George Washington, Businessman


Tobacco! That was, at first, the chief product. It was cut when ripe, hung in special barns, and, when just dry enough, put in hogsheads weighing from 660 to 1,100 pounds. And then off to England to restore his balance with Cary & Co., the English agents--then known as “factors”—who managed both the Washington and Custis affairs.

Washington was soon loud in complaint to Cary because his tobacco was selling for less than his neighbors’: “Certain I am no person in Virginia takes more pains to make their tobacco fine than I do, and ‘tis hard that I should not be as well rewarded for it.”

He kept voluminous accounts in a complication of books, but flaws in his methods grew in seriousness with the size of his affairs. Recording primarily debits and credits for individuals, and also cash outlays, he kept no general record of bills payable and made no adequate distinction between capital and other expenditures. And, although he conscientiously noted such items as “charge Miss Custis with a hairpin mended by C. Turner ” one shilling,” his balances would not come out right. In 1769 he was forced to include the following debit: “By cash lost, stolen, or paid away without charging, £143.15.2.” He was to warn his stepson that money not invested in land or bonds “will melt like snow before a hot sun, and you will be able to give as little account of the going of it.”

Washington had been married hardly more than a year when he felt it necessary to assure Cary “my own aversion to running in debt will always secure me against a step of this nature, unless a manifest advantage is likely to be the result from it.” When in another year Cary notified him that he was overdrawn on their books by 1,871 pounds, Washington replied that, considering the balance on Cary’s books to the credit of his stepchildren, the over-all estate was still solvent. Then he added to his personal indebtedness a draft for 259 pounds, which represented the purchase of more slaves.

Early in 1763 an accounting from Cary was “transmitted to me with the additional aggravation of a hint at the largeness” of what he owed. His reply blamed the debt partly on the “short prices” Cary got for his tobacco, and added, “I shall endeavor to discharge it as fast as I can conveniently.” Yet at this moment Washington, placing the obligations of friendship over those of business, lent a fellow veteran 300 pounds with an apology that he could not spare more and the request that Cary be kept in ignorance of the loan.

Although Washington now somewhat reduced his purchases from England, try as best he could he could not keep his expenses in Virginia down. Add to this that his tobacco was worse than usual—some inferior narrow leaves got mixed with the best leaves by accident—and the result was 300 pounds added to his debt. When in January, 1764, he wrote Cary that he intended to reinvest a quantity of his stepchildren’s money, which was to some extent balancing his own indebtedness on Cary’s books, the British businessman sent him a blast that in turn elicited from the Virginia gentleman a reply most informative as to his business conceptions.

George began with a defense of his own character: “In whatsoever light it may appear to you, it is not less evidently certain that mischances rather than misconduct have been the causes.” It was not his fault that for three successive years the weather had been unfavorable to tobacco culture, that Cary had got such poor prices for what he had sent, that some of his own debtors had not paid.

He could not make remittances, “I should add in a manner convenient and agreeable to myself,” faster than his crops would furnish the means. Not desiring that anybody “should suffer in the most trivial instances in my account,” he was willing to pay Cary interest on what he owed. If this did not satisfy the factors, he would make the sacrifices necessary to discharge the whole debt immediately, “and effectually remove me from all mention of it, for I must confess I did not expect that a correspondent so steady and constant as I have proved … would be reminded in the instant it was discovered how necessary it was for him to be expeditious in his payments. Reason and prudence naturally dictates to every man of common sense the thing that is right, and you might have rested assured that so fast as I could make remittances without distressing myself too much, my inclinations would have prompted me to it.”

Washington clearly felt that a businessman insulted a gentleman by requesting payment unless the businessman were in crucial need of the money. The best security was—or should be—the debtor’s sense of what was right and his dislike of being hampered by debt. Thus Washington commented in 1778 on how disillusioning it was that some men were so full of “rascality” that “the only way to make them honest is to prevent their being otherwise by tying them firmly to the accomplishment of their contracts.”