George Washington, Businessman

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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.)