George Washington: First President, But More Importantly, First Entrepreneur

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Posted: Jan 03, 2019 10:54 AM
George Washington: First President, But More Importantly, First Entrepreneur

George Washington was our first president and one of our founding fathers. But it wasn’t until I read, First Entrepreneur by Edward G. Lengel, that I became fully aware of his entrepreneurship. Washington was a national symbol for the start of our new nation founded on new ideals. But he was also an outstanding personal and national entrepreneurial example to those of us in the Christian faith devoted, like Washington’s “Deeds, not words,” to the Bible, ethics, and economics.

Washington had privilege, yes he inherited and married into wealth. While some see privilege as what you get, most misunderstand that nearly every successful first generation entrepreneur will have all of their wealth lost by the third generation. So what was the so-called “privilege” Washington was born into in the political and economic environment of America?

The American colonial system was not free trade. The British only thought of America as a source and exporter of raw materials, not a manufacturing base. America was a market for importing British and Continental goods subject to heavy duties and tolls then transmitted through corrupt middlemen before traveling on British ships to America. British merchants were subject to no such liabilities as the system was designed to protect and enrich themselves at American’s expense.

The ever-increasing economic restrictions of the Molasses (1733), Sugar (1764), Stamp (1765), Townshend (1767), and Tea (1773) Acts enacted by the British provided fuel for the American Revolution and Washington’s sense of Biblical righteousness and national economics. Samuel Adams stated, “Wealth had corrupted the mother country…and had driven Britain’s rulers to try to get their hands on American revenue in order to feed their wastrel habits.”[1]

The British colonial system humiliated Americans and stifled their Yankee know-how and natural economic yearnings toward prosperity. Their, and our own God-given, inclinations to get ahead and for all to prosper was met with an oppressive system that kept them in a get by mode of enterprise and in an economic stasis or stagnation. But as time and British legislative Acts progressed, Americans routinely would get behind and headed toward and ended up in poverty.[2]

What most who fail to read and learn from history is that Washington, “driven by a powerful ambition (but not ruthless or obsessive),” was able to transform the wealth of his estate “mired within an oppressive colonial system into a profitable enterprise producing commodities” for international trade. “Hard work—for he viewed industry as both natural and a moral quality” that was punctuated by his good learned habits of “prudence, attention to detail, transparency, clear and concise communication, honesty, experimentation, and boldness tempered by thrift.”[3] 

Washington saw how British legislative acts hampered his and the prosperity of all of America. Switching from low-profit tobacco and its accompanying relationship of dependency with British merchants to wheat allowed Washington to fetch higher prices and profits. Tobacco was labor intensive while switching to wheat required an investment in time and money to reconfigure his fields, farms, buildings, and equipment, and not the least was retraining his farm hands and slaves.

The changeover to wheat was rapid, from 257 bushels in 1764 to 6,241 bushels in 1769. Washington’s ambition went beyond farming wheat when he invested in an old gristmill to convert wheat into flour. The gristmill’s poor quality and constant repairs provided Washington with an understanding of how everything worked. He then constructed, with the help of expert advice and books, a modern mill with higher quality with stones imported from France. The stones, the best in the world, helped convert the grain into flour and “be the best in northern Virginia, and would command commensurate prices.” Washington’s insistence on high quality and farming productivity paid off as his “G. Washington” brand of flour became known for its reliable superiority.[4]

Washington created multiple streams of income. Freeing his slaves from labor-intensive tobacco, he gave them more freedom and “expected them to provide for themselves” with self-interest and -reliance. They became productive carpenters, masons, shipbuilders, and blacksmiths. With Washington’s help with design, his slaves became a profitable smithy operation attracting neighbors to purchase his manufactured goods and services. He also constructed a spinning house with looms creating clothes for his slaves. Washington’s accounting of his productivity and costs showed they had “churned out 1,365 yards of flax linens, woolens, linsey (wool cloth), and cotton fabric during the year.” He “tabulated what it would cost him to import and prepare the same amount of material…[and sold] his excess production to neighbors for cash and barter goods.”[5]

He invested in shipbuilding to support his fishery catching a million herring and 10,000 other fish while his distillery produced nearly 11,000 gallons, making it one of the largest whiskey distilleries in America. Land ownership and development (his surveying job educated him) about the rich earth for farming, but also timber, mineral resources, and proximity to waterways. Washington’s challenge to building national prosperity was the conflict between freedom and dependency.

Washington’s personal entrepreneurialism readily translated into his national views, even to declining his public servant salaries (commander/president). “In his farewell address, Washington had spoken of a ‘community of interest’ that bound the country together. Echoing John Locke, he believed men created their own wealth”[6] as their industry enhanced their morality and vice versa. Washington before, during, and after the American Revolution was one of the few who strongly understood the connections between individuals, community, and national perspectives.

“Never, though, did he aspire to command prosperity. He thought of the economy as a kind of self-sustaining machine. Government’s job was to keep in clear, well-oiled, and secure. The people fueled it, set it in motion, and—after a tithe to the government to fund its’ expenses—reaped the benefits…Always, though, he exhorted the people to keep one principle in mind: Work together, or perish separately.” [7]

[1] Independence by John Ferling, pg 54

[2] First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His–and the Nation’s–Prosperity by Edward G. Lengel, pg 50

[3] First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His–and the Nation’s–Prosperity by Edward G. Lengel, pg 4

[4] First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His–and the Nation’s–Prosperity by Edward G. Lengel, pg 60-64

[5] First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His–and the Nation’s–Prosperity by Edward G. Lengel, pg 65-66

[6] First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His–and the Nation’s–Prosperity by Edward G. Lengel, pg 241

[7] First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His–and the Nation’s–Prosperity by Edward G. Lengel, pg 5