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George Washington, Businessman

June 2024
15min read

Although the life of George Washington is extraordinarily well documented, he is by no means the best-understood of our national heroes. Nor is he the best-loved. The legend of Washington as the hatchet-wielding young prig and our image of an awesome, remote Father of His Country both fail to do justice to the virile, warm, fallible man who was “by far the most popular of living Americans” during his lifetime.

Although the life of George Washington is extraordinarily well documented, he is by no means the best-understood of our national heroes. Nor is he the best-loved. The legend of Washington as the hatchet-wielding young prig and our image of an awesome, remote Father of His Country both fail to do justice to the virile, warm, fallible man who was “by far the most popular of living Americans” during his lifetime.

The quotation above comes from James Thomas Flexner’s new biography of George Washington, in which the author looks behind the legend and the subsequent anti-legend that obscure our understanding of America’s first President.

“On undertaking this biography,” Flexner writes in his foreword, “I tried to start as if I had never before heard the name of Washington. I did not even assume that he had been good and great. My labors have persuaded me that he became one of the noblest and greatest men who ever lived. But he was not born that way. He did not spring from the head of Jove already armored with wisdom and strength. He perfected himself gradually through the exercise of his own will and skill.”

Washington was an avid recordkeeper. His journals are factual rather than personal, but so complete that details such as the number of times he hunted in a season can be drawn from them, as well as the amount of each gambling loss or gain. Most of the letters he received in his lifetime remain, as do most of the letters he wrote, giving copious evidence about his business transactions and his relationships with his wife, family, and friends.

But to the distress of historians, Washington’s letters to his wife and her letters to him no longer exist. After Washington died, Martha burned them all, a “possessive and over-protective act by a widow who had … been forced to share her husband with an imperious and curious world.”

Flexner’s intensely human biography, which is to be published by Little, Brown and Company, will eventually comprise three books. The first, George Washington: The Forge of Experience, which will appear in November, traces Washington’s life up to the outbreak of the American Revolution, when he was forty-three years old. In the adapted excerpt that follows, Flexner describes Washington’s experiences as a Virginia businessman-farmer from 1759 to 1775—the period between the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.

The account begins just after Washington’s marriage to the widow Martha Dandridge Custis. Martha not only provided Washington with lifelong “domestic enjoyments,” in his own phrase, but with substantial wealth. Martha’s previous marriage to Daniel Parke Custis had left her with an estate valued at £23,632. By the custom of the day, one third of this came to George as Martha’s husband; the other two thirds, divided between Martha’s two children, was placed under his administration.

When at the age of twenty-seven Washington, home from the French and Indian War and just married, settled down at Mount Vernon, he had almost no actual experience as a Tidewater planter. Due to the “terrible management” from which it had suffered while he was fighting, he found Mount Vernon in a most dilapidated condition. To renovate and enlarge he spent his new prosperity with a lavish hand.

He bought about 2,000 acres contiguous with Mount Vernon which, in the immemorial manner of Virginia planters, he set up as a semiseparate farm. Called Dogue Run, it had its own overseer who presided over a work force resident in its own “quarter” of one-room cabins. To populate the quarter, Washington invested heavily in more slaves. He had owned about eighteen when he was married; by the time of the Revolution he owned over a hundred.

During the years before he transcended his environment in so many ways, Washington accepted the Virginia labor practices to which he had been raised. Although susceptible to personal appeals—a slave who would “by no means consent to leave this neighborhood” was not sent—he regarded his blacks less as people than property. He did his best to keep them well, but when a slave died, he noted down the cash value he had lost. Toward this attitude he was undoubtedly helped by the fact that many were new arrivals from Africa, who spoke “very broken and unintelligible English.”

Washington had no sympathy with Tom, a slave who was able enough to be made the master of a work gang, but proved “both a rogue and a runaway.” The master sent him off to be sold in the Indies, writing the captain of the vessel that he should be kept handcuffed till the ship had sailed. “He is exceedingly healthy and strong, and good at the hoe … which gives me reason to hope he may, with your good management, sell well, if kept clean and trimmed up a little when offered for sale.” (The admirer of Washington who reads this with horrified twentieth-century eyes may rest assured that the hero’s attitude changed.)

