George Washington as Entrepreneur

My journey into a greater understanding of George Washington and his business enterprises came shortly after Mount Vernon rebuilt some of those enterprises such as the whiskey distillery and the gristmill. As I studied and wrote about the intersection of public policy and the culture of entrepreneurship, I thought George Washington was certainly one of the best examples of how our nation was rooted in entrepreneurship. I also believed that George Washington’s examples of resilience in the face of economic setbacks—starting out  as a freelance surveyor in his teens after his family became bereft of funds for his education upon his father’s death; and later as a successful farmer, taking it upon himself to quit growing tobacco and diversify his crops when he saw that the tobacco market was cratering—could be inspiring to today’s entrepreneurs and make him relatable to ordinary Americans. Washington’s examples of triumphing from unfortunate circumstances have become especially compelling in the past year when so many Americans have seen reversals of fortune and have had to begin anew during this horrific pandemic.

In short, when I started writing my book, George Washington, Entrepreneur: How Our Founding Father’s Private Business Pursuits Changed America and the World—and after I had already written some articles on George Washington’s entrepreneurship for publications such as Forbes and RealClearMarkets—I thought George Washington’s innovations in business were a way for the American public to see him beyond his face on the dollar. His start as a freelance surveyor in the gig economy of his day and using both his knowledge and his wages to acquire and build real estate holdings offers a practical example for today’s entrepreneurs. His escape from the captive market of colonial export tobacco to focus on domestic crops like wheat, and then taking the extraordinary steps of coordinating his wheat crop with the grist mill to make flour, essentially trademarking the flour with the “G. Washington” imprint on the bags to differentiate it when it was shipped to England and throughout the colonies, demonstrates Washington’s understanding of economic concepts like branding and vertical integration before they were formally developed in textbooks.

But through my research, I’ve also found that George Washington’s entrepreneurial experiences help explain more than his relatability to today’s Americans. I am now convinced that had Washington not pursued these ventures successfully, he may not have had the motivation to lead the fight for independence. He may not have been chosen by fellow colonists to command the Continental Army against the British, and he may not have become the champion of religious freedom and gradual opponent of slavery who ended up freeing all his enslaved workers in his will.

Let me explain my thesis. In the 1760s, when Washington obtained clear title to Mount Vernon after the unfortunate passing of his older brother Lawrence and Lawrence’s family, and after he settled there with his new wife Martha and her children, he would gradually turn Mount Vernon into what Washington biographer and eminent historian Ron Chernow has described as a “small industrial village.” This village included not just the grist mill, but a large fishery, a textile and weaving factory—which Martha basically ran—and a blacksmith shop, all of which served several customers outside of Mount Vernon.

At the same time, Washington was building up his manufacturing ventures, the British were doing everything they could to discourage manufacturing in the colonies. Operating under the mercantilist system, Great Britain had a trade monopoly with the colonies. Colonists could not export to or import from countries other than Great Britain without special permission from British government. But this limitation on competition to British goods wasn’t enough for the mother country.

By the 1760s, the British Parliament increasingly saw colonial manufacturing upstarts like the enterprises at Mount Vernon, small as they were when compared to companies in Britain, as a threat to British manufacturers. Parliament began enforcing laws such as the Iron Act, Hat Act, and Wool Act to sharply restrict or ban colonial entrepreneurs from making everything from nails and horseshoes to hats and wool carpets.

In the 1760s, when the British started aggressively levying new taxes on the colonists, they also started ramping up the anti-manufacturing edicts. In fact, the taxes and regulations sometimes worked hand in hand. As I write in my book:

The Stamp Act, for example, did more than just tax the colonies on the paper they used from Britain. That in itself might not have been so bad, as the colonists could simply build more paper mills to supply their growing needs. Yet it also mandated that virtually all printed material in the colonies—including legal documents, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, and even playing cards—be produced with stamped paper from Britain.

Seeing the arbitrary nature of new British taxes and regulations, “Washington increasingly perceived a threat to all he had built.” He expressed this fear in a 1769 letter to his neighbor George Mason, who would also become a significant Founding Father. This letter is famous in that it is the first time we know of Washington expressed sympathy for taking up arms against the British.      

In the letter, Washington worries that if Great Britain can “order me to buy Goods of them loaded with Duties,” they may also “forbid my manufacturing.” Note the words “me” and “my” in that sentence. Washington was speaking about threats to his own personal enterprises—business ventures that had only been startups a few years earlier. Washington was perceiving direct threats to his new manufacturing enterprises that he built to escape dependence on the tobacco trade.

British regulation that would shut down his enterprises seemed to be Washington’s biggest worry, and his fear was shared by many colonial manufacturing entrepreneurs. In his book, Forced Founders, historian Woody Holton calls the British taxes the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” on top of the “heavy tax” already paid “to Britain in the form of its costly monopoly of their trade” and the regulations accompanying these mercantilist policies.

Washington’s letter to Mason has been noted by many scholars as representing a turning point in how he viewed the colonies’ relationship with Britain. The Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner called it “a major milestone of Washington’s road to revolution.” But the specific reasons Washington gives for turning against Britain have been largely overlooked. This is likely because these reasons can’t really be grasped without an understanding of Washington’s entrepreneurial activities up to that point.

My argument is that Washington’s entrepreneurial innovations persuaded him of the ideals of the revolution of equality under the law and natural rights. We know that Washington, both, in and out of public office, personally championed the rights of religious minorities. As President, he met with and wrote letters to members of then-minority religions—including congregations of the Catholic, Jewish, Quaker, Baptist, and Presbyterian faiths—assuring them of their rights to worship freely and of full participation in American civic life. In his famous letter of 1790 to Congregation Jeshuat Israel, now also known as the Touro Synagogue, Washington wrote, “For happily the Government of the United States . . . gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Washington was quick to add, though, that the U.S. Constitution goes beyond mere religious toleration and explicitly grants religious freedom and full citizenship to people of every creed. “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”

Washington’s entrepreneurial innovations persuaded him of the ideals of the revolution of equality under the law and natural rights.

