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View Full Version : Was George Washington the richest man in the colonies?


R. P. McMurphy
10-01-2006, 09:00 PM
A college student who is studying history told me that at the time he was made President, George Washington was the richest man in the colonies that became the United States. Is there any truth to this? If so, how did he make his money?

RealityChuck
10-01-2006, 09:19 PM
No. Washington did well enough, but there were many others who were much richer.

Horatio Hellpop
10-01-2006, 09:35 PM
Amongf the Founding Fathers, John Hancock and Gouvernor Morris were richer. The Lee family was in his ballpark. IIRC, Martha Washington was from bigger money than George.

633squadron
10-01-2006, 09:52 PM
A college student who is studying history told me that at the time he was made President, George Washington was the richest man in the colonies that became the United States. Is there any truth to this? If so, how did he make his money?

He inherited Mt. Vernon, and made some money in land speculation. He was clearly not rich enough to avoid working in his youth. Your "college student" was a loon. I studied history in college, and never remember reading anything that remotely suggested Washington was rich, much less the richest man in the colonies. I'm pretty sure that I knew before I entered college that John Hancock was quite wealthy.

R. P. McMurphy
10-01-2006, 10:29 PM
Amongf the Founding Fathers, John Hancock and Gouvernor Morris were richer. The Lee family was in his ballpark. IIRC, Martha Washington was from bigger money than George.

If he was married to Martha at the time he was made President was he extremely wealthy at the time?

He was clearly not rich enough to avoid working in his youth. Your "college student" was a loon.

Bill Gates wasn't in the Forbes 400 in his youth. That didn't preclude him from becoming incredibley rich. What was GW's wealth status when he became president? Please don't characterize someone as a "loon" without some supporting documentation. The whole point being that American history may have been written without acknowleging the fact that the early American government was controlled by plutocrats. That doesn't mean that they didn't have ideals but there was probably a lot less meritocricy than the traditional history books would lead you to believe.

633squadron
10-01-2006, 11:06 PM
If he was married to Martha at the time he was made President was he extremely wealthy at the time?

Define extremely wealthy! With his wife's money and his own business and agricultural acumen, he developed Mount Vernon into a profitable and successful venture. I don't have exact numbers for anyone in that era, but I would be very surprised if he was in the top 50 most wealthy people in the country.

Some serious historical issues come up when one debates meritocracy versus plutocracy in early US history. No American was wealthy by the standards of either England or France. The Americans who "made it to the top" at the beginning of the republic did so because of their abilities, but they also had to survive, and to do that they had to make money. In that sense, it's hard to separate meritocracy from plutocracy.

On the other hand, all of the founders shared the attitude that white men were the sole people capable of governing the country, and that furthermore one needed an education and a certain station in life. That station was middle-class. Jefferson was more of a democrat (with a small d) than people like Hamilton, but none of them would have felt comfortable with a typical western (ie Ohio) subsistence farmer in Congress. The real democratization of American came with Jackson.

One can consider Hancock and Hamilton as something akin to capitalists; Hancock had made money in shipping and merchant activities, while Hamilton had made money as a merchant before studying for the law. Adams and Jefferson made money as lawyers; Jefferson was sufficiently restrained in his finances that he felt himself unable to free his slaves.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a fashion among historians to view the events of the early republic in Marxist terms. To that end, some historians characterized the Declaration of Independence as a revolutionary document chiefly written by the proletarian/democratic leader Jefferson, and the Constitution as a counter-revolutionary document written by the plutocratic/aristocratic Madison and Hamilton.

That's just ideology, and like ideologies, it discards too many facts in order to make a point.

American government has become more and more democratic and truly meritocratic over time. That is certainly because the founders, meritocrats who managed to make some money as well, had an inherent belief that you weren't born with the right to rule over someone else. Anyone could aspire to represent their community in government.

R. P. McMurphy
10-01-2006, 11:29 PM
American government has become more and more democratic and truly meritocratic over time. That is certainly because the founders, meritocrats who managed to make some money as well, had an inherent belief that you weren't born with the right to rule over someone else. Anyone could aspire to represent their community in government.

The purpose of the OP was not to pass judgement over the formation of the early American government and its founders. I'm pragmatic enough to realize that those with financial wherewithall are going to influence politics particularly in a newly formed government. I'm not one to believe that wealth is in opposition to one's social conscience.

The OP was a search for factual information. George Washington, in grade school American history, is presented a some kind of common, military man that led a revolution against an oppressing British government and was appointed the first President based on his military success. Was he, in fact, the most or one of the most wealthy Americans at the time and was made President mostly for his economic status?

