As mobs push to tear down statues of George Washington across the country, author John Berlau points out that the first president and revolutionary general was clearly better than the era he lived in.
Berlau joined “The Right Side of History” to discuss his new book “George Washington Entrepreneur: How Our Founding Father’s Business Pursuits Changed America and the World.” Berlau is an award-winning journalist, columnist for Forbes and Newsmax, and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
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Washington not only excelled as a military commander and political leader, but the book explains he was also America’s first true entrepreneur.
While the left attacks Washington—and other Founders—for being slave owners, it was Washington who demonstrated a different attitude toward marginalized communities of the day. That included Catholics and Jews.
He was more advanced than many other Southerners on slavery.
“It’s important to realize Washington grew up in slavery,” Berlau told The Daily Signal. “It seemed to be the natural order of things as it was for much of the rest of the colonists, but from his own experience, watching free blacks fight in the Revolutionary War and seeing that enslaved blacks could perform other tasks well, in things like the distillery and in things like the flour mill, he came to realize that slavery was an evil system.”
Washington also was on the record opposing slavery.
“He first condemned slavery publicly, actually back in 1774, when he and George Mason signed the list of grievances with Great Britain, the Fairfax resolve, which called the slave trade a cruel and unnatural trade and urged the British to end it,” Berlau said.
The letters of George Washington were published in his lifetime. So he knew that would get out.
“He did things like refuse to buy new slaves or break up slave families. Then in his will, he took the really unprecedented step, and he’s the only one of the Founding Fathers who had slaves to do this, setting all his slaves to be free upon [wife Martha Washington’s] death,” Berlau said. “But then she freed them earlier. So, as well as providing for their education and for the older ones, for their old age, pension-type benefits, which Mount Vernon paid to them until 1830.”
So he really did more than just about anyone in his era who grew up in the South with the slave trade. No other Founding Father who had slaves had freed all of his slaves. So, he was much better than his era. He helped by setting up the American government and personal actions to end slavery, and he was better than his era.
Whereas you could argue guys like Woodrow Wilson in the 20th century, who re-segregated the government, were worse than his era. And I think that’s what’s, [in] evaluating historical figures, we need to focus on. Were they better than the era? Did they have other great achievements? And did they help bring about change? And Washington passes all those tests with flying colors.
Here’s a full transcript of the interview aired on “The Right Side of History” podcast.
Fred Lucas: We’re glad to have with us today on “The Right Side of History” John Berlau, who is the author of the new book “George Washington, Entrepreneur.” Welcome to the show, John.
John Berlau: Thanks. It’s so great to be on the talk about “George Washington, Entrepreneur.”
Lucas: So, what drew you to take this unique angle on Washington’s life, and also what do you mean in the book when you call George Washington the country’s first true entrepreneur?
Berlau: Well, I have spent a lifetime writing about and studying entrepreneurs. I profiled entrepreneurs for Investor’s Business Daily, wrote stories about them for [The] Washington Times’ Insight [magazine] when I was a staff writer there.
Then, when I went to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where I’m a senior fellow, I’ve studied barriers to entrepreneurship and red tape that makes it harder for companies to go public or for people to start up companies, trying to get rid of the red tape and make it easier for the underdog.
And I was fascinated about, a little more than a decade ago, when Mount Vernon rebuilt George Washington’s whiskey distillery because I had revered George Washington, as many Americans do, but really didn’t know that much about him, as compared to Jefferson, and Franklin, and all of the creative business ventures he did.
And I found that it was just more, so much more than the distillery. It was how he stopped growing tobacco when he thought that was harming the soil and diversified his crops into wheat and hemp and dozens of other crops, that he built a flour mill, where he actually branded his flour with the G. Washington signature to export, to send to England when America was a colony and as well as across the Colonies.
And I had written articles about him, and then a friend, Jennifer Cohen, who was an agent said, “Well, why don’t we pitch this as a book?” And I’m so lucky that Adam Bellow, who was editor at St. Martin’s, the All Points label signed me. And I worked with him and others at St. Martin’s and got input from a whole lot of other people talking to the Mount Vernon folks, and just wrote this book about George Washington’s entrepreneurship and how that informed his struggles for liberty, as well as the fight for capitalism and entrepreneurship today.
