the “New” George Washington

George Washington seems, I suspect, “timeless” to us today. But, I believe, like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and a horde of current American billionaires turned into “do-gooders” as they got older, Washington after the Revolutionary War was, in part, not in total, a different fellow. Eight years of war does change a person; and, George lived eight years away from Mount Vernon, met all sorts of different people and ideas, lived in big cities–or wanted to capture them–and managed an army that was diverse by anyone’s 18th century standards. He had low points that certainly made him question his worth, values, and cherished beliefs. He risked death, saw death and caused death. If anything the War changed and broadened his perspective and views: economic, political and social. That change is essential to understanding the “new” George that settled down on Mount Vernon in 1783.

That the War period had affected Washington’s pre-war attitudes toward salient issues is best documented in his perception of slavery. “Before leaving Mount Vernon for the war [Washington] seemed never to have given the matter any thought, but during the long conflict something changed his outlook“.  By the later 1770’s, in the midst of the war, Washington wrote that he thought slavery to be “an economic burden”, part of the tobacco plantation economics. By the end of the war, he believed it to be a moral wrong. “At best, however, the issue remained an abstract philosophical matter for him as he would support abolition only if slavery were set aside, very, very gradually [1]. There is little doubt, his view on slavery would have been impacted by his concern for “property rights”, and to the extent he thought the issue immoral (as did his closest friend and neighbor George Mason–a southern abolitionist if there ever was one) he would have felt freeing slaves was a personal moral issue. Hence upon death Washington freed his slaves, did not require Martha to, and his southern abolitionist neighbor did not.

Washington, a practical man was not much tilted to abstract thought or theory of any stripe–in today’s parlance he was not “policy-oriented”. Rather he made personal judgement which often were open to new influences, but the extent of the shift were always grounded on his core beliefs and character predispositions. His evolution from a predominately private wealth creating land development-acquisition plan to a considerably more public–private “internal improvements” focus, came just previous to the War, and during the war the obvious vulnerability of the United States to European intrusion, and the equally obvious volatility of trans-Appalachian lands no doubt infused a more nationalistic perspective that came with his role as commander-in-chief. While acutely aware of the disastrous implications of private wealth and public policy-making, his concern for a perceived “disinterestedness” (absence of conflict of interest” will be discussed shortly,

Washington was likely not inclined to distrust his personal motives in pursuit of his economic development paradigm. He was quite capable, and probably likely, to blur his private and public ambitions into a “what’s good for George Washington is good for the nation”. In fairness, this was far from atypical of colonial and revolutionary war elites (or contemporary elites). The historical mentality of the colonial administration was very much a combination of private and public blurred policy-making–which was best expressed in the evolution of British “court” versus “Whig” factions then in process. Woodrow Wilson’s biography of Washington confronted this “new George” who somehow combined his concern for national unity and sustained independence with strategies and actions that brought him personal wealth”

A transformation had been worked on him [pre-Revolutionary War Washington] since then. He had led the armies of the whole country, had been the chief instrument of a new nation in winning independence, had carried its affairs by his own counsel … had seen through all the watches of that long campaigns, the destinies and the hopes that were at stake. Now he saw the crowding immigrants come into the west … A new vision was in his thought. This “western country” was now a “rising world”, to be kept or lost, husbanded or squandered, by the raw nation he had helped put on its feet. His thought was stretched at least to a continental measure, problems of statesmanship that were national, questions of policy that had a scope great as schemes of empire, stood foremost in his view. He returned home [from his 1784 western expedition] more engrossed than ever by interest, not his own, but central to public affairs, and of the very stuff of politics. [2]

I doubt the fundamentals of his character were altered, but the army sharpened his still in working with others of a not-like mind, and compelled him to find ways to secure reasonably favorable actions from them. George Washington went he first left for Boston as head of the Continental Army was a blend of land developer, plantation land owner, and military leader, in whatever order the reader wants to place them, George Washington while political, was not a seriously dedicated or skilled politician. He was a businessman-farmer in his previous sixteen years, one who part-time was in the Burgesses and various local government offices which were standard fare for a Virginia plantation oligarch. Of special note, Washington was not a professional politician, and to the extent his interests and concerns took a political bent–as they necessarily would–he did not envision his personal leadership of an activist political movement. On politics, he preferred, strongly, to working with others more skilled in the profession. He would invest his political charisma, and seek to preserve as much as he could his “disinterestedness” in politics-laden activities, but he would look to others for policy-making. In political maneuvering and legislative policy-making, he delegated whenever possible. For most of the first decade after his 1783 “retirement”, he used a young fellow Virginian oligarch, James Madison.