I'm not trying to promote an agenda that either glorifies or denigrates GW. Was he one of/or the wealthies men in America when he was made President?

Exapno Mapcase
10-01-2006, 11:59 PM
Washington was certainly among the Virginia elite his entire life. He made extremely good investments, married well, and owned enormous amounts of land, while always scheming to buy more. He was wealthy by any standard of the time.

From George Washington by James McGregor Burns and Susan Dunn:
At Mount Vernon... In addition to fields of tobacco, wheat, and corn, there was also a dairy, a smokehouse, a cider press, a vinyard, fruit orchards, a flour mill, a sawmill, and a cloth factory.... By the mid-1770s, he owned nearly two hundred slaves...

In his manor house, he was served by thirteen house slaves. Clothing, furniture, paintings, dishes, wines, and spices were shipped periodically from London. ... From England also came a fashionable carriage, adorned with gilded molding and Washington's own crest.

.. but the game was still about land. ..when the land was distributed [to the soldiers in fought in the army in 1754] Washington secured for himself twenty thousand of the best acreage.

Was he the wealthiest? I've always read that John Hancock was the wealthiest of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. A number of others had enormous wealth as well. And Washington didn't lend money to the government to bail them out of jams the way Robert Morris did.

Now admittedly, he was what is called "land-poor," in that his wealthy was not easily convertible in ready cash. He had problems at times during the Revolutionary War because he refused to take a salary, and waited until the end of the war to present his expenses. Of course, when he did, he socked them for a half million dollars, making Congress wish that they had just given him the salary in the first place.

But I have never, as a student or as a reader of history, found that Washington was portrayed as some sort of common man or simple soldier. I would need written evidence of this before I believed it. How do they explain away Mount Vernon? The slaves? The land? The whole industrial city going on around him? He was an American aristocrat from birth and behaved that way.

Was he made president because of his economic status? Absolutely not. He was elected president because he was the most admired man in the country. No one else was seriously considered, even by his enemies. And he got a fabulous salary of $25,000/yr, making him even richer.

dangermom
10-02-2006, 01:03 AM
Washington was well-off, but by no means the wealthiest guy around. A small note: though he owned slaves, of course, he was not a fan of the system. He always refused to sell any slaves without their permission--so of course he didn't sell any. IIRC, as a result, his estate was barely able to support everyone living on it; the usual method of dealing with slaves was to make a profit by selling the ones that weren't needed, and so he took a double hit (economically speaking) compared to most of his neighbors. The poor soil of Mount Vernon meant that he couldn't really make a profit by farming; in his position, profit normally came from selling slaves--but between 1775 and his death, the slave population of Mount Vernon more than doubled, and not through buying slaves, as he almost never did.

John Hancock was hugely wealthy; wasn't he the richest man in Massachusetts?

I've never heard of Washington being presented as some sort of common man; that's Lincoln. One of the first things I remember learning about Washington was that he bought a plum velvet suit when he started surveying. For comparative purposes, you might like to take a look at the well-known D'Aulaires biographies of Washington and Lincoln; one is shown as a child riding around a beautiful estate on a horse, the other walking through woods in a pair of outgrown breeches.

Walloon
10-02-2006, 02:36 AM
Harlow Giles Unger, in his biography of John Hancock, called him arguably the wealthiest man in the American colonies.

madmonk28
10-02-2006, 02:46 AM
I read Flexner's 9 volume biography of Washington, but don't have it handy. Washington was reasonably well off and he married someone with money, but GW wasn't terribly adept in handling money and frequently made unwise investments. A lot of his letters complain about his debt or merchants who he felt were taking advantage of him.

Also, bear in mind that during the revolutionary war, Washington spent a considerable amount of his fortune paying for the equipment and salaries of his army out of his own pocket. By the end of the war, the new US government owede him a large amount of money. Washington sold the government some of his land that became part of the District of Columbia to recoup some of his losses, but it appears he never did get all that was owed to him.

Crafter_Man
10-02-2006, 04:58 AM
I read somewhere that Washington had to borrow money to cover the travel costs when he went to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

ColonelDax
10-02-2006, 05:04 AM
In addition to fields of tobacco, wheat, and corn

They forgot to mention the hemp (http://www.thehia.org/history.html), not that I imagine Washington ever employed it for the use with which most people associate the plant today.

JohnT
10-02-2006, 07:59 AM
The whole point being that American history may have been written without acknowleging the fact that the early American government was controlled by plutocrats.

Uh, well, no. It's well established in American history books that the Founding Fathers were, in fact, "plutocrats". Ben Franklin is credited (hell, lauded) for being America's first millionnaire. Jefferson, Washington, a bunch of others owned plantations and great swaths of land. The Adams' were very successful merchants who participated in the Rev. War precisely because their private interests were threatened.

