History

Founding Father, Entrepreneur

The overlooked business career of George Washington

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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.
 

NEXT: Kentucky Set To Kick Up Its Booze Tax; Will Other States Follow?

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  1. I knew he was a meticulous farmer but I wasn’t aware he steered his planting away from the cash crop of tobacco.

  2. Good article. Having learned something, my day is officially not wasted.

    Salamat.

  3. Not to be a spoilsport, but those “integrated agrobusiness ventures” were powered by slave labor for many functions, right?

    That makes it harder for me to celebrate it.

  4. I’m with Fluffy. Innovative ideas and all, but when it’s based on slavery it’s kind of sickening.

  5. Come on! This was a mindset of over two hundred years ago. Celebrate the man! You’ll feel better.

  6. Hmm… nope, moral relativism ain’t working today. I still believe that Washington was the best president this country has had and probably will ever have, but he achieved plenty of cool stuff that wasn’t so closely dependent on the forced servitude of others.

  7. “If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose — because it contains all the others — the fact that they were the people who created the phrase ‘to make money.’ No other country had ever used these words before; men ahd always thought of wealth as a static quantity — to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted or obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand wealth has to be created.”

    Atlas Shrugged

  8. Great article, but you should have run it next Monday. Today is the day for Darwin* and Lincoln articles.

    *Because HnR can never have enough science vs. fundie mud slinging.

  9. “Not to be a spoilsport, but those “integrated agrobusiness ventures” were powered by slave labor for many functions, right?

    That makes it harder for me to celebrate it.”

    Wow, it only took three comments to break out the “but he owned slaves” line. I’m certain he would have taken the same course, slaves or not.

  10. Washington also did not let his wife vote.

    I propose we burn this misogynist bastard in effigy on President’s Day.

  11. He also wouldn’t save the British children. But inventing cocaine gives him all the points he needs in my book.

  12. Xeones,

    Come on, bro. Relax. Plato was a statist, Voltaire was an anti-Semite, Samuel Johnson was rascist towards the Irish, and yes, Washington owned slaves. Take the good where you can get it. Hell, women’s sufferage is still a new concept historical wise. We stand on the shoulders of giants and what not.

  13. To hell with slaves, I am much more concerned with his behavior in regards to the Whiskey Rebellion. First use of a Federal SWAT team.

  14. In addition to being a racist woman-hater, Washington’s actions in the Revolutionary War clearly constitute war crimes. He sent his troops into battle without shoes, had deserters shot, and did little to stop supporters from committing violence against Tories.

    We need a Truth and Rconciliation Commission to investigate these crimes and help put this ugly episode behind us.

  15. Slavery has been around a long time and in most cultures. So we can eliminate from our consideration virtually every leader, philosopher, or, really, any person at all from any culture or country that has ever had slavery. Even slaves in most of history came from slave-owning cultures.

    Let’s not look down our noses too hard at our ancestors, either. Our predecessors didn’t round up people and gas them, nor did they blow up whole cities quite so often as we have in recent decades.

  16. I would never say that Washington’s ownership of slaves discounts the good things he did accomplish, humans being such complicated creatures and all. I’m just saying that, since the business ventures (innovative as they were) mentioned in the article were so heavily dependent on slavery to function at all, maybe we shouldn’t count them so highly.

  17. Kwix,

    The Whiskey Rebellion was just that . . . a rebellion. Washington put the boot to their asses! Different times, different responses.

  18. If he had banged one of his slaves like TJ, would that have made it all alright? Being down with the swirl and all?

  19. Aren’t we for the most part just indentured servants of the state now?

  20. Epi,

    Maybe he’s living it up in the afterlife, swirl and all?

    “Ah, come on son, there are plenty of kids to play with in heaven. Your cousin Billy. That little girl from Poltergeist. She must be about 16 by now, you could totally tap that.”

  21. It’s possible he could have been just as successful without slaves as with them. Paying a small daily or seasonal wage may have equalled the up front purchase and long term room, board, and security required of slave ownership. His ownership of other humans cannot be justified. But, his business prowess can be celebrated on an economical level.

  22. Naga,
    Seriously? It was a refusal to pay taxes on an unbalanced taxing scheme. It wasn’t a “rebellion” until Washington brought guns to a shouting match.

    Wiki as a succinct history if you care.

  23. Judging past characters by modern morals is foolish.

  24. Kwix,

    Wiki does suck sometimes. Basically they were going to town on the tax collectors. Word reached Washington that they were beginning to organize as something more than simple gangs. Washington then called up roughly 13,000 militia and marched around the more extreme areas. No one stands up to him in an organized body so he marches away and disbands them. Washington’s point was made.

  25. There were people in Washington’s time that thought slavery was immoral. In fact it seemed he might have became one of them near the end.

    The funny thing is we are judging his goodness by reference to modern morals, that he took the modern view about human liberty and such. According to the idea that “well you can’t fault him because of the times” then you cannot fault all the Tories who stood steadfast against Washington. I mean, kings and such were the norm then too…

  26. But one can be bad in one area but excellent in many others. That’s not just Washington, but most folks in every time. Making saits or devils of these guys is equally silly.

