I was recently reading a novel set in post-revolution Ghana1. A central theme of the novel was the deeply entrenched culture of corruption that developed with independence. It seems that this type of institutional corruption very often plagues newly formed states and really hampers their progress.

How did the United States avoid the development of extensive post-independence corruption, or if it didn't how did it recover from it?

  1. The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah
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    The difference in circumstances between those two countries and periods is phenomenal, at such there doesn't need to be any such effect in the states at the time even if there was in Ghana.
    – user202
    Feb 22, 2014 at 14:03
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    @HermannIngjaldsson I guess that is what I am trying to get at with my question. Is there a set of conditions present in more modern recently independent states that makes them more vulnerable to institutional corruption that was not present in the early U.S. In other words was the U.S. unique or just lucky?
    – DQdlM
    Feb 22, 2014 at 14:29
  • Ghana was literally owned by slave owners who considered the inhabitants sub-human as well as never managing to get any sort of infrastructure or citizen education up and running. plus i wouldn't be surprised if the colonials had made a concerted effort to make it fall into dictatorship favorable to them as well as inflicting divide and conquer upon it. When the colonials themselves settled just about everything was different about their situation.
    – user202
    Feb 22, 2014 at 16:04
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    Dec 9, 2019 at 11:26
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    @MarkC.Wallace with all due respect, this is a pretty unwelcoming comment on a nearly 6-year-old question with 10 upvotes, 3 stars, and 5 answers. I understand that you want to have some rigor for the site but based on the standards of quality for SE in general (i.e., votes, answers, and stars), this question seems to be acceptable by the extant and active community on the site.
    – DQdlM
    Dec 10, 2019 at 1:05

6 Answers 6


Primarily I think the mentality of the revolutionaries in each situation is the biggest deciding factor of what happens afterward.

The US's forefathers had very clear goals with very clear intentions. Many of them were not just intelligent, but practical. As well as being rather lucky.

The forefathers of the US and much of it's post-revolution population were wary of concentrated powers and resultant corruption.

Independence for the 13 colonies meant regional AND personal independence. Back during the American Revolution people were very concerned about their own personal independence and rights. The formation of our current Union of states with a Federal government took a long time to happen, with a lot of debate. It took close to a year for enough states to ratify the Constitution, and that was only with the Bill of Rights attached.

Our first government was a confederacy, not a union, and that quickly began to fall apart because of tension/rivalries/etc between states. The creation of a Federal government to regulate the states in a union was actually a cause for a lot of concern. Many citizens felt threatened by the idea of a Federal branch of government. Fearing overreach on the scale of another Monarchy or Dictatorship.

Self reliance and personal Independence was an absolutely integral part of the formation of the US.

That being said, comments like Pieter's are a slightly ill informed. Protection of the property owner was not necessarily direct protection for slave owners. While the concerns of slave owners did play a role in the negotiations for our Constitution, there were many people opposed to favoring slave owners, for a number of reasons. For instance, the 3/5 compromise. People often try to argue that the 3/5s compromise shows innate racism within the core conceits or our nation. When in actuality it was to prevent the slave states from wielding disproportionate power over the other states.

Protection of a person's assets was tied very closely to personal independence and freedom. Our founding principles were meant to protect people from the greed of others, not to help ingrain a wealthy nobility/aristocracy.

They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

Meaning that people shouldn't just be able to tax away another person's wealth. The money, property and possessions you work for and earn are yours.

"When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic." - Benjamin Franklin

"if we can but prevent the government from wasting the labours of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy." - Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, November 29, 1802

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    That Jefferson quote is actually misquoted, see the Monticello.org reference. The quote itself doesn't seem pertain to the corruption of taxation, rather the quote seems to be about the corruption of "misappropriation".
    – Azolo
    Feb 23, 2014 at 6:41
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    I've seen the quote both ways, I just posted that version because it was the easier of the two to consume and process. I'll change it to the linked version. Aside from that, you could make a pretty decent argument that misappropriation can lead to, or stem from, corruption. Misappropriation (and waste) seemed to be akin to theft in the minds of a few of the Founding Fathers. The trust placed in the government to use The People's money wisely was a very serious topic to them.
    – Squish
    Feb 23, 2014 at 7:10
  • I agree that the quote itself is about corruption. Just a different kind of corruption than heavy "direct" taxation that took power away from the individual citizens.
    – Azolo
    Feb 23, 2014 at 8:26
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    @Azolo That was under the AoC and not the Constitution. While the plan was adopted for the latter the reasons were not the same. Taxation simply did not work that way under the Constitution.
    – gormadoc
    May 18, 2020 at 13:15
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    @Ne Mo: No, it's not about American "exceptionalism", since other countries that follow similar paths seem to get similar results, while those that don't, don't,
    – jamesqf
    May 18, 2020 at 17:06

What evidence leads you to believe that the post-independence United States was not corrupt:

  • Senators were appointed/elected by state legislatures until adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913.
  • In the opinion of James Madison, the Senate was intentionally established to protect and preserve the rights of landowners (perhaps, read slave-owners) from the oppression of the majority:

Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability."

