Everyone knows George Washington was a military titan and our first president. What's less remembered is that he was also a successful businessman. From his Mount Vernon estate, he ran a diverse suite of enterprises that included fishing, farming, and whiskey production. In fact, George Washington was the largest whiskey producer in all of America, which then had mostly a farm-based economy.
I visited the research library at Mount Vernon to examine Washington's personal accounting book for fisheries and his distillery, dated from the end of his life. In it, I found some curious clues about how early Americans conducted their finances, and I witnessed history as a long-lost George Washington signature was reunited with the book it was torn from some two centuries ago.
Rather than paying in cash, early Americans often traded goods. In Washington's ledger, I found his plantation caught some 11,000 herring, hauled in from the Potomac River just outside his doorstep. It's astonishing considering the mess the river is today, but Washington was able to haul as many as a million fish from it every year.
Washington, of course, couldn't have done it alone. He was born an Englishman, but like almost all American gentry, he owned slaves. Jill DeWitt, a Mount Vernon historian, points out that Washington was the only U.S. president to free his slaves upon his death. He waited, she says, because most of Mount Vernon's slaves actually belonged to his wife, and to free his own slaves would have meant breaking up slave families. Regardless, the ledger shows Washington actually paying two of his slaves $1 each, which they could spend anywhere they chose. There is no record of his slaves using that money to buy the whiskey he made.
In Washington's time, debits were marked with a "Dr," and credits, or contra, were marked "Cr." Someone else would handle the day-to-day entries kept in the book, and at regular intervals, Washington would take the book into his study and make sure everything added up.
In the Mount Vernon ledger I looked at, one crucial slice was missing: the spot where Washington literally "signed off" on his balanced books. Years later, as patriotic reverence for our Founding Fathers grew, someone had stripped out the bit that contained Washington's own handwriting, and kept or sold it as a souvenir.
In the middle of our time together, DeWitt produced a strip of browned paper. A few years ago, a scrap of paper containing Washington's signature had come up for sale on the antiquities market. Mount Vernon's archivists realized that it was the long-lost missing piece of this accounting book. DeWitt reunites the two pieces after 200 years for WalletPop's camera.
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