5 Questions with Washington biographer John Berlau

George Washington was more than our first president and leader of the Revolutionary War. He also became the nation’s richest man as a farmer and entrepreneur. John Berlau’s new book “George Washington, Entrepreneur” (St. Martin) takes a rare look at how Washington grew as a businessman. A senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, Berlau answered five questions about his book. It’s a quick and easy read. Buy it at https://amzn.to/2YJ0n7x

1. Most people don’t think of George Washington as the richest man in the country during his lifetime. What was the key to his wealth?

George Washington, Entrepreneur

There are two ways to answer that question: investments and habits.

On investments, in the 18th century, and to a significant extent now, land was wealth. Washington’s first job as a surveyor taught him how to spot and to utilize prime land, and this skill would serve him for the rest of his life. He would acquire tens of thousands of acres of land — much of it barren and undeveloped — and both sell some parcels and make agreements with tenant farmers for them to farm the land and give him a portion of their proceeds from the crops.

As far as habits go, I would say it was his incredible ability to adapt, innovate, learn and ask questions. When he found tobacco wasn’t fetching the price he wanted and was depleting Mount Vernon’s soil, he gave up growing tobacco and switched to wheat, hemp and other crops.

He was also innovative in the way he integrated his crops with new enterprises. In the 1760s, he built a gristmill, or flour mill, to refine into flour. He shipped that flour — in containers with the “G. Washington” brand name — throughout the colonies, to the British colonies of the West Indies, and to the mother county of Great Britain. After his presidency in the late 1790s, he built a whiskey distillery, as his Scottish farm manager suggested it would be natural fit with Mount Vernon’s farming and processing of corn and wheat. The distillery became Mount

Vernon’s most profitable enterprise, as well as one of the largest distilleries in the nation.

2. Ending tobacco production was a radical move by Washington. How was he perceived among fellow planters for doing so?

Ceasing to grow tobacco was a bold move by Washington for both economic and social reasons. There was a great deal of status to growing tobacco, as those who did so included the elite families of Virginia, who made a point of calling themselves “planters” instead of “farmers.” But throughout his life, Washington didn’t just listen to the elites, but looked for wisdom from ordinary people as well.

So when he saw that small farmers, including German immigrants, were growing wheat to be sold on the domestic market and thus avoiding the difficulties of shipping a crop like tobacco to Britain, he thought he could grow it even more efficiently on a big farm like Mount Vernon. So he grew wheat unapologetically and other big Virginia farmers soon followed his move, seeing it as common sense.

3. In the age of the cancel culture, do you think Washington’s reputation as our greatest president will be diminished over future generations because of slavery?

I think it would be very sad if that happened, because that would mean that we would have lost perspective on how pervasive the evil of slavery was — and to an alarming extent, still is In some countries —across the world. As African-American historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr has pointed out, “slavery is as old as civilization itself.” The first slave ship in the British colonies arrived in Virginia — as we know from the New York Times series — in 1619, which was 113 years before Washington was born. But even before that, the Spanish and Portuguese had about 500,000 slaves in the areas of North and South America they controlled.

Attempting to cancel him also overlooks that while slavery in America preceded Washington’s birth by centuries, Washington came to see the evil of slavery and worked to end this evil. He and the founders set up a system that aspired to equality under the law, and Washington would later express his growing opposition to slavery in many letters and generally refuse to buy new slaves or make a sale that would break up enslaved families. He would end up freeing all his own slaves in his will, as well as providing old-age and educational benefits for many of those he freed.

So I would hope that Americans and people all over the world over will always recognize, as many still do now, that while Washington wasn’t perfect, he worked toward what the Constitution calls “a more perfect union.”

4. Could Washington have achieved all he did financially without slaves?

At the time, he probably could not have, as there wasn’t really a free labor market. Interestingly, in his first job as a freelance surveyor, Washington had little if any assistance from enslaved workers. So slavery didn’t play a role in all his successes. But as I write in the book, once he became primarily a farmer —despite all Washington’s talent as an entrepreneur — his enslaved workers played a key role in his wealth. There’s no getting around that.

However, I think he could have also done very well, perhaps even better, in a system where slavery was prohibited. He came to recognize that slavery was not only cruel to those enslaved, it was holding everyone back. Washington had read Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith — who was himself an opponent of slavery — about the theory of capitalism and the power of the incentives of free labor. So Washington may have accomplished even more in a system with a paid workforce.

5. What lesson can young entrepreneurs take from Washington’s success?

 Young entrepreneurs can take many lessons from George Washington. Among them are hard work, diligence, and curiosity. Washington wasn’t afraid to ask questions when he didn’t know things. And he read constantly, both about his livelihood of agriculture and the larger world. Also, he found a spouse — Martha — who, as I write, was a pretty savvy businesswoman herself.

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