Founding Father, Entrepreneur

The overlooked business career of George Washington


On February 16, the United States will celebrate the birth of one of its greatest—and least acknowledged—entrepreneurs: George Washington.

Washington's political and military exploits are of course well-known: He was a member of colonial Virginia's House of Burgesses and a delegate to the Continental Congress; he led the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and won a hard-fought victory for independence; and he served as the first president of these United States.

Yet his business ventures are impressive in their own right. During America's time as an English colony, Washington ran a fishing operation that processed 1.5 million fish per year and sold them throughout the 13 American colonies and the British West Indies. The mill he built ground 278,000 pounds of flour annually that was shipped through America and even exported to England and Portugal. In the 1790s, during the last years of his life, Washington built one of the largest whiskey distilleries in the new nation. No wonder he ended up first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Scholars have documented that Washington's life work was as enthralling as that of any of the Founding Fathers. Whereas Franklin built gadgets at his homestead, and Jefferson built fancy buildings, Washington built was a series of integrated businesses. It may be time to think of him as Steve Jobs 1.0.

In the 2006 biography The Unexpected George Washington, Harlow Giles Unger calls Washington "one of America's leading entrepreneurs" and chronicles Washington's transformation of Mount Vernon from a sleepy tobacco farm into a forward-looking industrial village. As Unger writes, Washington "expanded a relatively small tobacco plantation into a diversified agroindustrial enterprise that stretched over thousands of acres and included, among other ventures, a fishery, meat processing facility, textile and weaving manufactory, distillery, gristmill, smithy [blacksmith shop], brickmaking kiln, cargo-carrying schooner, and, of course, endless fields of grain."

Some of these enterprises are now on display at the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens historical site in Alexandria, Virginia. The Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center has a display of the Mount Vernon fishery and other facets of his career as a "visionary entrepreneur." Washington's gristmill and whiskey distillery were themselves recently reopened, where attendees can get a first-hand look at some of Washington's interconnected ventures of farming and food processing.

Especially in times of economic crisis and rampant government intervention into the free enterprise system, Washington's business background should be seen as emblematic of the American Dream. Washington wasn't born poor, but he was not as rich as many of his Founding Father contemporaries. His father died when he was 11, and, as the youngest of many brothers, he didn't inherit much. His family lacked money to give him a formal education, so at 16, Washington became an apprentice land surveyor for Thomas Fairfax. From Fairfax (namesake of Fairfax County, which is now part of the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.), Washington learned about land acquisition, and became skilled what we would now call real estate speculation.

After fighting with distinction in the French and Indian War, Washington inherited the 2000-acre Mount Vernon farm from his older brother Lawrence and began acquiring other land around it, extending his homestead to 8,000 acres. In 1759, Washington married the widow Martha Custis, and she and her two children came to live at Mount Vernon. Custis was wealthy, but running a productive farm against the backdrop of British trade restrictions and taxes was not an easy task. It was then that Washington began his innovative agribusiness practices that made Mount Vernon, as described by Mount Vernon director of restoration Dennis J. Pogue, "an expansive and ambitious commercial enterprise."

Washington's first step towards becoming an entrepreneur was to abandon the most common cash crop of his native Virginia, the now-dreaded tobacco. It wasn't for health reasons that Washington stopped planting it. It was because of taxes and duties that reduced his profits and the fact that the tobacco crop was depleting Mount Vernon's soil. As Pogue writes, "By 1766 the disappointingly low prices that he was receiving in return for his tobacco harvest convinced Washington that he would be better off…producing other commodities that had a more dependable payoff."

Washington grew hundreds of crops, many of which were imported from Europe. (And yes, he did grow hemp, but not very much and not for very long). He chose wheat for his main cash crop and became a manufacturer of two products that contained his crop: flour and distilled whiskey.

Replicated on their original foundations at Mount Vernon, Washington's gristmill and distillery are architectural wonders that anticipated modern factories. The flour mill is three levels high with two sets of mill stones, including French buhr stones that were used to make the finest quality of flour. The mill produced about 278,000 pounds of flower per year, branded with the Washington name, sold throughout the colonies and exported to England and as far away as Portugal. The flour bore the identification of George Washington, in effect making it similar to a modern branded food product.

Washington also "farmed" the banks of the Potomac for shad, herring, and other fish. His fishery consisted of rowboats and large nets, and in a six-week fishing season each spring, Washington's men netted about 1.5 million fish, according to the Reynolds museum at Mount Vernon. The inedible portions of the fish were used as fertilizer for crops such as wheat.

But it is the distillery that may offer the most fascinating example of Washington's entrepreneurial prowess. After retiring from the presidency and returning to Mount Vernon—setting a precedent for voluntarily relinquishing power—Washington built a distillery in 1797 on the advice of his plantation manager James Anderson, a native of Scotland who knew a thing or two about distilled spirits. The whiskey was made largely from crops grown at Mount Vernon. As one Virginia magazine describes it, "rye, malted barley and corn were mixed with boiling water to make a mash in 120 gallon barrels."

This process is now reenacted at Mount Vernon at the distillery that was reopened in 2007, thanks to a grant from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. A few times a year, Washington's whiskey—using one of the old recipes—is sold to Mount Vernon visitors.

Washington's lifelong entrepreneurship sheds new light on his fight for liberty and his motivation to develop a constitutional structure in which all were free to develop their many talents. Like that of other Founding Fathers, Washington's career is stained by his active participation in the slave economy. Most of his business enterprises made use of the labor of the more than 300 slaves at Mount Vernon. But his correspondence shows that Washington realized the contradiction of creating a free country on the backs of involuntary servitude more than most of the Founding Fathers, and he worked tirelessly the last few years of his like to free all of his slaves upon his and Martha's death, and also to make provisions for their education and for the support of the former slave children and elderly. That hardly rectifies his misdeeds, but he also comes out looking far better than most of his Southern contemporaries.

If you can't make it to the celebrations at Mount Vernon, you just may want to toast George Washington—the politician and entrepreneur—with a plate of herring washed down with a glass of whiskey.

John Berlau is director of the Center for Investors and Entrepreneurs at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.