  27. I stand corrected Kwix. The wiki article was actually good. My apologies.

  28. Naga,
    No apologies needed and you are right that Washington reacted to what was technically an assault on a tax collector.

    Of course, I don’t recall the last time 13,000 militia were called out for a beat-down but it was his call, not mine.

  29. Thanks for a very informative article, though it could use some copy editing.

  30. Also from that same article is this little tidbit, something that I dare say we won’t see much of anytime in the future:

    “The hated whiskey tax was repealed in 1803, having been largely unenforceable outside of Western Pennsylvania, and even there never having been collected with much success.[10]”

  31. MNG,

    I don’t take fault with the Tories. I’m related to the McNair clan. At King’s Mountain, McNairs stood on both sides of the conflict. I still have distant relatives in Canada because of this. I just think judging Washington’s business acumen should be done in accordance with the times. In which case I agree with the authors intention of getting across that Washington was ahead of his time.

  32. “Samuel Johnson was rascist towards the Irish”

    Nothing wrong with that.

  33. Kwix beat me to it by a mile. I could maybe go with the “It’s what folks did in the eighteenth century” apologia on chattel slavery, but the Whiskey Rebellion proves he wasn’t loathe to turn his “fellow” revolutionaries into slaves as long as he got to be slavemaster. He can rot in hell with the rest of his kind.

  34. Kwix,

    LOL! Unless you forgot the national guard is pulling duty on the Mexican border. Boo-yah! Thread win!

    On a serious note, I believe Washington was trying to let people know that armed insurrection was unacceptable. Refer all complaints to your representatives. I believe that the federal governments main purpose was to prevent states waging trade and tax wars on each other in the beginning. One of the few areas where I have ever approved of federal overlordship.

  35. “Let’s not look down our noses too hard at our ancestors, either. Our predecessors didn’t round up people and gas them, nor did they blow up whole cities quite so often as we have in recent decades.”

    Mine did.

  36. Joel,

    Got a problem with the founding fathers do we? Huh? Maybe the Constitution that governs this land keeps you awake at night with rage too? Huh? 😉

  37. “I’m just saying that, since the business ventures (innovative as they were) mentioned in the article were so heavily dependent on slavery to function at all, maybe we shouldn’t count them so highly.”

    Better all them black folk were idle and on the dole?

  38. McDonnel,

    Careful. I have relatives in Scotland and Ireland. In Ireland due to some Irish being naughty at some point in time and having their land confiscated making room for some of my ancestors.

  39. Great article, but you should have run it next Monday. Today is the day for Darwin* and Lincoln articles.

    *Because HnR can never have enough science vs. fundie mud slinging.

    Many don’t shy away from bashing Lincoln and “The War of Northern Agression” either.

  40. Building railroads lines and tunnels was an extremely dangerous activity. When some businessmen tried to rent some slaves to work on a new line, the slave owners told them that slaves were far to valuable to waste on such dangerous work. They also told the businessmen to go hire the Irish, cause they were dirt cheap and no one cared if they died on the job.

  41. Got a problem with the founding fathers do we? Huh? Maybe the Constitution that governs this land keeps you awake at night with rage too? Huh? 😉

    I sleep like a baby, since I consider tyrannical government in the same class as bad weather and other things I don’t much care for but can’t do anything about. But I sure don’t feel any need to deify any of the founding dads.

    Except maybe Patrick Henry, who refused to have anything to do with the powergrab at the constitutional convention and was loud (if toothless) about why.

  42. kinnath,

    “All right, we’ll give some land to the niggers and the chinks, but we DON’T WANT THE IRISH”

  43. Joel,

    It would be just as bad if you were running it. Relax homey.

  44. Naga,

    🙂 Probably so. Fortunately I’m not running it and don’t want to.

  45. MNG,

    Upon the backs of people like Washington is how things like slavery have gone bye-bye. There’s a whole list of bad things they tolerated back then, of course. Just look at the voting records, for one.

    Frankly, we need a Re-Enlightenment, because the job of fixing things using our friggin’ brains isn’t over. Now we’re all about feelin’ good and stuff, not about thinking about what the hell we’re doing. Or about who and what we’re ceding power to.

  46. There seems to be some some over-glorification of Washington’s business achievements in this article.

    I’ve read up a bit on Washington (he is my favorite President) and his dealings at Mount Vernon. For all the effort he put into his plantation, it was never terribly profitable. That fact is one of the reasons he kept trying all these ventures.

    Another caveat about Washington and slavery: he ended up running a micro-version of Social Security with his slaves. I don’t remember the exact date, but some time before the Revolutionary War he resolved to not sell his slaves that were born at Mt. Vernon or if it involved breaking up a family on the plantation.

    As a result, as Washington aged so did his captive labor force. A considerable amount of the cash flow going through Mount Vernon in the last decade of Washington’s life was spent on taking care of many slaves who no longer could work and were effectively “retired.” Funny but true.

