General, Politician and Entrepreneur

G.W. was more than just a guy with wooden teeth who wore a wig, more than a general and president. He was a successful entrepreneur.

by James A. Bacon

President’s Day is more than a week past, not that anyone paid much attention to it anyway (except for Peter G., who penned this piece comparing the myth-making surrounding the founding fathers to the propaganda of Josef Stalin). It’s the day we commemorate the contributions of America’s two greatest presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Of the two, Washington has faltered the most in the popular imagination. Nobody believes the chopping-down-the-cherry-tree tale anymore, and even fewer even appreciate the moral of that fable, “I cannot tell a lie.” “Hey, dude, didn’t you ever hear of situational ethics?” Indeed, for many, Washington was a Founding Hypocrite who espoused liberty for whites while depriving blacks of their freedom. At least Lincoln is revered in modern memory for abolishing the Peculiar Institution.

But Washington is worth remembering, and not just for his role as the nation’s first president or the general who led the 13 colonies to independence. He was one of Virginia’s, and arguably the nation’s, most successful entrepreneurs and businessmen.

G.W.’s gristmill

This brief essay in Real Clear Markets praises Washington for his entrepreneurial acumen. Washington transformed Mount Vernon from a failing tobacco plantation inso a diversified agroindustrial empire that cultivated wheat, milled it, branded it and sold it throughout the colonies, in England and even in Portugal. His enterprises included a fishery, a gristmill, meat processing, textile and weaving manufactory, brickmaking… (my favorite)…. a distillery. He owned a cargo-carrying schooner and he invested in land development schemes from the Dismal Swamp to the Ohio River basin.

And, yes, George Washington did own slaves. He did not create the institution, he inherited it. But unlike those morally self-righteous voices who criticize the founding fathers for falling short of 21st century ideals without appreciating from where those ideals originated, he wrestled with the inconsistency between his ideals and his material self interest. Tell me how many people today embrace principles that undercut their source of wealth and power to the benefit of someone else? How many left-wing trust fund babies give away the ill-gotten lucre accumulated by their robber-baron ancestors? Not many.

Acutely aware of the contradiction between ideals and practice, Washington worked tirelessly in the last few years of his life not merely to free his slaves upon his death but to create the conditions to ensure their well being — providing for their education and the support of children and the elderly — when they became free. When we see how Martin Luther King’s soaring rhetoric — judging a man by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin — has degenerated today into squalid identity politics, race hustling and envy-driven wealth-transfer schemes, Washington stands all the taller in my esteem.

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  1. George Washington was an outstanding individual, whose contributions to America were critical. Had he not been committed to representative democracy, our history could have been quite different and, probably, not so positive.
    But just as with Martin Luther King, Washington was human and, by definition, flawed. One of my favorite Washington stories was told by a Park Ranger at Harpers Ferry. He said Washington commissioned a study of possible locations for an armory. The study recommended a site, but not the site at Harpers Ferry, where Washington owned land. The President rejected the recommendation and sent it back for further study. They came back with another recommendation, but got the same reaction from the President. Only on the third time, did the study commission get it right.
    Clearly this is unacceptable behavior today. But does it take away from the good Washington did?
    I cannot imagine a person owning another. But history shows that many civilizations did this. Both Blacks and Native Americans owned slaves in the U.S. Can we condemn the evilness of the institution while recognizing anything positive about the people?

  2. No, question, Big George was a land speculator and developer. And you’re right, some of his behavior would no longer be acceptable today. Indeed, the example you cited above would get him run out of office. The question is not if the Founding Fathers were perfect by today’s standards — they weren’t — but the extent to which they moved the football down the field, so to speak, toward the goal line of equal rights and constitutional government that we value today.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Washington vs Jefferson is a fascinating area of study.

    A man of action vs a man of words.

    America’s decline has been roughly proportional to the increase in mind-share of Jefferson vs Washington over the last 50 years.

    As a man of action, George Washington freed his slaves upon his death in 1799. As a man of words, Jefferson did not do the same upon his death 27 years later.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    Also, the armory at Harper’s Ferry was purchased from the heirs of Robert Harper, not George Washington.

    If Washington owned land in the area perhaps he benefited tangentially from the location of the armory. I am happy to see any evidence contradicting my understanding of the matter.

    Also, Harper’s Ferry was, at that time, in Virginia. If George Washington wanted the armory in Harper’s Ferry (beyond the natural water power and shipping strengths) then he most likely was stumping for his home state.

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