Sorry, but the point you're trying to prove about American education doesn't wash. Why not just honestly ask "Do y'all Americans know that your government was founded by what I defined as 'plutocrats'?"

JohnT
10-02-2006, 08:00 AM
We're also taught that the line of "common man" Presidencies began with Andrew Jackson. "Jacksonian Democracy" and all that.

Jonathan Chance
10-02-2006, 09:04 AM
Yeah, exactly. Whomever the history student (and that's my degree and grad work as well) who claimed that it's some sort of secret isn't paying attention properly. Washington and the other founding fathers weren't some sort of proletarian revolutions attempting to establish an economically just state. In the end, as I was taught (in Junior High!) is that they wanted THOSE elites out and THEIR elites IN.

As for Hancock I once read this phrase someplace: "Sam Adams writes the letters but John Hancock pays the postage."

Heck, here's the quote from wikipedia:

His regular merchant trade as well as his smuggling practices financed much of his region's resistance to British authority and his financial contributions led Bostonians to joke that "Sam Adams writes the letters [to newspapers] and John Hancock pays the postage" (Fradin & McCurdy, 2002).

solkoe
10-02-2006, 09:35 AM
Please define plutocrat and meritocrat.
Also, if you have time, what did Andrew Jackson do that was different?

Exapno Mapcase
10-02-2006, 10:41 AM
Please define plutocrat and meritocrat.
Also, if you have time, what did Andrew Jackson do that was different?
Jackson was the first president not to come from the aristocracy. He became prosperous as a lawyer, was a famous general, rose to great wealth, built himself a mansion, and campaigned as the representative from the "west," the land of the common people away from the effete east-coast liberals. History does repeat itself.

Dictionaries define plutocrat as "someone who exercises power by virtue of wealth" so all the early president were technically plutocrats.

The connotations are all wrong, though. The term plutocracy was coined in the mid 17th century as a pejorative for a society where wealthy individuals exercised control over the government whether they officially ran it or not. Most western societies have been plutocracies at all times since the days of the Greeks in one sense. However, governments for most of that time were not only for the wealthy but by and of the wealthy: the Venn diagram of those who had wealth and the government was mostly intersection.

It was only since the industrial revolution that the modern sense of a plutocracy as wealthy people controlling government from unofficial positions of power has taken hold. The late 19th/early 20th centuries are the prime examples of this, with state and national legislatures in the U.S. and elsewhere being bought or bribed to do the bidding of the wealthy.

Jackson doesn't fit this profile. He is more an example of a meritocracy, "a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement." Again, this was coined to fit the British civil service system which sought to do this systemically, rather than individuals achieving greatness as in the popular image of the American system.

Of course, all our early presidents and the founding fathers were examples of a meritocracy. They rose to the top because they were incredibly talented and the cream of an enormously impressive crop.

Jackson is important because of his followers, who can be said to define him in history more than his biography does, since once he achieved wealth and power he behaved little different than the earlier presidents who were born to wealth and power.

The U.S. is an oddity, a meritocracy that worships wealth but sees also wealth as the reward for merit. We expect talented people to have money - "if you're so smart, why aren't you rich" isn't one of the basic American sayings for nothing. But we also dislike people who have inherited wealth who don't go on to work for a living. That's why Bill Ford and Donald Trump receive general approval.

Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and others are all examples of American gentlemen or aristocrats (not at all the same thing as British gentlemen and aristocrats) who became even richer and more powerful through their own efforts. Jackson and van Buren and others like Hamilton are examples of those who rose from poorer beginnings to become richer and more powerful through their own efforts. They are neither plutocrats nor meritocrats but something uniquely American.

Freddy the Pig
10-02-2006, 10:44 AM
A college student who is studying history told me that at the time he was made President, George Washington was the richest man in the colonies that became the United States.When Washington was elected President, there were no "colonies that became the United States". There were, like, actual United States.

What Exit?
10-02-2006, 11:02 AM
Bill Gates wasn't in the Forbes 400 in his youth. That didn't preclude him from becoming incredibley rich. What was GW's wealth status when he became president? Please don't characterize someone as a "loon" without some supporting documentation. The whole point being that American history may have been written without acknowleging the fact that the early American government was controlled by plutocrats. That doesn't mean that they didn't have ideals but there was probably a lot less meritocricy than the traditional history books would lead you to believe.
Adams was decidedly not rich, but frugal and hard working. Jefferson was constantly in debt and died broke. Most of the original delegates were upper middle class or Rich but then how was someone from a lower class suppose to attend the Congresses when they were largely unpaid positions?

