The True George Washington: Farmer and Proprietor: Finances

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


A separate account was kept of each farm, and of many of these separate departments, and whenever there was a surplus of any product an account was opened to cover it. Thus in various years there are accounts raised dealing with cattle, hay, flour, flax, cord-wood, shoats, fish, whiskey, pork, etc., and his secretary, Shaw, told a visitor that the "books were as regular as any merchant whatever." It is proper to note, however, that sometimes they would not balance, and twice at least Washington could only force one, by entering "By cash supposed to be paid away & not credited 17.6.2," and "By cash lost, stolen or paid away without charging 143.15.2." All these accounts were tabulated at the end of the year and the net results obtained. Those for a single year are here given:

Balance of Gain and Loss, 1798.

Table1.Dr. gained.

Dogue Run Farm397.11.02
Union Farm529.10.11-1/2
River Farm234. 4.11
Smith's Shop34.12.09 1/2
Traveller (studhorse)9.17

Table2.Cr. lost.

Mansion House466.18.02-1/2
Muddy Hole Farm60.01.03-1/2
Hire of head overseer140.00.0

By Clear gain on the Estate. 898.16.4-1/4

A pretty poor showing for an estate and negroes which had certainly cost him over fifty thousand dollars, and on which there was livestock which at the lowest estimation was worth fifteen thousand dollars more. It is not strange that in 1793 Washington attempted to find tenants for all but the Mansion farm. This he reserved for my "own residence, occupation and amusement," as Washington held that "idleness is disreputable," and in 1798 he told his chief overseer he did not choose to "discontinue my rides or become a cipher on my own estate."

When at Mount Vernon, as this indicated, Washington rode daily about his estate, and he has left a pleasant description of his life immediately after retiring from the Presidency: "I begin my diurnal course with the sun;... if my hirelings are not in their places at that time I send them messages expressive of my sorrow for their indisposition;... having put these wheels in motion, I examine the state of things further; and the more they are probed, the deeper I find the wounds are which my buildings have sustained by my absence and neglect of eight years; by the time I have accomplished these matters, breakfast (a little after seven o'clock)... is ready;... this being over, I mount my horse and ride round my farms, which employs me until it is time to dress for dinner." A visitor at this time is authority for the statement that the master "often works with his men himself?strips off his coat and labors like a common man. The General has a great turn for mechanics. It's astonishing with what niceness he directs everything in the building way, condescending even to measure the things himself, that all may be perfectly uniform."

This personal attention Washington was able to give only with very serious interruptions. From 1754 till 1759 he was most of the time on the frontier; for nearly nine years his Revolutionary service separated him absolutely from his property; and during the two terms of his Presidency he had only brief and infrequent visits. Just one-half of his forty-six years' occupancy of Mount Vernon was given to public service.

The result was that in 1757 he wrote, "I am so little acquainted with the business relative to my private affairs that I can scarce give you any information concerning it," and this was hardly less true of the whole period of his absences. In 1775 he engaged overseers to manage his various estates in his absence "upon shares," but during the whole war the plantations barely supported themselves, even with depletion of stock and fertility, and he was able to draw nothing from them. One overseer, and a confederate, he wrote, "I believe, divided the profits of my Estate on the York River, tolerably betwn. them, for the devil of any thing do I get." Well might he advise knowingly that "I have no doubt myself but that middling land under a man's own eyes, is more profitable than rich land at a distance." "No Virginia Estate (except a very few under the best of management) can stand simple Interest," he declared, and went even further when he wrote, "the nature of a Virginia Estate being such, that without close application, it never fails bringing the proprietors in Debt annually." "To speak within bounds," he said, "ten thousand pounds will not compensate the losses I might have avoided by being at home, & attending a little to my own concerns" during the Revolution.

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