Monday, October 12, 2009

George Washington, businessman

After thoroughly researching his life as a general and a president, historians are now turning to the records of his entrepreneurial affairs:

To wade into Washington's accounts is to run the risk of trivia overload. The important information does not immediately distinguish itself from the ephemera. When he showed up in Philadelphia in May 1787 to preside over the Constitutional Convention, he records his meals (12 shillings for "dinner at the Head of Elk"), haircuts (7 shillings for "Barber"), purchases of finery (17 shillings for a silk handkerchief) and charity (8 shillings "for beggars").

Making meaning of all this is what historians get paid to do. In the past four decades, they've been less interested in the Great Man view of history and more focused on "social history," with ordinary people as the figures of interest. Washington's financial papers offer both: A great man amid the whirl of the mundane. Because Washington was Washington, we know how much he paid for his shoes.

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." ...

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. He lacked a direct heir, and so his assets went to nephews and other relatives.

His most enduring gift, though, may be his records. Washington sensed as much. In 1797, two years before his death, he wrote a letter to a certain James McHenry expressing a desire to build a structure to house all his papers -- "which are voluminous and may be interesting," he wrote.

On the other hand, if you're more interested in his role as a founding father, I recommend the book American Creation.

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