There were many factors in Washington’s arriving at and standing firm in those beliefs, including the fact that Washington—despite his lack of formal education—was very well read. In addition to the many books about agriculture, Washington’s library included books on religion, natural rights from philosophers such as John Locke, and even early economics from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which laid the foundations of capitalism. But his engagement in different types of commerce also required him to get to know and deal amicably with people from various walks of life.

Of course, commerce by itself doesn’t eliminate all group friction nor is it a substitute for legal rights. But commerce can help advance those goals, as it opens the eyes of consumers and entrepreneurs to the talents of individuals from ethnicities and religions outside their own. I will speak of the example of Washington’s friendship and business associations with Irish-Catholics. He corresponded with many members of the Irish-Catholic Carroll family of Maryland, including Charles Carroll—the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and later Maryland’s first U.S. Senator—about the best ways to cultivate hemp, and Margaret Carroll about building a greenhouse to grow exotic citrus fruit.      

And one of his closest friendships was with John Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald had emigrated to the colonies from Ireland in 1769, settling first in Philadelphia but moving to the port city of Alexandria, Va., near Mount Vernon. There, he became a merchant of various items, and Washington was one of his customers. When the Revolution started, Fitzgerald volunteered his services, and Washington appointed him aide-de-camp. When Washington returned to Mount Vernon in 1797 after serving as president, Fitzgerald advised him to build a whiskey distillery there, which turned out to be one of Washington’s most profitable enterprises (and which was rebuilt on Mount Vernon grounds in 2007).

I think it’s fair to say Washington’s experiences with Colonel Fitzgerald and the Carrolls made him sympathetic to the plight of the Irish and Catholics in general. Before the American Revolution, Catholics were a persecuted minority in most of the colonies and in Virginia in particular. In most of the colonies, Catholics couldn’t hold public office and serve on juries, and in Virginia they couldn’t even pray publicly. But Washington, through his public friendship with Catholics such as Fitzgerald and the Carrolls and through his public statements praising Catholics’ contributions to the revolution and assuring them religious freedom, greatly helped reduce the prejudice and discrimination they faced.

His letter to the Touro Synagogue similarly helped Jews. The late political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa, longtime professor at Claremont McKenna College and distinguished fellow at the Claremont Institute, wrote that Washington’s letter meant that Jews would be “full citizens for the first time, not merely in American history, but since the end of their own polity in the ancient world, more than two thousand years before.”

That gets us to the issue of slavery. There, Washington’s enterprises also gave him opportunities to interact with a community. But unlike with other religious and ethnic minorities, the exchange wasn’t voluntary. But seeing his enslaved workers acquire new skills and talents and perform new types of jobs successfully in the grist mill, his letters show, made Washington see African-American workers as fellow human beings held back by enslavement and helped convince him that slavery was an evil system that must come to an end. In a 1792 letter to British agriculturalist Arthur Young, Washington wrote that “blacks are capable of much labour,” but those who were enslaved had “no ambition to establish a good name.” Washington prefaced this statement by saying that he was “speaking generally.”

In my book, I argue that Washington should be held historically accountable for holding slaves. But it also should be recognized that he was able to move the country and the world—and in Washington’s time, slavery existed not just in America, but in much of this world—forward to a “more perfect union” and a more perfect world. Washington condemned slavery in several letters, and while the letters were private, Washington likely knew that anything he wrote in letter was likely to be made public, as books of his letters were published in his own lifetime. And I found that Washington at least once publicly condemned the slave trade. In the 1774 Fairfax Resolves he wrote with George Mason publicly listing Virginia colonists’ grievances against the British, they state their “earnest wishes” for “an entire stop for ever put to such a wicked, cruel and unnatural trade,” meaning the slave trade.

And then there were Washington’s actions at Mount Vernon in which he largely refused to break up slave families since the 1770s, and his final act in his will of freeing the 124 slaves he owned outright. His devoted valet, William Lee, was freed immediately, and the rest were to be freed upon Martha’s death. Martha freed the remaining 123 slaves a year after George passed away. Washington’s will also attempted to provide for the education of the younger workers formerly enslaved and provided financial support for the elderly and disabled of the formerly enslaved.

But the story of the Mount Vernon population during Washington’s time doesn’t end there. As documented by Mount Vernon historian Mary Thompson’s recent book, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret, several of Mount Vernon’s formerly enslaved population became landowners and entrepreneurs themselves and one—Sambo Anderson—became a leader in the burgeoning free black community of Alexandria. Their stories need to be told. African-American readers of my book and others have expressed interest in the contributions of enslaved workers in Washington’s innovative business ventures. One viewer who phoned in when I appeared on C-Span’s “Washington Journal” expressed anger at Washington but was still curious about the slaves’ roles in these enterprises. She said that she bet the slaves were holding the donkey and horse when Washington began his pioneering mule-breeding business. I replied that that deserved to be looked into, and the scholars at Mount Vernon are in fact looking into that and other contributions of the enslaved. But these types of inquiries can only go forth in an atmosphere in which history is expanded upon, rather than canceled. So let’s cancel the would-be cancellers, and strengthen our resolve to continue preserving and expanding the volume of unique stories of Mount Vernon and American history.

This essay is adapted from a March 17, 2021 virtual lecture John Berlau gave at George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Fairfax Country, Virginia.