It is important to remember that the American Revolution was the struggle of wealthy land-owning white men on one continent to preserve their rights, freedoms and privileges from oppression by other wealthy land-owning white men on island thousands of miles away. Much rhetoric was published to inspire less affluent white men, and their wives children and slaves, to care about this issue, but it would do a great disservice to history to imagine that the Revolution was, at the time, about rights and privileges of those less affluent souls. Only over time, as the rhetoric of the Revolution slowly overcame the de facto status quo, did the United States become the country that we now know.

Update - Secret Ballot:
This was not generally in place for more than 100 years after Independence, in 1884, with remnants lasting even later.

Update #2:
Note that prior to the secret ballot, electoral corruption was as easy as going to the nearest bar with a wad of cash, ad blatantly buying votes with rounds of drinks. This practice was widespread.

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    I think you err by equating "protect the rights of landowners" with "protect slavery". Consider the prevalence of the "unfunded mandate" in more recent history. Unfunded mandates were impossible as long as state governments were represented in the Senate.
    – Ben Voigt
    Feb 22, 2014 at 16:53
  • Are you meaning to call a democratic republic oppressive?
    – Razie Mah
    Feb 22, 2014 at 17:36
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    This answer seems to confuse a concentration of power with corruption. But they are different things. The early US state was certainly not democratic by modern standards, but that does not mean that politicians take bribes. It seems to me that the US today is way more corrupt, since many politicians clearly are available for a price. (Which is different than politicians working in their own self-interest. Democracy is based on politicians working in their self-interest). Feb 22, 2014 at 17:43
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    @PieterGeerkens If you refer to Tweed et all, that's more than 80 years after the revolution, and can not reasonably be called "post revolution". Feb 23, 2014 at 13:04
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    I can't find anything about that being corrupt, and even if it would be, one case of corruption is not the type of deeply entrenched culture of corruption that is the topic of the question. Feb 24, 2014 at 5:54

To have widespread corruption you need to have a big state so that you have a lot of politicians and bureaucrats that can be corrupt, or you have to have valuable natural resources, so there is a big incentive for corruption.

The newly created USA did not have any of these. Hence there was not really that many people to corrupt, nor that much reason to be corrupted.

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    This seems overly simplistic. At the time of the U.S. revolution it seems like the U.S. was very rich in natural resources and had a reasonably well developed political infrastructure that could have fallen victim to corruption. Do you have examples of other states that support these factors as being relevant?
    – DQdlM
    Feb 22, 2014 at 14:36
  • Corruption can be localized, such as the police taking bribes, but a more centralized state does help. I don't think I totally agree. The US is very natural resource rich state. Its often noted for the fact that its an outlier among the rule that natural resource states have high corruption.
    – Razie Mah
    Feb 22, 2014 at 17:19
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    @Guest The early US Economy did not rely mostly on exporting a natural resource such as gold, diamonds or oil. Feb 22, 2014 at 17:40
  • Farm land is also natural resource. The majority of our exports at this time were AG: cotton, pork, hemp, tobacco, etc
    – Razie Mah
    Feb 22, 2014 at 17:50
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    @LennartRegebro I think your theory on the concentrated power of the state is very good. If you expound on it. I think it would be very helpful answer. For example: no standing armies
    – Razie Mah
    Feb 22, 2014 at 19:38

One reason that is often cited is the system of indirect rule used by the British. In the American colonies, the colonist were first of all, mostly from the UK. Americans have many similarities to the British even today, but there are cultural differences too. The American colonists were mostly allowed self-rule as long as they paid taxes to the king and traded only within the British Empire. (The economic system was mercantilism, so these trade arrangements with the British were exploitative.) The laws put in place in the US were thus appropriate to the needs and will of its people. In Ghana, or the "British Gold Coast," most people were native and only a few British people lived there to administer the colony. These administrators wrote the laws of Ghana and put them in place. The British appointed leaders for the people. These weren't the best leaders for the people, but who were the easiest for the British to manipulate. In many instances, the British are known for bribing tribal leaders to make indirect rule more effective and more peaceful. This most likely occurred in Ghana and contributed to problems of corruption after independence.