George Washington knew what he liked to result from politics, but he was not very interested of skilled in practicing politics or legislative policy-making, and was not versed in political theory. An ardent and since American revolutionary, I have never once seen evidence he abandoned the quest for American independence. As to the structure of government or the composition of the franchise, that was out of his military job description. He was certainly not like Jefferson who did not serve with the military and instead became a professional politician. Washington remained remarkably quiet in Burgesses debate, and in the Continental Congresses spoke little, wrote political texts not at all; his ability to relate to the Articles of Confederation leaders and legislature was not especially distinguished, and he endured several episodes that nearly toppled him from his command. Whatever he proposed to due upon his military retirement in 1783, did not involve an active political life at any level of government. He wanted to return to farmer-businessman-perhaps family–or so he said. He just didn’t do it very well. I can sympathize; I am writing this volume in my mid-seventies.

What happened when he returned home was he immediately focused on restoring a rather run-down Mount Vernon, a Mount Vernon/Martha’s sizable estates that lost considerably profitability, needed reinvestment badly, and simple attention to the mechanics of agricultural production. His finances were exhausted in that his investment was in land and income generated from the plantations–and so he sold some land for capital. His initial post-retirement concern was for his own personal finances, which were in a legitimate state of disorder. From that perspective, he was much concerned with restoring the income flow from his various investments (a large and seemingly prosperous mill in West Virginia), and rents from a host of squatters who had taken over some of his western land holdings. In true form the old Washington, the expansive aggressive visionary, returned in the first two years. He aggressively secured control over large tracts of Virginia plantation land to expand his agricultural production and income–and he managed it so well that his biography, John Ferling reports by the mid-eighties he was turning sizable profits and income from this plantations.

From the start in 1783, he was back on board with his old land development agenda: land acquisition and access to the hinterland, trans-Appalachian interior through canals and Potomac River-based navigation. There was one noticeable difference however, in how he approached land development and access to the interior, side-by-side with this still evident quest for personal wealth and a sincere desire that Virginia and his beloved Potomac should be paramount in tasting the economic benefits of this investment, was also a very believable commitment to a public interest, a national public interest in opening up the trans-Appalachian interior. On that national perspective, Washington was articulate, he wrote on it, actively lobbied it, and did so as a private businessman, awkward political activist on that issue, and finally as President of the United States. As far as I can tell, he was consistent to it, without wavering, until his death. So committed to this access to the interior mission that his contemporaries thought it proper they continue it, in his name, in honor of his heritage and service to his nation. As Tom Brady would say: access to the trans-Appalachian interior by canals was “part of his very being”. For us, that was the core of the “new” George.

As to the evolution of this trans-Appalachian economic development strategy paradigm, the core of the new George, we observe that even in his cut-throat land development business days–where land was above all his path to wealth and personal status, there always was a sort of romantic, but very practical notion that to be successful required a strong and coherent public-governmental involvement. He had no doubt that, while public officials may see opportunities for personal wealth in his opening up the West (Dinwiddie certainly did), that the western opportunity was also a legitimate opportunity for Virginia and it citizens. Even in the early days, he saw that Virginia could be so much more than a tobacco plantation economy, if it took the lead and seized the opportunity to become the funnel of North American trans-Appalachian economic development.

