February 11, 2016


First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His—and the Nation’s—Prosperity. By Edward G. Lengel. Da Capo. $25.99.

     It was President Calvin Coolidge who was quoted as saying, “The business of America is business” (actually a misquotation: he said “the chief business of the American people is business,” which is not quite the same thing). And it was that erudite musical mischief-maker and satirist, Tom Lehrer, who said, in a song called Smut, “When correctly viewed, everything is lewd.” Putting these two thoughts together – an admittedly unlikely combination – produces the notion that when correctly viewed, everything in America is about business. That even includes Edward G. Lengel’s notion of George Washington as an entrepreneur.

     This is a curious viewpoint, not because Washington was not creative in his business ventures (he was) and not because it is unattractive to think of Washington as more than a stodgy figurehead (it is), but because the whole notion of entrepreneurship has so little to do with 18th-century farm-and-land-focused life. An entrepreneur is a business organizer who takes on substantial financial risk. This scarcely describes Washington, who, if not quite a gentleman farmer, did manage an estate that was already in his family – taking on the same sorts of risks encountered by farmers today, but not the types associated with modern entrepreneurial ventures.

     But even if this book’s title is a stretch, Lengel, director of the Washington Papers documentary editing project at the University of Virginia, is onto something here. Washington is usually seen as a military and political leader, but military and financial matters were as intimately interrelated in the 18th century as they are today, and Washington had almost as much to do with one as with the other. Through a series of successes and reversals both in his military role and at the Mount Vernon estate, Washington was enmeshed in “the commercial rivalry between Virginia and Pennsylvania” in the 1750s even as he was honing his military skills and deciding for the first time that “British colonial authority [was] indifferent to if not actually opposing Virginia’s and his own financial prosperity.”

     Thus, Lengel argues, the seeds of Washington’s revolutionary leadership were intimately connected with his business concerns, and as time went on, he became more and more adept – despite his lack of formal education – in the discipline, hard bargaining and hard work that served him well both on the battlefield and at home. Lengel does a good job of showing how committed Washington was to fair financial treatment and appropriate compensation for duties performed, and also takes Washington as economic planner out of the shadow of Alexander Hamilton, who – Lengel argues – largely implemented and expanded policies that originated with Washington. “When it came to business,” Lengel writes, “Washington was no idle dreamer but a hard-headed realist.” This applied not only to his personal affairs but also to those of the new nation – setting a course, Lengel says, upon which the United States continues. What Lengel does not say is that this argument draws an important distinction between Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the polymath who, for all his far-seeing ways and cultivated instincts, was most comfortable viewing the United States as a self-supporting agrarian nation. Jefferson was thus a proponent of what would today be called “small, decentralized government,” while Washington, it can be argued, favored the “big, centralized government” model that has, for better or worse, persisted.

     Inevitably for a history book of the 21st century, Lengel’s deals with Washington’s attitude toward slavery, looking at Washington’s late-in-life plan to sell enough land “to liberate a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings.” In accordance with Washington’s business principles, the emancipation, Lengel states, was to be done “in a way that did the least harm either to the enslaved or to his estate.” The planned land sale did not go through, however, and it was eventually left to Washington’s widow, Martha, to free their slaves, in accordance with Washington’s will.

     Washington’s business savvy and hard-won knowledge of economic success and failure may not have constituted entrepreneurship in any modern sense, but Lengel does a good job of showing how the first president’s hatred of debt and concerns about poor public credit, inefficient government and an insecure currency helped shape the nation’s early policies in ways that Hamilton would fight to implement. And at the very end of First Entrepreneur, Lengel brings up something intriguing: “Emotion bound America to France, but interest bound it to Great Britain.” That sentence alone shows a great deal about Washington’s economic pragmatism and desire for fiscal stability, even if that meant closer ties with the nation’s onetime enemy and looser ones with the country that helped Washington win the Revolutionary War. This sort of traceable-to-Washington pragmatism, it can be argued, has long been the linchpin of American economic policy. But it follows, then, that if Washington could see the bloated and deeply debt-ridden federal government of the United States today, which spends so much time redistributing wealth and so little helping individuals find new ways to maximize it, he would be appalled.

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