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George Washington, Entrepreneur: How Our Founding Father’s Private Business Pursuits Changed America and the World

Author(s):John Berlau
Reviewer(s):Lynne Pierson Doti

Published by EH.Net (November 2021).

John Berlau. George Washington, Entrepreneur: How Our Founding Father’s Private Business Pursuits Changed America and the World. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020. X+262 pp. $29 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-250-17260-0.

Reviewed by Lynne Pierson Doti, Emeritus Professor of Economics, Chapman University, for EH.Net.

 

The definition of an entrepreneur, offered by Google, is a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks to do so. In this sense, George Washington was an entrepreneur, although clearly his skills as a leader and soldier were more notable. However, many definitions of an entrepreneur (see Forbes, “The Real Definition of Entrepreneur–And Why It Matters,” June 5, 2012) add the necessity of being an innovator, a person who doesn’t just run a business for profit but changes the way business is done. Berlau presents the story of George Washington’s business career, showing that he was certainly a “business owner,” but he does not convince the reader to elevate Washington to the level of Forbes’ “real” entrepreneur. There is insufficient evidence that our founding father’s business activity changed any industry, let alone America or the world.

Berlau does provide a readable overview of Washington’s businesses against the background of his better-known political and military activities. For the latter, he relies on the many excellent general biographies available. Most information about the business side of his life comes from the Mt. Vernon website, which features copies of historic documents and some original research.

The first argument Berlau offers for George Washington’s innovative spirit is presented in a description of his greenhouse. The concept itself was not at all unknown, although the building was rare in the American colonies. Berlau properly recognizes that this greenhouse does not put Washington in the category of great entrepreneurs like Vanderbilt, Carnegie, or Bezos, or even make him a businessperson, so he then describes income-producing activities.

It is well known that Washington’s first job was as a surveyor. The job allowed him to become a good judge of land value, the most significant source of his wealth. During his surveying career, he often took pay in land, or used his earnings to purchase it. This land was then leased to tenant farmers. He also managed the land belonging to his wife and her family.

While Washington’s considerable wealth was based on land ownership, Berlau describes other enterprises he engaged in to strengthen the case for his innovative nature. One of these is “what is now considered the first major scientific experiment in the new nation” (p. 51). With the patriot Thomas Paine, Washington investigated “small fires” that occurred on the Millstone River. The experiment consisted of stirring the river’s bottom and setting fire to the resulting bubbles as they rose to the surface. While notable, the incident does not strike the reader as capable of competing with, say, proving lightning is electricity.

In the early 1700s most Virginia land was planted with tobacco, which was sold to factors in England. Berlau notes that by the 1760s prices for American tobacco were falling. Washington complained that the tobacco from the land he managed seemed to be falling more than most. His response was to diversify into wheat and other crops and to experiment with farming techniques and fertilizers. This does seem to have the potential have caused a major change in Virginia business, but no specific result is mentioned.

Two of George Washington’s most famous innovations were the American mule and the 16-sided barn. The mule, a well-known animal in world history, is the product of a male jackass and a female horse. It is known as a sturdy and efficient animal. While some mules undoubtedly existed in America, Washington made a business of breeding them after 1784 when the Marquis de Lafayette sent a Spanish jackass in response to Washington’s request. While Washington promoted the use of the two jackasses he eventually acquired for breeding, the number was slow to increase. The sixteen-sided barn remained unique.

Other businesses conducted at Mt. Vernon that seemed to be successful included a blacksmith shop, textile production, a distillery, and a rebuilt and expanded gristmill. The gristmill was state of the art, and Washington sold bags of flour labeled G. Washington, capitalizing on his fame and leading to the claim that he invented branding.

Washington maintained his property at a high level despite his absences, assisted, especially in the early days, by his wife’s experienced management. She was familiar with the operations of a plantation and was particularly instrumental in organizing a workshop to create and sell textiles. Berlau digresses from his main theme often to offer previously neglected information not only on Martha Washington’s assistance with the plantation business but on other aspects of her history.

This book has much in common with Edward G. Lengel’s more substantial First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His–and the Nation’s–Prosperity, which Berlau cites throughout. Neither author makes a convincing case for Washington as a Forbes-type entrepreneur, but Berlau has created a book for the that is more for the enjoyment of the reader than for serious research.

Reference:

Lengel, Edward G. First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His–and the Nation’s–Prosperity. Da Capo Press, 2015.

 

Lynne Pierson Doti is Emeritus Professor of Economics at Chapman University. Her works include Financing California Real Estate: Spanish Missions to Subprime Mortgages (Routledge, 2016) and, with Larry Schweikart, American Entrepreneur: The Fascinating Stories of the People Who Defined Business in the United States (AMACOM, 2009).

 

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century