If phase I of his paradigm was land acquisition, almost every other phase, settlement and city/town building, installation and finance of transportation infrastructure, and conscious promotion of a diverse economy to include at minimum agricultural and defense-related manufacturing, meant serious public involvement–a series of public-private partnerships. He also knew through personal observation and experience that western site control could only be achieved from Native Americans through public involvement, and that it could be sustained only with serious public involvement. In 1783, we see Washington pivot from land acquisition to the other phases of his economic development paradigm. From 1783, the new George never took his eyes off of this pivot to public sector involvement in what was now  a national defense of American independence through economic growth achieved by settlement and production generated by trans-Appalachian population growth and development of its economic bases–possible only if united to the East Coast and foreign trade, by the mother of all canal schemes, the Grand Canal of America, the Patowmack Canal. Using this “soft power” of economic growth and economic development and population migration could the United States secure its foreign borders with North American European nations–and achieve meaningful free trade on the seas.

In this module, however, we are more concerned with the primary Washington interest, land development. Like most industrious men, Washington was involved with family and several simultaneous projects/activities: Mount Vernon, entertaining guests, dealing with bad public relations resulting from the Cincinnatus Society, land development and canals were not his complete obsession, but they did consume a great deal of his time, investment, income-raising, and canals were the project that drew him more and more into politics and an appreciation of the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation. From 1783 through 1786 one event and dynamic after another touched upon some element of his economic development paradigm.

Return to Virginia and Mount Vernon: Washington’s Aborted Retirement

A few months after the tour, General Washington stood down from his command (December 23, 1783 in Annapolis, the temporary national capital) and returned to Mount Vernon. It is claimed Washington was among America’s most wealthy businessmen. True enough, but as would be said today, Washington had liquidity problems. Most of Washington’s wealth was concentrated from two competing sources: his and Martha’s plantation farms whose income came from crops produced and sold and the second, a huge portfolio in western wilderness land ownership, and large tracts of land  widely dispersed in Virginia and other more settled geographies. Both had been neglected, the latter essentially abandoned during the eight years of war. By 178, as acknowledged in several of his letters and statements, he considered restoring his financial stability as his first order priority. The “new George” had paid a price for his war experiences and maturity, and that put him, like many Tidewater oligarchs, at the edge of financial insolvency.

Washington’s many biographers often focus on the “Mount Vernon” Washington, the Tidewater plantation owner. But when one reads the later prequel module, Washington was always a land developer first, certainly in his personal interest. He collected land parcels like FDR collected stamps. The liquid income needed to pay the bills and live his lifestyle came from the former, and 18th century farming was capital intensive. While Washington had accumulated considerable reserves in land assets which served as collateral for his projects-(in the previous section we mentioned he had just bought land in New York’s Mohawk Valley), when he arrived at Mount Vernon  in 1783. There was tension between his land assets and his plantation income. Widely dispersed, and by this time paid for, with no taxes imposed, Washington sold some to finance improvements on a run-down Mount Vernon and to acquire large Virginia plantations to add to his planting acreage and annual income. He also had to find a way to pay for the land he had just acquired in New York. As we shall soon see, he wasted no time in returning to his various land and canal development schemes, and that required money, lots of it.

Up to this time Washington could be patient with his land holdings–and that land development strategy, his “art of the deal”, used previous to 1783 came under considerable stress. Previously, he could wait  to sell his claimed land for better prices when access was possible. So he left it unsold–i.e., it generated no income. In the meantime, he proposed to “rent” the land to settlers who tricked into the area. To them he offered reasonable terms as had been traditional Northern Neck-Fairfax custom, knowing it encouraged the renters to make improvements including farm house, barn, well and even some access roads, pastures, and clearing fields. Washington’s three principles of pre-1783 land acquisition were:  buy (or claim as bounty for public service) as much good land as possible, trade poor land for better land whenever possible, and never sell for cash”.

But whatever one reads of Washington land development approach, in 1783 it was in crisis. Unless Washington generated some cash from his land holdings, he might would be unable to reinvest in his income-producing plantation and business assets that paid his bills. His western land ownership situation was further compounded by the hard reality that in the eight years of war, the better parcels, and some of the “less better” had been taken over by squatters, who paid no rent. Either the squatters paid rent, or Washington would have to sell/subdivide the land. If this were not sufficient, Washington in 178 as we have proclaimed was a “man with a mission”: his western access and settlement national defense paradigm required him to not only advocate its pursuit, but to place himself and his home state in the lead.

