Financial History 145 Spring 2023 | Page 12

Library of Congress
George Washington ’ s grist mill in Mount Vernon , Virginia .
Gears for transmitting power from the water wheel to the grind stones in George Washington ’ s grist mill .
careful consideration , a distillery was built . The whiskey was produced from grains grown at Mount Vernon . In a few years , Washington was producing thousands of gallons of whiskey . In 1799 , his profit from whiskey sales was $ 7,500 .
Fish , Clothing , Mules and Inventions
Washington , a serial entrepreneur , was constantly on the lookout for new ideas . He opened a successful fishery on the banks of the Potomac . His goal of selfsufficiency led him to produce clothing at Mount Vernon , which not only provided clothes for the residents of his estate , but also became a source of revenue . Washington also obtained a breeding donkey from King Charles III of Spain and began a mule breeding business that spread mules all across the South .
As an inventor , Washington designed his own plow . He conceived and built a 16-sided barn , which included an ingenious design for threshing wheat . He encouraged , and often invested , in other inventors ’ ideas and abandoned his own plow when another inventor came up with a better design . He was constantly on the lookout for new machinery that could be used to lower production costs and improve quality .
Everything that happened on Washington ’ s farms relied on the toil of enslaved people . At the time of his death , there were 123 people at Mount Vernon directly owned by Washington , plus 193 enslaved persons from the Custis estate . Over time , Washington came to the realization that slavery was economically unfeasible . Unlike Thomas Jefferson , Washington found a way to liberate the people he owned . In his last will and testament , he not only liberated them , but made special provision for the very young and the very old . According to Lengel , Billy Lee , Washington ’ s body servant , was given a lifetime annual annuity of $ 30 .
In spite of his conclusions on the economic infeasibility of slavery , Washington aggressively pursued runaway slaves . When Ona Judge ran away during Washington ’ s presidency , Washington used questionable methods in an unsuccessful attempt to secure her return . Judge , who was not freed after Washington died because she was part of the Custis estate ,
fled from Philadelphia to Portsmouth , New Hampshire , where she lived as a fugitive for the rest of her life .
It is ironic that in 1783 , as General Washington was entering New York City as its liberator , Daniel Payne , Harry Washington and a young woman known as Deborah were on ships preparing to be evacuated from New York . All three had fled from Mount Vernon to the British army and freedom during the Revolution . The British navy took them to Canada , where they would maintain their status as free people .
Lengel argues that “ when it came to large sums of money , Washington was an educated investor rather than a gambler . When opportunities arose , he would take their measure firsthand rather than relying on biased third-party information .” Although he occasionally took on risky ventures , the risk of his overall portfolio of assets was low to moderate .
One of the greatest risks Washington took was agreeing to lead the Continental army . This not only entailed great risk to his life , it also devastated his finances and
10 FINANCIAL HISTORY | Spring 2023 | www . MoAF . org