrarian Justice, puts it even more bluntly: "Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally."

"Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich," he writes.

Obama, Franklin, and Paine say it's OK to become rich through hard work—just don't trample on the people who helped make it happen.

In the everlasting words of one Mister Spock, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at

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