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A full account of George Washington's ledgers

October 18, 2009|Joel Achenbach | Achenbach writes for the Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — One day in 1791, President George Washington received a bill for 60 pounds, 1 shilling and 7 pence from his friend Dr. James Craik, who regularly made the rounds at Mount Vernon. The invoice ran two pages:

"Anodyne Pills for Breachy . . . Laxative Pills for Ruth . . . syphilic Pills for Maria . . . oz 1 Antiphlogistie Anodyne Tincture . . . Bleeding Charlotte . . . oz 4 Powdered Rhubarb . . . Extracting one of your Negroes tooth . . . a Mercurial Purge for Cook Jack . . . "

This brief glimpse of life in the 18th century is contained in what historians say is a vast and underappreciated cache of financial documents from the life of the first president.

That archival dilemma lured 25 scholars, some of them "forensic accountants," to Mount Vernon recently for a workshop to strategize about how to get the records online.

"It is going to be a treasure trove," said Ted Crackel, editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington, a project based at the University of Virginia. He said publishing the financial papers would probably cost about $1 million, and suggested that patrons are welcome to step forward. "We're hoping that there will be interest in the accounting world for picking up the check for this," he said.

Washington's first record dates to when he was 15 -- a list of books he had bought. In the years thereafter, Washington seems to have noted every bag of seed he ever purchased. He documented his gambling losses too.

There are chilling passages for the modern reader: In February 1773, for example, he recorded buying, at a public auction, "Ned," "a girl Murria," "Old Abner" and "a Wench Dinah" and her four children. Scholars hope that with hyperlinks in online records, some of the more than 300 African Americans who lived at Mount Vernon can be tracked as they reappear in other documents, letters and diaries.

Washington came of age as a backcountry surveyor of relatively modest means. His business sensibilities, innovative thinking and willingness to take chances were all factors in his evolution as a revolutionary.

By the end of his life, Washington was one of the richest men in the nation he had helped create. But he knew the frustrations of doing business in a land that lacked banks, roads and industry, where there was little capital, and where he had to depend on transatlantic commerce using information moving at the speed of a sailing ship. Washington was so cash-strapped in 1789 that he had to borrow money from a neighbor to travel to his presidential inauguration.

He detailed business matters with double-entry bookkeeping in ledgers running to 100 pages or more.

"He was extraordinarily careful with his accounts. He checks them. Inevitably, they balance," Crackel said. "He is, I think, probably the nation's first commercial farmer, whose interest on the farm was to make money."

Washington's wealth came in large measure through marriage. In 1759, he married the extremely rich widow Martha Dandridge Custis. In a subsequent letter to a London purchasing agent, he showed his newfound taste for the good life: "the finest cloth of fashionable colour. . . . Fine soft calf skin for a pair of boots. . . . Order from the best house in Madeira . . . the best old wine . . . "

Over the years, some wags have contended that Washington padded his expense account as commander of the Continental Army during the Revolution. Washington drew no salary for 8 1/2 years of military service, but his bill to the government ran to more than $450,000.

Making meaning of all this is what historians get paid to do. Joyce Chaplin, a Harvard historian, said the Washington papers offer a picture of what she calls "material culture." She asks: "What kind of clothing, what kind of food, what kind of medical care did people have? When did ordinary people have cash?" By studying such things, she said, it's possible to see "a modern world coming into being."

James Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, said guides have for many years told tourists that Washington was a savvy businessman, and that he ran the largest distillery in the county.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed that, once we delve into the business records of George Washington, that's all true," Rees said, laughing.

As Washington aged, he was increasingly repulsed by the human bondage that served as the foundation of his enterprise. At first he approached the issue from a business perspective, said Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon's associate director for preservation.

"It starts out as economics. He's got more slaves than he needs," Pogue said. But after commanding black soldiers during the Revolutionary War, Washington more fully recognized the hypocrisy of espousing liberty while remaining a slave owner.

In the final major gesture of his life, he wrote a will that freed his slaves upon the death of his wife, effectively dismantling the estate he had spent a life creating.

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