George Washington - The Country's First Money Man?

In this 1851 painting, George Washington is shown inspecting a harvest - and his slaves - at his Mount Vernon plantation.EXPAND
In this 1851 painting, George Washington is shown inspecting a harvest - and his slaves - at his Mount Vernon plantation.
Painting by Junius Brutus Stearns. Courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts/Da Capo Press

First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His – and the Nation’s – Prosperity
By Edward G.
Lengel
280 pp.
Da Capo Press
$25.99

“There is no record of Washington getting bent out of shape over political, legal, or military issues,” Lengel writes early in this book. “Economic disputes, however, could get him thoroughly riled.”

And indeed, scores of other biographies weave true tales of his military, political and personal life. But this effort concentrates on the economic and business “adventures” of the Founding Father. And that’s in both his personal life and that of guiding a patchwork nation first in revolt, then birth and finally struggling maturity.

Though he had no formal schooling in those areas, Washington – voracious to learn – had to get a handle on a ledger sheet or shipping bill of sale quickly. By the age of 20, he had amassed 4,291 acres of land he personally owned to be farmed (much of it with tobacco).

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Then, upon acquiring ownership of the Mount Vernon estate after the death of his half-brother, he had an entire plantation to run, an entire ecosystem with its own insular system of planting, labor, trade and transportation.

And in the years he spent away from home either commanding the Continental Army or serving two terms as President, he had to run his own business while concurrently building the business of a new nation.

His wife, Martha, and a series of overseers did what they could. It was often not up to the owner’s own meticulous, exacting — and necessary — standards. And if he had to cultivate wheat when tobacco fortunes fell, open a gristmill, or brew whiskey and beer if it kept him free from debt, so be it.

After he assumed the Presidency, Washington confronted other vexing issues, Lengel shows: How to pay down the nation’s war debt — and how to get each state to cough up its share at a time when the United States was anything but cohesive.

Also manufacturing, currency printing, establishing trade routes and relations with other countries (including Britain), and keeping trusted advisers such as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson from throttling each other.

Hamilton, of course, would be lauded by history (and a contemporary Broadway hip-hop musical) for his vision and victories as Secretary of the Treasury. But here, Lengel argues that Hamilton's boss also deserves more credit for stabilizing and vigorously promoting the country's economy than he's been accorded.

“He thought of the economy as a kind of self-sustaining machine,” Lengel writes of Washington’s early views. “Government’s job was to keep it clean, well-oiled and secure.”

And while real experiences under actual circumstances for this country not seen before or since certainly altered that view (citizens of the new nation tending to look out for themselves rather than the country, you know), Washington’s business, investment and managerial skills grew as his life progressed. And, ultimately, his personal blueprint for monetary stability provided a different kind of “trickle-down economics” to the fledgling country.

Admittedly, Lengel has chosen to focus on a drier topic of Washington’s life which sometimes leads to similarly parched prose. But the professor at the University of Virginia and director of the Washington Papers project certainly has literary command.

And he shows us a Washington most frightened — not by any British garrison or Hessians or influenza plague, but by debt. And an empty purse might prove more damaging than an empty powder keg.


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