Indeed, access to these western territories was a way to make his western land holding “liquid” and income-producing. So, at a certain level, Washington’s personal financial issues “blurred” into tension from income-producing plantation farming, non-liquid, non-income-producing and troubled land assets, and the capital intensive needs of carrying forward his personal and national mission of western access and settlement as a national defense strategy. Where one began and the others left off was surely hard for anyone to discern. In his mind, I am personally sure, they all intertwined–and they came to a head in the period of his retirement (1783-87). How he resolved this tension did affect our economic development history–indeed it probably forced, in its way, his return to public life, and to his advocacy of a strong federal government whose leadership in the implementation would open up the west and redeem his troubled western land portfolio. Shades of Charles Beard!

As this module unfolds, the reader will realize the thrust of its argument its that this nexus of financial problems and national policy advocacy came to a head in his famous 1784 expedition into western Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky. On that extended trip, he realized his land ownership properties were in more crisis than previously realized, and that his traditional approach to real estate was no longer operative. He became acutely aware that huge segments of the American populace did not “buy into” his vision of the American Dream–and indeed held to their version which starkly contrasted with his–and that land development was unlikely to satisfy his American Dream, but land access/river navigation could. His desire for  profits would come from canal tolls, not land sales, from ports and settlement of cities situated at key points along the way. The new George by 1787 was moving away from real estate development into the more public tasks and strategies commonly associated with economic development. Let us now turn to his land development and river navigation evolution.


Among his initial retirement efforts were an attempt to revitalize his pre-War Dismal Swamp Land Company, and to renew and update his James River/Potomac canal initiatives. Both projects sat on the shelf during the course of the war, and Washington, true to form, wanted to see what could be jump-started. His obvious objective was to commercialize his now vast land holdings in trans-Appalachian west. These lands, whose legal title had been uncertain due to the British Proclamation Act, and a substantial part deriving from the controversial Dinwiddie land grant, as well as from the unstable nature of western land ownership legal titles were in 1783 had to be resolved. In his mind he possessed legal title to about 60,000 western acres, the task he turned to was to turn them into income-producing holdings.

When he left the Dismal Swamp, the swamp-draining venture had collapsed and the corporation had instead pivoted to using swamp materials, for example cypress planks to make shingles, for raw materials manufacture, and, more importantly to construct a canal through the swamp to connect North Carolina travelers, settlers, and the produce of North Carolina to Norfolk port city, the terminus of the proposed swamp canal. During the War nothing progressed, and the project stalled. Accordingly, Washington called together the board of directors in 1783 and after discussion, the board agreed to Washington’s proposal to advertise the project in Europe in a quest for additional investors, and to import cheap skilled labor on canal construction. While little came from these initiatives, at the next year’s board meeting Washington further secured their agreement to secure the state of Virginia financial assistance by pledging to it the proceeds from the tolls that would be generated [3]

It was the Potomac/James River canals where his heart truly lay. On the eve of his departure to the Continental Congresses Washington, almost in a flurry of personal excitement, had attempted to secure the approval of a canal projects, subsidized and endorsed by the state of Virginia. To secure the approval of Burgesses/state legislature Washington had chosen the more popular James River option, but his clear preference, for both good (better location into the interior) and bad (he owned serious amounts of relevant land) he returned to the canal on the Potomac.

the Man with a Mission: America’s First Economic Development Paradigm

Literally, in the next module–a long one–and the one after that, we are watching Washington going “up the creek” with a paddle, criss-crossing through weeds and thickets.  It will be tempting to the reader to see these modules as merely “Washington the frontiersman”, or for the more Freudian-inclined, “Washington the obsessive compulsive”. First we will see Washington return to Mount Vernon and seemingly pick up where he left off in 1774, Mount Vernon, acquiring and managing his land portfolio, navigating the Potomac River, and canals. The reader will, if they prefer, peek ahead to a future module, which is the prequel to our opening module series, and in so doing will discover I am not exaggerating–he really does pick up where he left off a decade previously.