Jarrett Stepman: Yeah, it really is notable, I think, John, how much the commercial aspect of George Washington’s life shaped, I think, certainly his outlook, but many of his life’s decisions. It was helpful to him that he had this running, working plantation.
This was something that many of the other Founders, whose lives were consumed by politics and war, struggled to even keep an operation going. He did, I think somewhat miraculously, because he was such a good businessman.
I think it’s very notable, especially when you read through a lot of the papers of George Washington, how meticulous he is. This is a guy who kept careful notes, careful records. He really had his business down pat while also at the same time being the father of his country, leading a revolution, spending many years in the military, and then of course, in politics.
How did Washington do all that? How did he have these multiple lives in one life? Can you explain that?
Berlau: Good question. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that … the word “privilege” is batted about today, but he didn’t come from a privileged background as, say, Jefferson and Adams. His family could not afford to send him to college or to school in England, like his older brothers. His father died when he was 11, which was rough on the family.
Plus, in those days, unless you were the oldest child, you didn’t inherit much. So, he actually started out, he wouldn’t get titled the Mount Vernon until he was 30, when he inherited part of it from his older brother, and then had bought some of the land around it that is Mount Vernon today.
But he started out just in the gig economy of the 18th century, as a surveyor, a land surveyor originally for the Fairfax family. They’re the namesakes of [Virginia’s] Fairfax County. But [he] just did about hundreds of surveys of undeveloped land across the state of Virginia—the colony of Virginia then—and just developed a reputation there. Plus, he would see the undeveloped land from a surveyor’s wages, buy some of that, or get compensated, actually, as land instead of money wages.
So, that’s when he started out to acquire real estate. And I think he learned, you want to keep track of what you have so you don’t lose it. He was afraid of losing it. So, as you said, he kept meticulous notes from the time he was 14. And he was very careful, even during the war, to reserve those notes, to be under lock and key. Somehow, he knew from an early age that his business ledgers, other things would be important.
Sometimes there isn’t much about George Washington in terms of Martha. Unfortunately, they burned most of the love letters between them, but his business records and the ledgers, his diary, order invoices are an open book. And you can learn so much from those.
Lucas: John, you mentioned, Martha, you do write in the book, you have a whole chapter on how she was the business partner and chief here. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Berlau: Yes, that was fascinating. Again, we had the same issue with George as with Martha that revered, but you can’t exactly relate to them, and the love letters being gone.
Abigail Adams really never spoke in public, but there are more than a thousand of her letters to John preserved. And with George and Martha, there are only three known letters for them corresponding together, but she had a wealth of other correspondence, as well as her business records.
She, like George, came from a modest background, but then she married one of the richest men in Virginia, Daniel Custis. And then she had two children. She had two children that survived with him, and then he died when her children were young. So she was a widow.
She didn’t really have a father or older brothers to help her take care of business. So, she handled a lot of his ordering from shipping tobacco, ordering for British companies, collecting debts. And she was a very savvy businesswoman.
And then, when George Washington met her, he had a control of her lands from the Custis estate, as well as Mount Vernon, but she played a very active role as far as negotiating. And she would later run—when they were trying to make your own clothes so they wouldn’t be as dependent on the British—the textile shop and was really a fitting, good partner with George. So it was a fascinating story about her, too.
Also, we know, again from some of the business orders, almost all of the paintings of her [are] older. So, we don’t know what she was like when she was young, but the shipping orders she sent of dress sizes, and you couldn’t fudge dress sizes because they wouldn’t fit, showed that she was pretty attractive, physically attractive, when she was young, and there have been pictures of drawings of her based on that now.
So, we know from their business just much more about George and Martha, as well as we knew the fact that they loved each other, that she would brave the rapids to just come be with him every year when he was fighting the war.
Stepman: Yeah. It’s interesting. You can actually find one of those interpretations of what she looked like young at the Mount Vernon estate, which of course, I highly recommend every American during their lifetime to at least make one pilgrimage [to]. It’s a phenomenal experience, but certainly one thing that’s very interesting about the estate is how he … diversified his crops, all the different things that he was growing there and produced right there. It really was, basically, like a factory.
Can you describe, first of all, the different products that he cultivated … and also where were these things sold? Was Washington just selling to the people of Virginia? Was his business something that you would just find in the Colonies in early United States, or was this really an international operation, where he was selling all over the world?
