Book Review: First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His — and the Nation’s — Prosperity by Edward G. Lengel (Da Capo Press, 2016).
When one thinks of George Washington, perhaps the first image is that of the military commander of the Revolutionary War. Next might be Washington as president. Few are likely to picture Washington as a businessman, entrepreneur and far-seeing economic pragmatist.
As Edward G. Lengel demonstrates, Washington became very much the businessman, the capitalist, and as president he pursued growth in domestic manufacturing through a free market. In a very real sense he shaped the young nation through commerce both internally and throughout the world.
Washington was self-taught in the ways of business. This knowledge did not come easily. Through observation and practical experience as surveyor, his early association with the military, and managing the estate that would become Mount Vernon, he learned the value of thrift, precise record keeping, avoidance of debt, investments, markets and a multitude of requirements which molded him into a successful business manager. For many years he fought to free himself, and eventually the country, from the British colonial system which suppressed American business and forced dependence upon, and a cycle of continuous debt to, the British.
Realizing that the Continental Army was in many respects a business that to be successful must function as a business he continually sought responsible management even in the most dire of times. He was bold, but not reckless. He always kept in mind that the army, which was his business, had to survive and continue to exist. For years Washington had not only to fight on the battlefield but also fight for the financial resources, as stable as possible, to remain in the field. Lengel, who knows more about Washington’s papers than anyone, provides a multitude of documents revealing Washington’s business-like thinking even during the most trying of military situations.
As president, Washington would look beyond the horizon to see distant goals and set a course for national prosperity through his policies. Most interesting is that Washington did not seek to use the power of the government to interfere with business. Rather, he believed that strength, economic as well as potential military, would come from the prosperity of the people as they sought the fruits of their labor. He viewed the government as encouraging entrepreneurship at every level. He firmly believed that if Americans were free to use their hard work and brains to build better mousetraps then the world would beat paths to their doors. And that the government ought to stay out of the way as much as possible.
First Entrepreneur is very readable and provides a view of Washington that most, even those who have followed Washington closely, may never have recognized. It is fascinating, enlightening and very convincing. Highly recommended.