Yet in this module, I am somehow babbling on about “the new George”. There is something different in 1784 from 1774: he is a man with a mission–or at least by 1786-7 he has a mission to which he is personally dedicated. He is now more than a Virginia planter oligarch branching out from plantation management into a new career in land development. His vision is national (if Virginia-based), and one senses in his diaries and written letters of this period, there is a sense of desperation to it. Not only is the timing right, but the need is compelling and if not seized ahold of would threaten the future of the new American Republic. As we shall see in the next modules, his actions actually speak much louder than his words. He walks the walk (on horseback and canoes albeit).

It will be tempting, in particular, to view Washington’s 1784 trip into the western east of the Mississippi central American wilderness–the real centerpiece of the next module–as little more than an interesting and cute story, if overdone, from which we see facets of George that break apart that marble cast image he has today. He emerges as very complex, a Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in one person. He is obsessed. He didn’t go where no one had gone before–but pretty close to that. And what a temper!. He held grudges. One wonders how deep his “democracy” really went? But then on this trip he really does rise from the muck and thickets to demonstrate he does deserve being labeled as Father of our Country. But those personal insights as valuable as they might be are not why the next two modules are in the opening modules of the two-hundred and fifty year series on the bottoms up history of American state and local economic development.

During that five week trip into the wilderness, Washington returns to Mount Vernon as fully committed to an economic development strategy for national survival and American unit, putting in second place his previous mission “to make a profit and achieve his desired level of social standing”. As Shakespeare might say, “the strategy is the thing”–and Washington will make a poor Hamlet, he emerges way too committed to his future course of action. The physical expression of the strategy is the “canal”, which is in real life less a canal less like the Erie Canal than a series of locks. But the canal is the means to a greater end, which certainly bodes profits, but also a nation. From our ED perspective, from that mission will emerge our first major ED paradigm, a nexus of multiple ED strategies, programs and even goals bound together in a cohesive whole, that will rule the Early Republic until the Civil War–be a major aspect in the Civil War–and resume its dominant role until the turn of the 20th century. In 1784 we see the first real shoots of economic development strategies that will remain a core focus of 1884 America–including the 1880’s Populist Movement tossed in.

In this 1784 wilderness expedition we will see it really come together–when Washington’s river-based strategy crosses its Rubicon. We will see Washington in the next three years pursue that strategy with a dogged determination, dragging others along (often to achieve their own purposes) down a path that in 1787 culminated in the writing of the Constitution, and Washington’s leadership as the Presiding Official of that Constitutional Convention, and then its first President. The epiphany Washington found in the Wilderness proved no trivial event. Like Saul he was thrown from his horse, and he remounted as Paul. But this description of the expedition’s purpose is more than the spinning of an endless series of tired and exaggerated metaphors and similes (and the occasional pun), the tale also, if I am correct in this, a microcosm of the next fifty years of our history.

What Washington encountered, what he endured, and why he was thrown from his horse, are the chasms that will play out in the following decades, chasms that were in part, some in large measure, created by the “imposition” of this strategy paradigm on the colonial economy and society. Several key “fault lines” of American state and local economic development will manifest themselves on this trip–and in some form they remain with us today.In the “bottom’s” of western Pennsylvania and the mountain tops of West Virginia, Washington will confront the full thrust of what we will shortly (in the Pennsylvania chapter) the Interrupted Revolution, with its present day derivatives populism and community development–the establishment, political and economic institutionalization, and mainstream economic development, but the compelling road innovation must play in economic development. In between when this paradigm is implemented we will see land development, city/town-building, developmental transportation infrastructure and financing,eminent domain, tax-exempt bond issuance, and even tax abatement, not to mention the start of American public-private partnerships. We will also see  entrepreneurship and manufacturing, and homesteading and cotton belt plantations. We will also see the first steps into America’s economic growth model and its transcontinental drive to the Pacific.



[1] John Ferling, The First of Men (University of Tennessee Press, 1988),  pp. 330-1

[2] Woodrow Wilson, George Washington: a Life (Littoral Books, 1917), p.242

[3] John E. Ferling, The First of Men, pp. 332-3; The Founders and the Pursuit of Land,