Berlau: His flour and some other products were an international brand; maybe the first from the United States. But he learned with tobacco, it was primarily a foreign market, Great Britain. There was a glut of tobacco. So, he couldn’t get the price he wanted.
And there was no way to brand his from the other tobacco. So, the first thing he did was to stop growing tobacco and then diversifying his crops. And by the way, he read extensively. He read a lot of books extensively, agricultural books, and would correspond throughout his life with British agricultural writers.
But he would plant wheat and hemp, and he also had a fishery that caught literally millions of fish per year, like shad and herring and other things from the Potomac … . Mount Vernon is [on] the banks of the Potomac.
And then he had built a gristmill, flour mill, where they took the wheat and sifted that into flour. Now, as a legislator in the Virginia House of Burgesses, which was like the colonial legislature, he had created a bill that said standards for refined flour, and also allowed people to attach their name in a sort of trademarking scheme.
Now, he did this. This was available to everyone, not just George Washington, but once he did that for everyone, he took advantage of this and registered the G. Washington name at the Fairfax County Courthouse. I footnote the records where he did in the book, and he was able to affix the name.
And then he shipped the G. Washington flour across the Colonies and to the West Indies, the British West Indies, into Great Britain itself. And people became familiar with the G. Washington name. In fact, he became so familiar that I argue in the book that it may actually be one of the reasons he was chosen as general.
It’s always a mystery why he was chosen on the first ballot with the Continental Congress, when his achievements really weren’t that great and he wasn’t high-ranking in the French and Indian war.
A lot of people were speculating he wore his military uniform. Adams nominated him. But if you look at John Adams’ speech, one of the things John Adams mentioned as part of Washington’s qualification is his quote, “independent fortune.”
So I speculate that, but I think it’s educated speculation, that people there would have known about his flour, because independent fortune, you’re talking about your business enterprises and see what a good businessman he is. That may have been indeed one of the reasons he was chosen as general.
Stepman: You think that his skills as a businessman were also helpful as a general? You think that directly related to his success leading the Continental Army?
Berlau: Very much. His skills as a businessman and the skills and knowing the land from real estate speculation, and as a surveyor. He would know the topography of the land, what it could be done, like when he was doing surprise attacks, like the second Battle of Trenton and crossing the Delaware, certainly.
And it’s also the things that he asked for, like beer and cider in a letter, but he also asked the Continental Congress to appropriate money for him to hire the best cartographers, mapmakers at the time, to draw maps of some of the terrain. So, they would know the terrain.
So, he spent the money from the Continental Congress very wisely on supplies in the Revolutionary War. Not that he didn’t make mistakes; he was imperfect throughout his life, but he was very wise and fruitful throughout his life.
Lucas: That’s interesting that you note that one of the reasons being sort of a self-made man, or self-fortune in this case, that was actually almost a new concept then. These were people who, after a revolution from a very class-based Britain, being an actually self-made entrepreneur was something new.
Berlau: It really was. That there were the top families. Virginia was very much like Great Britain itself as a colony, where there were aristocratic families, and the Washingtons weren’t at the bottom, but they were nowhere near the top.
His father had been sort of a speculator, too. Augustine Washington … when the British wanted to mine raw iron at the Colonies, he bought up some of the land with iron around it. So, he sort of had learned that or inherited it from his father and mother.
But, yes, it was a new concept in Washington to propel from being entrepreneur to being a president. It’s sort of, I would argue, it forged the nation in entrepreneurship and the concept of the self-made man and woman.
Lucas: The first businessman to be president.
Berlau: You can say that, yes.
Stepman: One thing that I think, jumping a little bit to current events, of course, there’s this now ongoing debate about American history that has kind of swept in George Washington, among many other historical figures.
Of course, we saw recently a statue of George Washington come down in Portland, Oregon, and even some polls showing that people are willing to, many are willing to straight up erase images from Mount Rushmore.
Can you talk about George Washington’s legacy today? Explain why this is a person’s record, who we should still examine and study. I know there was a school in Tennessee saying that George Washington is not really relevant to the way we teach history today.
Can you kind of explain why Americans should still learn about George—as if this has to be said—but why we should still learn from George Washington here, over two centuries later, and why Americans should still celebrate his legacy?
Berlau: Well, that is a great question. And George Washington fought as a private citizen, as an entrepreneur, and as a public official for more inclusion for many of the disadvantaged to have their full rights. He championed Irish Catholics.
