"Money is the Sinews of War: George Washington, Money, and the Revolutionary War," Ed Lengel
Known as “First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen”, George Washington was also a very savvy businessman and one of America’s first great entrepreneurs.
“These are some aspects of his life and career that are not well known,” said historian Edward G. Lengel at the January 18, 2017 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond. “I got to thinking about Washington’s relationship with money and with business, and it opened up his thoughts and tactics as a military and a political leader.”
Lengel is the chief historian for the White House Historical Association and a former professor at the University of Virginia, where he also served as the director of the Washington Papers documentary editing project. He is also the author of the recently published book entitled First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His and the Nation’s Prosperity.
According to Lengel, the Washington Family had a knack for successful business practices from its earliest days in North America. John Washington, George’s great-grandfather, came to Virginia in 1656 for what he thought was a routine business trip.
“John Washington traveled to Virginia for the purpose of loading tobacco and going back to England, but a storm sank his ship in the Potomac River and he lost all of his cargo,” said Lengel. “He decided to stay and to settle down. He grew tobacco, got married and invested in land before dying at age 46”.
Lawrence Washington, John’s oldest son, inherited the bulk of his father’s estate. He died at age 38.
Augustine Washington, Lawrence’s younger son and George’s father, was a talented businessman who greatly expanded his agricultural landholdings and also invested in ironworks. His second wife and George’s mother was Mary Ball Washington.
“She often gets a bum rap by historians for being cranky and not very smart, based mainly on disagreements which she and George had later in life,” said Lengel. “However she and her husband shared the same vision. She prepared George for real life by teaching him about math, geometry, accounting and debt. George Washington always hated debt.”
Mary Ball Washington was also a good business manager according to Lengel. She managed the household staff and slaves on a daily basis, and ran her husband’s businesses whenever he traveled to England.
George Washington’s first job as a teenager was working as a surveyor. According to Lengel, it was an ideal job because he worked with prominent people such as Lord Thomas Fairfax, one of the richest people in the American Colonies.
“Not only did the Fairfax Family open all sorts of social contacts for Washington, but he gained considerable experience with land and how to reach down and look at dirt. Is it good soil or bad soil? He also learned how investing in good land could make people very prosperous,” said Lengel.
During the French & Indian War, Washington became a combat veteran---which affected his understanding of life according to Lengel.
“At the Battle of the Monongahela he leads the remaining troops in Braddock’s army off the field and past the cries of the severely wounded,” said Lengel. “It impacts him on what war does to people, to communities and to a nation. It teaches him the importance of making sure that troops get paid, get fed and get good care in general.”
On January 6, 1759 Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, the wealthiest widow in Virginia.
“It’s preposterous to say that Washington married her simply for her money,” said Lengel. “Their marriage was a partnership. She chose him as much as he chose her.”
George and Martha Washington settled into their Mount Vernon home where he made a business decision that would have a major impact on the rest of his life. He switched from growing mainly tobacco to growing wheat.
Under the British/Colonial system of trade, tobacco farmers got paid by British merchants in the form of credits toward the purchase of British goods. They did not receive hard currency for their tobacco sales, which often increased Colonial debt. Wheat was not subject to these trade regulations. Farmers could sell their wheat by themselves domestically or sell overseas via British and/or American merchants. Wheat was also easier on the soil and much less labor-intensive, which allowed Washington’s surplus staff and slaves to make the transition into new jobs requiring higher skills than tobacco farming.
As tensions increased between the American Colonies and Great Britain, Washington strongly supported economic protest measures such as a boycott of British goods in order to free America from the British/Colonial debt and credit system. For Washington, independence from Great Britain was primarily about economic freedom rather than political freedom. He viewed economic freedom as a means to allow Americans to strive toward long-term prosperity, both in terms of agriculture and industry.
During the American Revolution, Washington favored a strong continental army over the use of militia units. But why? According to Lengel, Washington understood what war meant as a result of his own experiences during the French & Indian War.
“Civilians are full of words and fine phrases about the will to win, and about fighting for homes and families,” said Lengel. “Washington looked at war from the standpoint of a veteran. He knew that money was the sinews of war, and how war can divide people. War creates hardships and suffering, and therefore it requires innovation, production, organization and a strong government to keep people united.”
According to Lengel, Washington realized that people who felt committed to the American Cause might one day give up the Cause if their families were starving. In fact Lengel said this situation came close several times during the war.
Washington tried to keep American civilians on the side of his army by punishing any soldiers who plundered them, and by purchasing goods from civilians at local markets rather than seizing their goods. Washington also deferred to civilian authority via the Continental Congress and did his best to keep the legislature informed on his army’s operations. He understood the importance of keeping civilians on his side as an extension of the war effort.
After the war Washington saw the weakness in the Articles of Confederation and the danger in the virtual elimination of a national army and navy. He also recognized the importance of innovation during the Industrial Revolution and how it helped the world. Since the British were generally regarded as the world’s leading innovators during this time period, Washington recognized the need for America to emulate them.
“When Washington became president, he said his first and only aim was to establish the national prosperity,” said Lengel. “He wasn’t a Hamilton puppet. Washington had an economic strategy to establish national credit, a stable currency and a level playing field to protect commerce.”
Part of Washington’s economic strategy was maintaining peace with other countries. Despite cries from prominent Americans for war with Great Britain over the issue of the impressment of American sailors, Washington’s administration negotiated the Jay Treaty in 1795 which reduced tensions between the two countries and led to increased trade between them.
“Washington had wisdom and a deep understanding of America---and what we could become,” summarized Lengel.
Edward G. Lengel has authored several books, primarily on the American Revolution and World War I time periods. His works include the following:
1. General George Washington: A Military Life
2. Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder in Myth and Memory
3. Thunder and Flames: Americans in the Crucible of Combat, 1917-1918
4. The New Nation: The Creation of the United States in Paintings and Eyewitness Accounts (co-author)
5. To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918
6. The Irish through British Eyes: Perceptions of Ireland in the Famine Era
Prior to the speaker’s presentation the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond discussed the following topics:
1. Treasurer Art Ritter reported that the ARRT-Richmond treasury did very well in 2016 and is growing, thanks to a record-number of members and good participation by members and guests during the ARRT raffles held at each meeting.
2. President Bill Welsch noted that the Book Award Committee and the Preservation Committee are looking for suggestions as to any books which the Book Award Committee should consider for the 2017 award, and for any organizations which the Preservation Committee should consider as the 2017 preservation partner. Suggestions can be submitted to Book Award Chairman Mark Lender, Preservation Chairman Bert Dunkerly or President Welsch.
3. Several other announcements were made by members and guests regarding upcoming classes, conferences and events that relate to the American Revolution. Please read about these activities elsewhere on the ARRT-Richmond website.
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