Since slaves lacked any incentive to make themselves even moderately skilled artisans, and free labor was almost unprocurable in Virginia, Washington, when he could, bought the time of indentured joiners, bricklayers, gardeners, etc., who had agreed to work for a certain number of years in return for their passage money to America. In addition, he rented some of his acres to sharecroppers who were supposed to pay him in tobacco grown, but were often a liability since he had to get them started with food, horses, tools.

All these matters, added to his belief that a man was “called upon to live up to his rank,” ran to so much money that, as he wrote, his expenses “swallowed up before I knew where I was all the money I got by marriage.”

Washington’s charitable procedures would horrify a modern social worker. On no more reasoned basis than pity, he tried to alleviate the misfortunes propinquity brought to his notice: a beggar woman with outstretched hand or a creditor truly unable to meet his obligations. Washington lent a weaver nineteen pounds to bring his mother and sister to America—and never was repaid. He offered William Ramsay twenty-five pounds annually to help him send his son to college, on condition that it not be mentioned or regarded as an obligation.

When Washington’s friends—or even strangers who were friends of friends —asked him for loans, he felt an obligation to comply, and, if he could not, considered it necessary to “acquit myself” in the applicant’s “esteem” by explaining why his situation allowed him no other course.

Because his loans to individuals needing help were not business deals, yet often involved considerable sums of money, Washington was commonly torn as to terms. He did not like to charge interest, and, although self-preservation often dictated insistence on some security, he could rarely bring himself to foreclose. He was happiest when he could write, as in a loan of 302 pounds sterling (about $8,000) to a French and Indian War friend, Captain Robert Stewart, that it was “to be returned or not as it suited” Stewart’s “convenience.”

The more Washington did for his friends and neighbors, the more he felt responsible for them. After he had labored year after year to keep a lady’s husband from stealing her estate through every stratagem known to legal chicanery, an observer wrote him that “charity” was common, but that such “steady friendship founded on that principle [was] almost without precedent.” Washington had given his word that he would stand by the unfortunate lady, and so he was forever committed. “I do not recollect,” he declared in 1786, “that in the course of my life, I ever forfeited my word, or broke a promise made to anyone.”

Sanctimonious or self-righteous, however, George Washington was not. “I have ever laid it down as an established maxim,” he wrote, “to believe that every person is (most certainly ought to be) the best judges of what relates to their own interest and concerns.” He did not demand good behavior of those he befriended, and he did not try to reform the individuals around him. As he used what tools he had on his plantation even if they were inadequate, so he found the best uses for men as they were. This is nowhere better exemplified than in a contract he made in 1787 with an alcoholic gardener. Philip Bater agreed that “he will not at anytime suffer himself to be disguised with liquor, except on the times hereafter mentioned.” George Washington agreed to give him “four dollars at Christmas with which he may be drunk four days and four nights; two dollars at Easter to effect the same purpose; two dollars also at Whitsuntide, to be drunk two days.” On ordinary days, Bater was to have “a dram in the morning, a drink of grog at dinner or at noon.”

In fact, Washington was sympathetic with sinners, for he was not himself immune to temptations, nor did he always behave as his conscience would have liked him to do.

In 1772, for instance, Washington sent some flour to be sold in the Barbados, with this admonishment: “I recommend its being lumped off, rather than sold in small parcels for trial, as it was ground out of indifferent wheat, and will, I fear, look better to the eye than it will prove agreeable to the taste, being a little musty.” But this document, although completely authentic, is less typical of Washington than the order he gave his manager in 1781 concerning a dispute over land: “Delay not to give him a full measure of justice, because I had rather exceed than fall short.”