It could be said with some debate, that George Washington got his commission based on his height and presence more than his money or merit.
Additionally, Virginia was the most populous and richest state and picking Washington to lead the Army was a major appeasement to them.

Jim

Exapno Mapcase
10-02-2006, 11:29 AM
Jefferson was clearly unholy rich. He just spent way more than he could afford. Being in debt doesn't make you poor. Quite the contrary. Being that much in debt that much of the time marks you as being exceptionally well-off.

DrDeth
10-02-2006, 11:31 AM
This cite :http://www.equityedu.com/Geog-to-Germ/george_washington.php
By 1774 Washington had become one of the colonies' wealthiest men....Washington, the wealthiest individual in the nation at the time and whose wealth (all of it in land that could eventually be sold) by some estimates exceeded $500 million in current dollars (as of 2005), refused to accept his salary.

PBear42
10-02-2006, 01:53 PM
[slight hijack]

The comments about young George brought to mind one of my favorite anecdotes. From The Chronology of Food (1995) by James Trager.
1757: George Washington [at age 25] seeks election to the Virginia House of Burgesses from Fairfax county, campaigning for votes with 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 of beer, and 2 of cider royal. The county has 391 voters.[/hijack]

Sunshine and Smiles
10-02-2006, 04:54 PM
I recall reading in my textbook that my fellow Marylander Charles Carroll of Carrollton was the wealthiest man in the 13 colonies. Wiki (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Carroll_of_Carrollton) seems to agree with that idea.

DSYoungEsq
10-03-2006, 09:46 PM
One of the difficulties with this question is the definition of "wealth." At the time, wealth was often measured by land ownership, a leftover from the days of the landed nobility and gentry of Western Europe. By the 18th Century, it was possible to be quite wealthy without owning land, in a way much more akin to how we think of wealth today.

Washington had quite a bit of land. He had sufficient money as well that he did not need a salary to work as the commanding officer of the fledgling nation's army. That's not someone who isn't well-to-do. Now, whether or not that made him as wealthy or wealthier than those who had earned plenty of money, and kept their wealth more "liquid," that's a different question.

Define the terms, and a true debate can be held. :)

JohnT
10-03-2006, 10:45 PM
That was something I was thinking about earlier, DS. Given that it didn't happen during his lifetime, the fact that Washington's lands is worth $500,000,000 today is irrelevant if one is considering the value of the land during the Colonial period.

Freddy the Pig
10-04-2006, 11:11 AM
This site (http://www.raken.com/american_wealth/encyclopedia/1776.ASP) estimates the wealth of each of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, since he was fighting redcoats in 1776, George wasn't one of them.

However, we can line him up against some of his fellow plantation owners who are on the list, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Harrison. During the time he owned Mount Vernon, Washington increased its size from 2,000 acres in 1760 to 8,000 acres in 1799. He also owned other developed land in the east. On the basis of his eastern land holdings alone, I'd guess that by the time of his election as President in 1789 he ranked in the second tier of planters in the 20,000-pound range (or in its equivalent in dollars, which were the unit of measure by 1789).

(If someone wants to pay the registration fee, the "Encyclopedia of American Wealth" has additional pages dedicated to Washington himself.)

Beyond the east, there are Washington's western land holdings. These were the tech stocks of their day--speculative and volatile. Their value fluctuated with each twist and turn of American policy--Indian rebellion, bad; drive out the Indians, good; war, bad; victory, good; Whiskey Rebellion, bad; suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, good.

At the time of his death, Washington appraised his total land holdings (optimistically) at $500,000. This was a great deal of money, but this statement:Washington, the wealthiest individual in the nation at the time and whose wealth (all of it in land that could eventually be sold) by some estimates exceeded $500 million in current dollars . . . . . . cannot be supported. Or rather, it can be supported only by comparing not against a price index, but against the entire GDP, which has indeed grown roughly a thousand-fold since 1789.

Finally, to answer these questions: Was he, in fact, the most or one of the most wealthy Americans at the time and was made President mostly for his economic status?At any time after his inheritance of Mount Vernon, and after his marriage to Martha, George Washington was one of the wealthier people in the colonies, and then in the United States--probably one of the wealthiest 100. He was almost certainly never the wealthiest person in either. He was probably never even close.

Was he "made President mostly for his economic status"? Of course not. Other, richer people were never considered for President. He was made President because of his success in the Revolutionary War.

633squadron
10-04-2006, 11:29 AM
Beyond the east, there are Washington's western land holdings. These were the tech stocks of their day--speculative and volatile. Their value fluctuated with each twist and turn of American policy--Indian rebellion, bad; drive out the Indians, good; war, bad; victory, good; Whiskey Rebellion, bad; suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, good.