  • -1. First of all, the question was about post-revolution corruption. Unless same puppet rulers that British installed in Ghana ran the country post-revolution, this answer isn't applicable. Second, while less important, you're also mistaken about USA. One of the major issues leading up to the Boston Tea Party was the fact that British insisted on naming the local governors (AND paying them out of Tounshend duties, specifically to remove their dependence on colonials).
    – DVK
    Feb 24, 2014 at 19:42
  • Yeah and it was a big problem because the Americans were naming their own governors down to the tax collector for a century before that.
    – Razie Mah
    Feb 24, 2014 at 19:46
  • Lol, not governor. Sometimes the governor.
    – Razie Mah
    Feb 24, 2014 at 19:47
  • It was one of the major complaints. See the answer here: politics.stackexchange.com/a/1575/115
    – DVK
    Feb 24, 2014 at 19:54
  • I don't know if these people ran Ghana after the revolution but people who are paid to opine on the topic seem to think its related.
    – Razie Mah
    Feb 24, 2014 at 19:58

The USA has a complicated history that others have already highlighted. I will focus on the Ghanaian side of things.

A clue to Ghana's (and most African countries') post independence problems is none other than Kwame Nkurumah. Look up Thomas Sankara too.

Most of Africa's elite are corrupted by past colonial powers and those who resist are killed in cold blood. Their choices are either to get in line or perish.

The French are some of the worst at this as they rely heavily on the CFA grants from 14 African countries to support their (French) economy. African leaders that resisted this arrangement were summarily executed or removed by French supported opposition.

More recent examples are Gbabo in Ivory Coast and Gaddafi in Libya.

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    What is CFA? What conclusions do you draw from the careers of the two individuals you cite? If this answer were rewritten to emphasize historical analysis over political speech, it might be a very valuable contribution.
    – MCW
    Feb 23, 2014 at 18:54

The answer is the legacy of the racist British Empire - my country's shame, which too many of my fellow countrymen still see as its pride.

The British Empire wasn't fundamentally different from other colonial empires. It supported and nourished public institutions in its colonies - for white people (i.e. its own colonists).

Individuals like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin probably existed in Ghana and other mostly nonwhite colonies, but where were the representative assemblies they could use to form their country? The British brutally kidnapped, murdered and enslaved the inhabitants of west Africa for hundreds of years. In 1764 Franklin became the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly. Do you think that at this time something like the Pennsylvania assembly could have come into existence in the land now called Ghana, in this environment of repression and murder? Would the British have permitted it to persist if it had, somehow, been conceived?

Even after the slave trade was abolished, Britain extracted every scrap of wealth that they could find in its colonies, and left them with nothing. You might have heard that Ghana was called the Gold Coast. They didn't call it that because they sent lots of gold there. The gold came from there to here.

I say this not to make the British Empire somehow exceptional, but to demonstrate that it wasn't. Every attack I've made on it could and should be made against the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, French and any other colonial empire. Likewise, the United States was and is not exceptional. Former mostly-white colonies such as Canada and Austrialia have a great legacy from the British Empire... for white people, anyway. In Australia the indigenous population came >< to being exterminated.

You premise your question on the non-corruption of the US shortly after independence. This may be true in relation to its white citizens. Ask yourself, though, would its American Indian population at the time have seen the US as 'not corrupt'?

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    The self-flagellation does not help the answer. The Pennsylvania Assembly wasn't new like you make it seem; it was 80 years old and established as part of the colony. I don't know if Ghana had anything like it or just a governor but explaining that would be a better tact than the ill-considered comparison. Having nothing isn't necessarily a path to corruption, or at least you haven't demonstrated it is. They never stopped exporting gold or oil, so not having any can't be the actual cause. The immediate post-war period isn't all that interesting a time to consider US-native relations in the
    – gormadoc
    May 18, 2020 at 13:29
  • view of corruption; most native groups who fought did so against the US and not as rebels but as an external power, while corruption is an internal matter.
    – gormadoc
    May 18, 2020 at 13:33
  • Rest assured I'm not flagellating myself. I don't believe in blaming people for what they're ancestors did, just as I'm sure you don't go around blaming Germans for Hitler. On the other hand anyone who denies historical atrocities deserves all the flagellation they get. To condense my answer to a couple of sentences: the Empire wanted American colonists to think of themselves as Englishmen & the public institutions necessary for a functioning society were therefore mostly tolerated. Those institutions were capable of being changed into the institutions necessary for an independent country.
    – Ne Mo
    May 19, 2020 at 11:12
  • OTOH Ghanaians were not supposed to feel like Englishmen, just be wage slaves (or real slaves before that). This was not fertile ground for a stable country after independence. I didn't pull any punches when fleshing out the details in my answer, but the reaction still surprised me. Every statement in it is a historical fact.
    – Ne Mo
    May 19, 2020 at 11:21
  • It even pulled a delete vote from a user with the mod priveleges that come with 15k reputation! Then I had someone going through half a dozen of my other stack accounts, downvoting totally unrelated questions on Travel, Super User, and Workplace stack. Nothing to do w/ above user I'm sure. To be fair it could have been one of the Albanian genocide denialists. It's been a busy week.
    – Ne Mo
    May 19, 2020 at 11:22

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