Was George Washington the richest man in the colonies?

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?

No. Washington did well enough, but there were many others who were much richer.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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?

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:

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.

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.

Harlow Giles Unger, in his biography of John Hancock, called him arguably the wealthiest man in the American colonies.

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.

I read somewhere that Washington had to borrow money to cover the travel costs when he went to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

They forgot to mention the hemp, not that I imagine Washington ever employed it for the use with which most people associate the plant today.

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’?”

We’re also taught that the line of “common man” Presidencies began with Andrew Jackson. “Jacksonian Democracy” and all that.

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:

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.

When Washington was elected President, there were no “colonies that became the United States”. There were, like, actual United States.

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.