As a note, he worked as a surveyor as a young man. That was a rather odd profession for a young man of his social rank. I have always wondered why he did it. Knowing his character, one reason might have been that he was a "sportsman" type, and probably enjoyed working outdoors. I kinda like to think of him as our first forest ranger.

Of course, another reason could be that he wanted to make money in land speculation. The man who surveys the plots is certainly one of the first to see them and judge their worth! Maybe he was the country's first investment analyst?

Was he "made President mostly for his economic status"? Of course not. Other, richer people were never considered for President. He was made President because of his success in the Revolutionary War.

I think less for his success and more for his unifying influence. By title he was the commander of all Continental forces, but by the end of the war he was also seen as the rightful supreme military leader. He was in charge at Yorktown, the last major battle. Men from all over the country knew of him; many knew him personally. Everyone from all parties respected him, and that was very rare.

He reinforced his reputation by giving up his commission when peace was signed. He retired from the army and became a private citizen, at the time when many Europeans expected him to make himself "King" of America. Everyone in the colonies was impressed.

During the short time before 1787, he was still active in Virginia affairs. His frustrations with trying to establish the first Potomac canal led him towards thoughts of a more organized, central government. He was one of the major leaders who participated in the talks leading up to the Constitutional Convention.

So now you have a nationally-known leader who everyone trusts and admires and who has persistently avoided taking power by might. He's in favor of establishing a government that helps manage conflicts between the individual colonies, and he's a delegate to the Convention. Who better to make the Convention's presiding officer?

That role makes it clear that he's the only choice for first US President. It's marvelous that he stayed for a second term, and then retired.

I like the guy. He was competent, courageous, fun-loving, honorable, and intelligent. He was also tempermental, stubborn, and argumentative. His wealth was built on slavery. He wasn't perfect by any means. He took his position as President seriously, seeing himself as an inheritor of the Roman republican idea of citizen. We were lucky to have him as first President.

DrDeth
10-04-2006, 12:00 PM
[ This was a great deal of money, but this statement: Quote:
Originally Posted by DrDeth
Washington, the wealthiest individual in the nation at the time and whose wealth (all of it in land that could eventually be sold) by some estimates exceeded $500 million in current dollars . . .
. . . cannot be supported. .

Not only can it be supported, but it was supported- by the cite I linked to. In fact those words were from that cite.

Note that that wasn't my opinion, but that cites figures.

Elendil's Heir
10-04-2006, 01:05 PM
A good discussion about a longtime hero of mine. Washington was never the richest man in America, define the phrase as you will, but he was probably in the top hundred by the end of his life.

Crafter Man, Washington was land-rich but cash-poor, as has been noted. He borrowed money from a friend to go to NYC for his inauguration as President in 1789, not to go to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, IIRC.

PBear42, that's a great stat about the booze he bought for Virginia voters as a young candidate. In Richard Brookhiser's excellent "Rediscovering George Washington" special on PBS a few years ago, a bartender pours the equivalent of what each voter could have quaffed. By the time he's done, the counter is completely filled with glasses. :D Washington, ever frugal, later complained to his campaign manager about how much he'd had to spend on booze.

Bravo, 633squadron, for your explanation of why Washington was elected President. He was a unifying force, a Virginian given the job as CINC in 1775 when the Revolution was seen by many as a Mass. or New England affair. He was extremely popular, for winning the war after eight hard years of holding the army together practically by sheer force of will, losing several battles but winning big when he could (Trenton, Princeton, Yorktown). He was incorruptible and trustworthy, for refusing to take a salary and for having resigned his commission as CINC when some wanted him to become king. And he was a born leader, "modest, wise and good," in Abigail Adams's phrase.

Crafter_Man
10-04-2006, 04:40 PM
Crafter Man, Washington was land-rich but cash-poor, as has been noted. He borrowed money from a friend to go to NYC for his inauguration as President in 1789, not to go to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, IIRC.You are correct. :)

Freddy the Pig
10-04-2006, 05:39 PM
Not only can it be supported, but it was supported- by the cite I linked to. In fact those words were from that cite.

Note that that wasn't my opinion, but that cites figures.Yes, I apologize for making it sound as if you were in error. Unfortunately, when one pastes from another poster's cite, the board defaults to quoting it as the poster's own words.

The cite is wrong, however; I have no reason to doubt Washington's appraisal of his own property (late in life) at $500,000, and those dollars would be worth $5-$10 million today. Of course the land itself would be worth much more, but that doesn't make Washington any richer in his own time.