- - Sunday, June 19, 2016



By Edward G. Lengel

Du Capo Press, $25.99, 304 pages

Most men of my age have a friend who is a self-proclaimed connoisseur of designer whiskey. Booze snobs, I call them. If you have such a friend and want to knock his socks off go out to Mount Vernon to George Washington’s recreated distillery and buy a bottle of his original rye whiskey output.

The price? — $198 for a pint. That’s nearly $400 for a full jug — roughly eight times what your friend pays for his bespoke hooch. And 20 times what most of us pay for our mood-altering libations. That sound you hear is the ghost of old George laughing so hard his false teeth are rattling.

In this nicely written and authoritatively researched story, George Washington was an innovative chief executive officer of a thriving and diversified business operation at Mount Vernon. But more, he used his hard-learned business practices not only to keep his ill-funded Continental Army provided for when it might have disintegrated, he also established a business ethos that was woven into the fabric of what became the United States.

Author Edward G. Lengel is probably our leading Washington authority these days. He is the longtime editor of the project to collect and edit the Founder’s papers at the University of Virginia. So his vantage point is an overarching one that portrays his man as ambitious, tough-minded, punctilious to a fault on the detail work of management, but most importantly gifted with a vision of what meeting each challenge demanded.

To be sure, Washington was not the only entrepreneur as the title suggests. Unlike some other plantation colonies of the British Empire, its North American properties abounded with ambitious men who crossbred plants, experimented with new technologies, and other schemes to increase their prosperity. But some were better than others. Thomas Jefferson, while one of our most fecund intellects, really had only one profitable crop — the breeding and selling of his African slaves. And that hyperactive Benjamin Franklin for all his fame and notoriety as an inventor had the poor judgment to outlive the annuity he set up from selling his chain of newspapers so he had to scramble in the final years of his long life.

However, Washington’s entrepreneurial spirit was different in that it was present in every facet of his life. Striving planter, rising military figure, wartime commander and, finally, Chief Executive of an ill-formed new nation, he could keep meticulous account books and still keep his gaze on the horizon.

Of course he did not start out that way. The second son of a second son, Washington’s start out in life was not especially propitious. But early on he mastered the then high-tech craft of land surveying which not only paid hard cash but earned him the patronage of influential personages who helped him advance. He climbed further with a helpful albeit sincerely affectionate marriage to Martha, a landowning widow who became his full partner. He also was lucky, when the death of his older brother brought him the estate that is synonymous with his name — Mount Vernon.

There he might have rested as so many Virginia planters did who were addicted to the vices of speculating on the falling world market for tobacco, on the despoliation of soil and the basically flawed economics of using slave labor. At least on the first two, he judged better. One of the fascinating parts of the book and of a visit to the recreated Mount Vernon is how Washington diversified — out of tobacco and into wheat. And from there to milling grain for himself and others, and on to becoming the colonies’ leading whiskey distiller, a major exporter of shad and other products to Britain and an ever canny investor in land.

Prosperity allowed him to undertake the military adventures in the French and Indian Wars that, in turn, brought him colonywide fame and, in turn, success in politics. It was when he was coaxed into the command of the raggle-taggle collection of militia that was the Continental Army that all of Washington’s hard-learned management skills were put to use.

He systematically reformed the army into a fighting force by imposing cost restraints, best practices and delegation of power among his lieutenants. For eight years while he was conducting a running series of battles with the British, Washington also fought a never-ending campaign with a lackadaisical Congress for funds to pay and victual his troops.

But looking beyond, he realized his Army could not succeed or even exist without the total support of the people. So where the British — whose supply line depended on London suppliers — looted and confiscated, Washington insisted that his requisitions be paid for, even if the money was devalued. As president, he relied on visionaries like Alexander Hamilton to invent a national economy and system of credible finance that knit together the 13 fractious states into a true nation.

Read this book and ponder what Washington would say today about the management of our affairs as they stand.

James Srodes’ latest biography, “Spies in Palestine: Love, Betrayal and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn,” will be published in October.

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