Daily Washington was up before dawn, forever on horseback supervising the plantation. In addition to growing tobacco, he had to make the whole operation as far as possible self-sustaining. Pork had to be produced by the thousands of pounds (6,632 in 1762), Indian corn raised to feed the Negroes, fish extracted from the Potomac to be eaten fresh by all and salted down in barrels for the hands. Fruit trees were grafted, cider bottled. Liquor supplied slaves with some incentive; after buying as much as 56 gallons at a time, Washington established his own still, which could in a day change 144 gallons of cider into 30 of applejack.

An old mill—which Washington always referred to as “she”—had to be supplied with water to turn the wheels, fed with grain, and propped up, as she was very shaky in storms. His own carpenters erected the farm buildings and kept them in repair; his blacksmith was so busy he needed helpers. The mill and the artisans also worked for neighbors. Washington sometimes acted as retailer for his tenants, exchanging goods he had imported from England for tobacco.

Tobacco! That was, at first, the chief product. It was cut when ripe, hung in special barns, and, when just dry enough, put in hogsheads weighing from 660 to 1,100 pounds. And then off to England to restore his balance with Cary & Co., the English agents--then known as “factors”—who managed both the Washington and Custis affairs.

Washington was soon loud in complaint to Cary because his tobacco was selling for less than his neighbors’: “Certain I am no person in Virginia takes more pains to make their tobacco fine than I do, and ‘tis hard that I should not be as well rewarded for it.”

He kept voluminous accounts in a complication of books, but flaws in his methods grew in seriousness with the size of his affairs. Recording primarily debits and credits for individuals, and also cash outlays, he kept no general record of bills payable and made no adequate distinction between capital and other expenditures. And, although he conscientiously noted such items as “charge Miss Custis with a hairpin mended by C. Turner ” one shilling,” his balances would not come out right. In 1769 he was forced to include the following debit: “By cash lost, stolen, or paid away without charging, £143.15.2.” He was to warn his stepson that money not invested in land or bonds “will melt like snow before a hot sun, and you will be able to give as little account of the going of it.”

Washington had been married hardly more than a year when he felt it necessary to assure Cary “my own aversion to running in debt will always secure me against a step of this nature, unless a manifest advantage is likely to be the result from it.” When in another year Cary notified him that he was overdrawn on their books by 1,871 pounds, Washington replied that, considering the balance on Cary’s books to the credit of his stepchildren, the over-all estate was still solvent. Then he added to his personal indebtedness a draft for 259 pounds, which represented the purchase of more slaves.

Early in 1763 an accounting from Cary was “transmitted to me with the additional aggravation of a hint at the largeness” of what he owed. His reply blamed the debt partly on the “short prices” Cary got for his tobacco, and added, “I shall endeavor to discharge it as fast as I can conveniently.” Yet at this moment Washington, placing the obligations of friendship over those of business, lent a fellow veteran 300 pounds with an apology that he could not spare more and the request that Cary be kept in ignorance of the loan.

Although Washington now somewhat reduced his purchases from England, try as best he could he could not keep his expenses in Virginia down. Add to this that his tobacco was worse than usual—some inferior narrow leaves got mixed with the best leaves by accident—and the result was 300 pounds added to his debt. When in January, 1764, he wrote Cary that he intended to reinvest a quantity of his stepchildren’s money, which was to some extent balancing his own indebtedness on Cary’s books, the British businessman sent him a blast that in turn elicited from the Virginia gentleman a reply most informative as to his business conceptions.

George began with a defense of his own character: “In whatsoever light it may appear to you, it is not less evidently certain that mischances rather than misconduct have been the causes.” It was not his fault that for three successive years the weather had been unfavorable to tobacco culture, that Cary had got such poor prices for what he had sent, that some of his own debtors had not paid.