He had an assistant general, an aide to him in the war, John Fitzgerald, who after the war, Washington put on the board of the Potomac Company to improve the Potomac River, had many of his parties at Mount Vernon.
And actually, Catholics were heavily discriminated against. Through the 1770s, they couldn’t even serve on juries or pray publicly in Virginia. And then 10 years later, after, with Washington’s patronage and support, John Fitzgerald, Irish Catholic immigrant would become mayor of Alexandria.
And he would help found what is today St. Mary’s Basilica. And so, Washington was also great friends with people like the Carrolls of Maryland. Charles Carroll, who was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, that then became, with Washington’s support, Maryland’s first senator.
Washington … also knew many of the Jewish faith from his association with the Freemasons, the Freemason’s lodge. And in the 1790s, shortly after he was president, Washington at the invitation of a fellow Freemason … would come and speak to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, and he would say in that speech, … “We give to bigotry no sanction.”
And Jewish scholars, looking at that, said, “That speech is a real milestone, because not only was he saying that Jews would be tolerated, but that they would be full partners in the American Republic.”
Now, on slavery itself, it’s important to realize Washington grew up in slavery. It seemed to be the natural order of things, as it was for much of the rest of the Colonists, but from his own experience, watching free blacks fight in the Revolutionary War and seeing that enslaved blacks could perform other tasks well, in things like the distillery and in things like the flour mill, he came to realize that slavery was an evil system.
And he first condemned slavery publicly, actually back in 1774, when he and George Mason signed the list of grievances with Great Britain, the Fairfax Resolve, which called the slave trade a cruel and unnatural trade and urged the British to end it.
Then he would say in his letters, in a lot of his letters, that he wanted to see slavery abolished. Now, people were saying, “Well, he only said that in his letters.” But letters of George Washington were published in his lifetime. So he knew that would get out. And he did things like refuse to buy new slaves or break up slave families.
Then, in his will, he took the really unprecedented step, and he’s the only one of the Founding Fathers who had slaves to do this, setting all his slaves to be free upon Martha’s death. But then she freed them earlier. So, as well as providing for their education and for the older ones, for their old age, pension-type benefits, which Mount Vernon paid to them until 1830.
So, he really did more than just about anyone in his era who grew up in the South with the slave trade. No other Founding Father who had slaves had freed all of his slaves. So, he was much better than his era. He helped by setting up the American government and personal actions to end slavery, and he was better than his era.
Whereas you could argue guys like Woodrow Wilson in the 20th century, who re-segregated the government were worse than his era. And I think that’s what’s, [in] evaluating historical figures, we need to focus on. Were they better than the era? Did they have other great achievements? And did they help bring about change? And Washington passes all those tests with flying colors.
Stepman: Yeah, it’s interesting, too, even the fact that George Washington was such a great businessman. It seems like even that kind of aided in his ability to take care of and then eventually free his own slaves because, unlike some other Founders, Thomas Jefferson, obviously writing the Declaration of Independence, the words that it contained helped to liberate generations of those thereafter.
His own business operation was for the most part, basically, a mess and like many other plantation owners, he was heavily indebted. Washington seems to be one of the few who had a highly efficient organization to the point where he had the ability to free his slaves upon his death and actually provide for them. Does that kind of show this kind of strength of Washington as a businessman and entrepreneur, too?
Berlau: Absolutely. Absolutely. One of the things that strengthened his business, and he had to cope with the fact that Mount Vernon itself was a mess when he returned both from the war and from being president.
But of course, right after he was president, he … would take advice of his Scottish farm manager and his Irish Catholic friend, John Fitzgerald. He started a whiskey distillery. And that really helped with Mount Vernon’s finances. And now of course, Mount Vernon has reopened it. So he had the ability to do all this. It still was a burden on his heirs, though, but he took this, and he didn’t have to do this.
There was nothing requiring him to free the slaves; certainly, nothing to provide for them, yet he did.
Lucas: I did appreciate the point about [how] he was better than his time, as opposed to so many people who were worse than their time. You do argue in the book that you think he was as much of an intellect as Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
And I guess also, do you think most historians have kind of shortchanged him on that point?
Berlau: I think they have. I think they have. I hate to play the Founding Fathers off against each other like that. They’re all great. But since others have, I feel like I have to answer it.