  47. Let us also remember that Mr. Washington hired that rat-fucker Hamilton guy…

  48. Also worth checking out – the book Washington as a Business Man, published by federal judge Halsted Ritter in 1931.

    Judge Ritter’s book gives information about many of Washington’s business ventures, and even argues that Washington tried to introduce sound business principles into the U.S. Constitution. Ritter’s brother in law happened to be Charles (Economic Interpretation of the Constitution) Beard.

    (Judge Ritter was impeached and removed from office in 1936 – click on my handle for more)

  49. I don’t take fault with the Tories. I’m related to the McNair clan. At King’s Mountain, McNairs stood on both sides of the conflict. I still have distant relatives in Canada because of this. I just think judging Washington’s business acumen should be done in accordance with the times. In which case I agree with the authors intention of getting across that Washington was ahead of his time.

    On the Honky side of my family tree, I’m a member of the much extended King Carter clan which makes me a distant relative of Jimmy Carter. I thought it could not get any better than that genealogically speaking, but a recent search by a relative reveals we are actually much more closely related to Jesse James. Fuck Yeah!

  50. alan,

    My family tree is not as . . . distinguished . . . as yours. In America, our history seems to consist of soldiers(Fort McNair) and not much else. This is in line with our much older reputation as hell raisers. McNairs used to have a rep for burning, looting, and laying siege to towns. As well as murdering sheriffs and other officials. Fuck Robin Hood and his pansy ways.

  51. Taktix? | February 12, 2009, 2:44pm | #
    Let us also remember that Mr. Washington hired that rat-fucker Hamilton guy…

    Actually they were gerbils with wooden extenders attached to their penises. I know how much fun it is to malign Hamilton, but for the sake of historical accuracy let us try to maintain a sense of decorum.

  52. Naga,

    The only thing you left out was ‘horse thieves’. For some reason that is still the biggest no-no in these mid-Atlantic Southern states. You can murder sheriffs, impregnate slaves and burn down barns all the live long day, yet you steal one damn mare and they will still string you up for it.

  53. alan,

    I think it was because we are useful in our crimes.

    English official: “They murdered the Sheriff of Angus, Bruce! Do somethin'”

    Robert the Bruce: “They just sacked one of my own towns a month ago. I don’t control the McNairs, I just kinda aim em'”

  54. alan,

    Seriously though, there are stories of my line from South and North Carolina that we started our own outlaw bands before the Revolution.

  55. They named a school of engineering after a McNair* in my county, and you know what they say of men whom statues are made.

    * yeah, this one probably crosses a line or two when you figure out who I’m talking about.

  56. alan,

    There are a LOT of McNairs. If you think I’m game for this, you’re wrong. Who is it?

  57. Depending on how strictly you want to define it*, Washington was not one to completely abstain from trying to get the government to help out his businesses.

    Washington and other businessmen of the area pushed hard for the C&O and other canals aroung the DC metro area. Their motivation was to ultimately connect Cumberland MD with the Ohio river valley (Cumberland is around where the Potomac and the Ohio have their closest point of approach) and thus make Georgetown a major port of entry to westward expansion – and the pre-emininent city in North America.

    *orthodox libertarians, like Jacksonian democrats, are likely against such Henry Clayish ‘American system’ spending, but it has a place in clasical liberalism.

  58. Naga,

    My bad. Ronald McNair, Challenger astronaut. I probably assumed he was a little more well known than is the case.

  59. Alan: I’ve definitely heard of him. He’s the McNair in the McNair Scholars Program at the University of Oklahoma.

  60. I’m with Fluffy, et al.

    On the upside, Washington was a better businessman than Jefferson.

    And he didn’t get us into any major wars as president.

  61. *slaps self in forehead*

    alan,

    My bad. I know who he is, just completely slipped my mind. When slaves were set free after the Civil War they tended to take the last names of the former owners. Yes, my family owned slaves. I wonder if he’s from part of my line out of South Carolina?

  62. Oh shit! He’s from South Carolina! Damn. Small world.

  63. Naga,

    Your family enslaved an astronaut? That seems wrong to me.

  64. History, Pro Lib, can be a bitch. Some of us don’t have illustrious ties to the Scottish throne. 😉

  65. Naga, you maniac! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

  66. Naga Shadow,
    Actually, most freed slaves did not take their former masters’ surnames. They usually had surnames that they had used clandestinely to maintain separate family identities on the plantations for years.

  67. economist,

    Some relief there. Not a lot as I am going on a hunch that a Scottish surname was not used clandestinely.

  68. He also owned over 200 human beings to work that business. I love GW just like the rest of them, but like I said, he owned over 200 human beings. Those hard working human beings, who didn’t have the choice to not do something, made Washington an entrepreneur.

    It makes you think twice about our prosperity …

  69. Thanks for this piece I actually learned something here. It is a fact that most documentaries and articles about Washington focus on his military career and his presidency.

    I only have one beef: The pic at Franklin (”
    Whereas Franklin built gadgets at his homestead …”) was unnecessary. He was a self made man and had to build his estate from scratch, unlike Washington.

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