He could not make remittances, “I should add in a manner convenient and agreeable to myself,” faster than his crops would furnish the means. Not desiring that anybody “should suffer in the most trivial instances in my account,” he was willing to pay Cary interest on what he owed. If this did not satisfy the factors, he would make the sacrifices necessary to discharge the whole debt immediately, “and effectually remove me from all mention of it, for I must confess I did not expect that a correspondent so steady and constant as I have proved … would be reminded in the instant it was discovered how necessary it was for him to be expeditious in his payments. Reason and prudence naturally dictates to every man of common sense the thing that is right, and you might have rested assured that so fast as I could make remittances without distressing myself too much, my inclinations would have prompted me to it.”

Washington clearly felt that a businessman insulted a gentleman by requesting payment unless the businessman were in crucial need of the money. The best security was—or should be—the debtor’s sense of what was right and his dislike of being hampered by debt. Thus Washington commented in 1778 on how disillusioning it was that some men were so full of “rascality” that “the only way to make them honest is to prevent their being otherwise by tying them firmly to the accomplishment of their contracts.”

Washington’s use of his ward’s assets to cover his own debts outrages modern estate practice, but, on the other hand, a modern estate administrator would feel justified in charging for his labors, and would certainly bill the estate for out-of-pocket expenses. Following aristocratic mores of the day, which made little distinction between a man’s personal and his business affairs, Washington deprived his wards of some interest payments—a consideration that does not seem to have occurred to him—but spent in their service, according to his own estimate, several hundreds of his own pounds. They were certainly the gainers.

Actually, Robert Cary and Company of London had every reason to enjoy the state of their account with George Washington, Esq., of Virginia. They made a double profit on his business transactions, first selling his tobacco and then spending the money as his purchasing agent—and he was not present to impose fair play on either transaction. When his debt became heavy, they charged him interest. And the fact of the debt made Washington —or so it seemed—Cary’s financial serf: they did not have to be moderate or even careful in their dealings with him, however much he complained.

And how he complained! If in the hundreds of letters he wrote his English factors there was one word of praise for anything they had done, it has escaped my careful examination. He was sure they were selling his tobacco for less than it was worth; and on the matter of purchases, his difficulties were innumerable. To begin with, what he ordered often did not come at all. There was the tragic moment when, with his six-year-old stepdaughter Patsy following him in tears, Washington combed the hold of a ship to find a trunk of goods for her which she had been anticipating for a whole year, and which was listed on the captain’s invoice but had not been embarked. (It appeared a year later.) Then there were the goods that were tampered with on shipboard—wine was often half drunk and then watered—or smashed. Then there were the goods that arrived with parts missing, like some plows which were “entirely useless and lie upon my hands a dead charge.” Then there was that endlessly recurring fact that the goods shipped were, as Washington complained, “mean in quality but not in price, for in this they excel.”

Washington suspected that when British tradespeople heard that goods were being bought for export, they added ten to twenty per cent to the price and pawned off what was least salable. Although he always asked that he be sent what was most fashionable, he got, he was sure, articles “that could only have been used by our forefathers in the days of yore.” In ordering Patsy’s spinet, he implored Cary to “bespeak this instrument” as if for himself.

When Washington ordered fine clothes—”a superfine blue broadcloth coat with silver trimmings”; “a fine scarlet waistcoat full laced”; “one pair crimson velvet breeches”—he sent his measurements across the ocean. However, the clothes that came back fitted so badly that in despair he wondered whether it would not serve better to have the tailor measure some Londoner who was also six feet tall, slender, and with pretty long arms and thighs. Other Virginians certainly had the same difficulties, which conjures up a fascinating vision of parties where everyone was dressed to the nines in intensely elegant clothes that did not fit.

Very annoying were the substitutions made by the factor. Washington, directly on his retirement from the military, had ordered busts of six soldiers for his parlor mantelpiece: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charles XII of Sweden, and the King of Prussia, not to exceed fifteen inches high; and Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough, somewhat smaller. He received a group (four figures) of Aeneas carrying his father out of Troy, and two groups (two figures each) featuring Bacchus and Flora.

By 1764, when he had devoted only five full years to tobacco culture for export, George Washington, who was to discard so many traditions, concluded that the traditional Virginia economic pattern was a misfortune. But how to break away was another matter.

