George Washington, Businessman

Washington’s use of his ward’s assets to cover his own debts outrages modern estate practice, but, on the other hand, a modern estate administrator would feel justified in charging for his labors, and would certainly bill the estate for out-of-pocket expenses. Following aristocratic mores of the day, which made little distinction between a man’s personal and his business affairs, Washington deprived his wards of some interest payments—a consideration that does not seem to have occurred to him—but spent in their service, according to his own estimate, several hundreds of his own pounds. They were certainly the gainers.

Actually, Robert Cary and Company of London had every reason to enjoy the state of their account with George Washington, Esq., of Virginia. They made a double profit on his business transactions, first selling his tobacco and then spending the money as his purchasing agent—and he was not present to impose fair play on either transaction. When his debt became heavy, they charged him interest. And the fact of the debt made Washington —or so it seemed—Cary’s financial serf: they did not have to be moderate or even careful in their dealings with him, however much he complained.

And how he complained! If in the hundreds of letters he wrote his English factors there was one word of praise for anything they had done, it has escaped my careful examination. He was sure they were selling his tobacco for less than it was worth; and on the matter of purchases, his difficulties were innumerable. To begin with, what he ordered often did not come at all. There was the tragic moment when, with his six-year-old stepdaughter Patsy following him in tears, Washington combed the hold of a ship to find a trunk of goods for her which she had been anticipating for a whole year, and which was listed on the captain’s invoice but had not been embarked. (It appeared a year later.) Then there were the goods that were tampered with on shipboard—wine was often half drunk and then watered—or smashed. Then there were the goods that arrived with parts missing, like some plows which were “entirely useless and lie upon my hands a dead charge.” Then there was that endlessly recurring fact that the goods shipped were, as Washington complained, “mean in quality but not in price, for in this they excel.”

Washington suspected that when British tradespeople heard that goods were being bought for export, they added ten to twenty per cent to the price and pawned off what was least salable. Although he always asked that he be sent what was most fashionable, he got, he was sure, articles “that could only have been used by our forefathers in the days of yore.” In ordering Patsy’s spinet, he implored Cary to “bespeak this instrument” as if for himself.

When Washington ordered fine clothes—”a superfine blue broadcloth coat with silver trimmings”; “a fine scarlet waistcoat full laced”; “one pair crimson velvet breeches”—he sent his measurements across the ocean. However, the clothes that came back fitted so badly that in despair he wondered whether it would not serve better to have the tailor measure some Londoner who was also six feet tall, slender, and with pretty long arms and thighs. Other Virginians certainly had the same difficulties, which conjures up a fascinating vision of parties where everyone was dressed to the nines in intensely elegant clothes that did not fit.

Very annoying were the substitutions made by the factor. Washington, directly on his retirement from the military, had ordered busts of six soldiers for his parlor mantelpiece: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charles XII of Sweden, and the King of Prussia, not to exceed fifteen inches high; and Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough, somewhat smaller. He received a group (four figures) of Aeneas carrying his father out of Troy, and two groups (two figures each) featuring Bacchus and Flora.

By 1764, when he had devoted only five full years to tobacco culture for export, George Washington, who was to discard so many traditions, concluded that the traditional Virginia economic pattern was a misfortune. But how to break away was another matter.

Thinking at first still in transatlantic terms, he tried growing hemp and flax, since Parliament had established a bounty to encourage their culture in the colonies—but these proved unsuited to his land. Then he turned his eyes inland, resolving to produce what he could sell locally. Abandoning the tobacco—in 1765 he grew very little and in 1766 none—he was soon raising an annual crop of “7,000 bushels of wheat and 10,000 of Indian corn, which was more the staple of the farm.”

He sold his wheat by contract to an Alexandria firm, Carlyle and Adam. The senior partner was John Carlyle, an old friend, and in business controversies with him, Washington went far beyond his petulant complaints to his London factors. When Carlyle and Adam explained a breach of contract by stating that, suspecting no design, they had not read the document carefully, George wrote that their argument implied “that you were either two fools or I was a knave employed as your attorney.”