George Washington, Businessman


Since slaves lacked any incentive to make themselves even moderately skilled artisans, and free labor was almost unprocurable in Virginia, Washington, when he could, bought the time of indentured joiners, bricklayers, gardeners, etc., who had agreed to work for a certain number of years in return for their passage money to America. In addition, he rented some of his acres to sharecroppers who were supposed to pay him in tobacco grown, but were often a liability since he had to get them started with food, horses, tools.

All these matters, added to his belief that a man was “called upon to live up to his rank,” ran to so much money that, as he wrote, his expenses “swallowed up before I knew where I was all the money I got by marriage.”

Washington’s charitable procedures would horrify a modern social worker. On no more reasoned basis than pity, he tried to alleviate the misfortunes propinquity brought to his notice: a beggar woman with outstretched hand or a creditor truly unable to meet his obligations. Washington lent a weaver nineteen pounds to bring his mother and sister to America—and never was repaid. He offered William Ramsay twenty-five pounds annually to help him send his son to college, on condition that it not be mentioned or regarded as an obligation.

When Washington’s friends—or even strangers who were friends of friends —asked him for loans, he felt an obligation to comply, and, if he could not, considered it necessary to “acquit myself” in the applicant’s “esteem” by explaining why his situation allowed him no other course.

Because his loans to individuals needing help were not business deals, yet often involved considerable sums of money, Washington was commonly torn as to terms. He did not like to charge interest, and, although self-preservation often dictated insistence on some security, he could rarely bring himself to foreclose. He was happiest when he could write, as in a loan of 302 pounds sterling (about $8,000) to a French and Indian War friend, Captain Robert Stewart, that it was “to be returned or not as it suited” Stewart’s “convenience.”

The more Washington did for his friends and neighbors, the more he felt responsible for them. After he had labored year after year to keep a lady’s husband from stealing her estate through every stratagem known to legal chicanery, an observer wrote him that “charity” was common, but that such “steady friendship founded on that principle [was] almost without precedent.” Washington had given his word that he would stand by the unfortunate lady, and so he was forever committed. “I do not recollect,” he declared in 1786, “that in the course of my life, I ever forfeited my word, or broke a promise made to anyone.”

Sanctimonious or self-righteous, however, George Washington was not. “I have ever laid it down as an established maxim,” he wrote, “to believe that every person is (most certainly ought to be) the best judges of what relates to their own interest and concerns.” He did not demand good behavior of those he befriended, and he did not try to reform the individuals around him. As he used what tools he had on his plantation even if they were inadequate, so he found the best uses for men as they were. This is nowhere better exemplified than in a contract he made in 1787 with an alcoholic gardener. Philip Bater agreed that “he will not at anytime suffer himself to be disguised with liquor, except on the times hereafter mentioned.” George Washington agreed to give him “four dollars at Christmas with which he may be drunk four days and four nights; two dollars at Easter to effect the same purpose; two dollars also at Whitsuntide, to be drunk two days.” On ordinary days, Bater was to have “a dram in the morning, a drink of grog at dinner or at noon.”

In fact, Washington was sympathetic with sinners, for he was not himself immune to temptations, nor did he always behave as his conscience would have liked him to do.

In 1772, for instance, Washington sent some flour to be sold in the Barbados, with this admonishment: “I recommend its being lumped off, rather than sold in small parcels for trial, as it was ground out of indifferent wheat, and will, I fear, look better to the eye than it will prove agreeable to the taste, being a little musty.” But this document, although completely authentic, is less typical of Washington than the order he gave his manager in 1781 concerning a dispute over land: “Delay not to give him a full measure of justice, because I had rather exceed than fall short.”

Daily Washington was up before dawn, forever on horseback supervising the plantation. In addition to growing tobacco, he had to make the whole operation as far as possible self-sustaining. Pork had to be produced by the thousands of pounds (6,632 in 1762), Indian corn raised to feed the Negroes, fish extracted from the Potomac to be eaten fresh by all and salted down in barrels for the hands. Fruit trees were grafted, cider bottled. Liquor supplied slaves with some incentive; after buying as much as 56 gallons at a time, Washington established his own still, which could in a day change 144 gallons of cider into 30 of applejack.

An old mill—which Washington always referred to as “she”—had to be supplied with water to turn the wheels, fed with grain, and propped up, as she was very shaky in storms. His own carpenters erected the farm buildings and kept them in repair; his blacksmith was so busy he needed helpers. The mill and the artisans also worked for neighbors. Washington sometimes acted as retailer for his tenants, exchanging goods he had imported from England for tobacco.