Washington: First in War, Peace -- and Accounting

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 12, 2009

One day in 1791, President George Washington received a bill for 60 pounds, 1 shilling and 7 pence from his physician friend 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. Washington's diaries and letters, many composed with one eye on history, have been carefully transcribed, annotated and bound in stately volumes. But his financial records have been treated as scraps.

Documenting the lives of ordinary people -- merchants, tradesmen, servants and slaves -- these records are scattered at multiple institutions. In most cases, they have never been transcribed or published in accessible form.

That archival quandary lured 25 scholars, some of them "forensic accountants," to Mount Vernon this past weekend for a workshop to strategize about how to get the records online, with hyperlinks to the already published letters and diaries.

"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 bought. He documented his gambling losses.

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.

As thoroughly researched as the life of Washington has been, his career as a warrior and statesman has largely overshadowed his entrepreneurial history. He was the CEO, in effect, of a farming, manufacturing and real estate operation that by the end of his life encompassed more than 50,000 acres of field and forest. Farms, fisheries, weavers, smithies, a grist mill, a distillery -- these were just part of the Washington empire.

Washington came of age as a backcountry surveyor of relatively modest means. His business sensibilities, innovative thinking and willingness to take chances are all part and parcel of 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 in order to travel to his presidential inauguration.

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

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