He was as creative and brilliant in his own way as they were. There were some things where they had knowledge he couldn’t have. Like, he couldn’t fully read Latin. There’s debate he may have been able to even read some Latin. And this made it all remarkable that he was self-taught, and he read books that informed every decision he made—both religion, philosophy.
He most likely read Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.” In fact, it’s almost certain he did. We have the underlined passages from his copy of the book.
So, he read about the theory of capitalism and against mercantilism, but even for things like, he was considered a great horseman. Jefferson called him the greatest horseman ever. And Washington learned that from experience, and he had some natural ability. But he would read books, we know, again, from those invoices, the receipts about horsemanship, about taking care of sick horses, about how to do jumps.
There were how-to books about horses and agriculture and other things as surveying in the 18th century, and Washington read all of those. Mount Vernon and other places have a lot of his library, and it’s extensive. And we also know from the purchase orders.
… He listened to people and he was able to see things like when he read about ballooning, and he also would later welcome balloonists, hot air balloonists, to Philadelphia when it was the capital and he was president, and have cannon salutes for them.
But upon reading about when the French started with the hot air balloons, he actually contemplated that, well, one day they might be coming over here to America instead of by plowing through the ocean, they will be, quote, “flying through the air.”
Lucas: One thing I think that does relate to this book, but as president, we know that [Alexander] Hamilton mostly had Washington’s ear on a lot more than his fellow Virginia farmer, Jefferson.
Why do you think that is? And how do you think Washington came down on, I guess, the economic argument there between those two?
Berlau: It’s a very interesting question. And it’s worthy of more research. Washington listened to everybody. And he was the one who set up the idea of a presidential Cabinet, which is not in the Constitution, but Washington felt that he benefited from having his top department heads air diverse views, and other presidents through our current president have followed that tradition.
But I would say, yes, he listened to Hamilton quite a bit and ended up more than Jefferson.
Remember, he fought against Great Britain, British restrictions on manufacturing. He was worried; he specifically wrote George Mason in 1769 that Britain was putting too many restrictions on manufacturing.
And could they confiscate “my manufacturing,” because Britain, as part of the British mercantilist system, not only did they force the Colonies to buy all of the imported goods from them, and not from France or other countries in Europe, they said that you couldn’t even make your own things like nails and horseshoes, because that would compete with British manufacturers.
We know Washington read Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” and he in fact used the word, “invisible hand,” in a somewhat different context, but still spoke of an “invisible hand,” spontaneous order in his first inaugural address.
So, my understanding is he never fully accepted Hamilton’s report on manufacturers. And he put through the tariffs that Hamilton wanted, but he did sympathize to some extent that manufacturing needed to be built up.
And he was certainly against, he mentioned this in his Farewell Address, regulation without representation. He talked about the one sphere of the government seizing power from Congress or the spirit of encroachment. So … the Revolution was as much about regulation as it was about taxes. So he … was influenced by Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” and wanted to give America the free development to develop in manufacturing and also innovation in agriculture.
And Washington, of course, knew the importance of patents, intellectual property from his own experience trademarking. And even as a private citizen championed state patents before there was federal patents for James Rumsey, who is considered now one of the co-inventors of the steamboat.
Washington signed the patent act in 1790s. And in those days, the president actually signed and reviewed the patents. But he awarded the patent; one of his first patents was for the steamboat, which changed everything as far as transportation is responsible for the transportation that we have today.
It was the first time you could be transported without an animal or current or the wind. It just revolutionized commerce, particularly when we got into the Louisiana Territory. So, he very much saw the advantages of invention, intellectual property and capitalism, and Hamilton was a part of that. But certainly, so was Adam Smith.
Lucas: We’re here with John Berlau, the author of “George Washington, Entrepreneur.” John, is there anything else you would like to tell our listeners about the book?
Berlau: Well, just that it’s available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble’s, Powell’s and other fine book sites. “George Washington, Entrepreneur,” put it into your search engine, and I hope you enjoy “George Washington, Entrepreneur,” because I enjoyed writing it. And I would love hearing from readers.
And I thank the Competitive Enterprise Institute for—it’s CEI.org—for their encouragement of me writing this book.
Lucas: John Berlau, the author of “George Washington, Entrepreneur.” He is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Thanks for joining us, John.
Berlau: Thank you so much for having me on, Fred and Jarrett.