Thinking at first still in transatlantic terms, he tried growing hemp and flax, since Parliament had established a bounty to encourage their culture in the colonies—but these proved unsuited to his land. Then he turned his eyes inland, resolving to produce what he could sell locally. Abandoning the tobacco—in 1765 he grew very little and in 1766 none—he was soon raising an annual crop of “7,000 bushels of wheat and 10,000 of Indian corn, which was more the staple of the farm.”

He sold his wheat by contract to an Alexandria firm, Carlyle and Adam. The senior partner was John Carlyle, an old friend, and in business controversies with him, Washington went far beyond his petulant complaints to his London factors. When Carlyle and Adam explained a breach of contract by stating that, suspecting no design, they had not read the document carefully, George wrote that their argument implied “that you were either two fools or I was a knave employed as your attorney.”

In 1769 Washington’s wheat crop was six times that of 1764, and in 1770 even larger. In addition, his new method of farming took so much less of everyone’s time that he was able to diversify his economic base. By putting in the Potomac more seines and a schooner built by his own men, he enlarged his fisheries, selling shad by the thousand and herring by the hundred thousand. He increased his number of weavers so that they could work for all comers. Beside his old mill, which he kept in operation, he erected a commercial mill that began grinding in 1770, giving him another service to sell to the neighborhood.

Washington was demonstrating that a Virginia planter could, by self-reliance exercised within the borders of the colony, reverse the usual balance of trade. Far from going into further debt to England, he was sending surplus cash there. In 1765 he paid Cary interest on 1,500 pounds. By 1766 he reduced this to 1,300 pounds, and by 1770 to 1,000 pounds.

As Washington perfected his organization, he prospered. Yet the many writers who claim that by the Revolution he was the richest man in Virginia (or in all America) are guilty of gross exaggeration. The usually accurate contemporary chronicler, “Old Soldier,” stated in 1778 that “there are a hundred men in Virginia who have better estates than Mr. Washington, nay 500.”

During his fortieth year, Washington paid quit rents on 12,463 acres. This sounds stupendous, but not a single acre was in the most valuable neighborhoods.

He had inherited from his father ten or more slaves, and an additional eighteen had come with Mount Vernon. Not counting the “dower slaves” who were attached to the Custis estate, he paid taxes in 1760 on forty-nine, in 1765 on seventy-eight, in 1770 on eighty-seven, and in 1775 on one hundred and thirty-five. Since his mounting sense of the immorality of the traffic made him stop buying slaves in 1772, this last jump was largely through natural increase. Births continuing greatly to outnumber deaths in his slave quarters, Washington had by mid-Revolution many more slaves than he could gainfully employ. This plethora reduced his prosperity, since his principles now forbade his selling any slaves without their permission, a permission they invariably refused to give.

Yet we need not drop a tear for an impoverished Washington. He engaged successfully in large operations, was in no foreseeable danger of being sold out, and could afford, although on a far from unlimited scale, both generosities and luxuries.

When in 1768 the Custis coach had “run its race,” Washington could not conceive of replacing an object of such elegance anywhere but in England. He adhered so far to his new economics that he paid the cost—it came to £315.13.6—not in exports or credit but by sending cash across the ocean. Yet it was to Cary (who with some irony may be considered a father of American independence) that he entrusted buying a coach “in the newest taste … to be made of the best seasoned wood, and by a celebrated workman.” He preferred green “unless any other color [is] more in vogue.” His arms were to be emblazoned on the sides along with any other ornaments “that may not have a heavy or tawdry look.”

As it came off the boat, the vehicle Gary sent him gleamed, a vision of transatlantic elegance elevating provincial America. However, the English builder had not bothered to use seasoned wood for export. Before the coach had been in use two months, some panels had slipped out of their mouldings and others had split from end to end. It was an object lesson. If only Washington had ordered his coach in Philadelphia, where an American maker would not have despised and cheated his American market!



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