October 12, 2009 in Nation/World

‘Forensic accountants’ peruse George Washington’s books

Joel Achenbach Washington Post
File Associated Press photo

A photogragh of the Athenaeum Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1796.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – One day in 1791, President George Washington received a bill for 60 pounds, 1 shilling and 7 pence from his friend Dr. James Craik, who regularly made the rounds at Mount Vernon. The invoice ran two pages:

“Anodyne Pills for Breachy … Laxative Pills for Ruth … syphilic Pills for Maria … oz 1 Antiphlogistie Anodyne Tincture … Bleeding Charlotte … oz 4 Powdered Rhubarb … Extracting one of your Negroes tooth … a Mercurial Purge for Cook Jack”

This brief glimpse of life in the 18th century is contained in what historians say is a vast and underappreciated cache of financial documents from the life of the first president. Washington’s diaries and letters, many composed with one eye on history, have been carefully transcribed, annotated and bound in stately volumes. But his financial records have been treated as scraps.

Documenting the lives of ordinary people – merchants, tradesmen, servants and slaves – these records are scattered at multiple institutions. In most cases, they have never been transcribed or published in accessible form.

That archival dilemma lured 25 scholars, some of them “forensic accountants,” to Mount Vernon this past weekend for a workshop to strategize about how to get the records online, with hyperlinks to the already published letters and diaries.

“It is going to be a treasure trove,” said Ted Crackel, editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington, a project based at the University of Virginia. He said publishing the financial papers would probably cost about a million dollars, and suggested that patrons are welcome to step forward. “We’re hoping that there will be interest in the accounting world for picking up the check for this,” he said.

Washington’s first record dates to when he was 15 – a list of books he has bought. In the years thereafter, Washington seems to have noted every bag of seed he ever bought. He documented his gambling losses.

There are chilling passages for the modern reader: In February 1773, for example, he recorded buying, at a public auction, “Ned,” “a girl Murria,” “Old Abner” and “a Wench Dinah” and her four children. Scholars hope that with hyperlinks in online records, some of the more than 300 African-Americans who lived at Mount Vernon can be tracked as they reappear in other documents, letters and diaries.

By the end of his life, Washington was one of the richest men in the nation he had helped create. But he knew the frustrations of doing business in a land that lacked banks, roads and industry, where there was little capital, and where he had to depend on transatlantic commerce using information moving at the speed of a sailing ship. Washington was so cash-strapped in 1789 that he had to borrow money from a neighbor in order to travel to his presidential inauguration.

He detailed business matters with double-entry bookkeeping in ledgers running to 100 pages or more.

Washington’s wealth came in large measure through marriage. In 1759, he married the extremely rich widow Martha Dandridge Custis. In a subsequent letter to a London purchasing agent, he showed his newfound taste for the good things: “the finest cloth of fashionable colour. … Fine soft calf skin for a pair of boots. … Order from the best house in Madeira … the best old wine …”

As Washington aged, he was increasingly repulsed by the human bondage that served as the foundation of his enterprise. At first he approached the issue from a business perspective, said Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon’s associate director for preservation.

“It starts out as economics. He’s got more slaves than he needs,” Pogue said. But after commanding black soldiers during the Revolutionary War, Washington more fully recognized the hypocrisy of espousing liberty while remaining a slave owner.

In the final major gesture of his life, he wrote a will that freed his slaves upon the death of his wife, effectively dismantling the estate he had spent a life creating. He lacked a direct heir, and so his assets went to nephews and other relatives.

His most enduring gift, though, may be his records. Washington sensed as much. In 1797, two years before his death, he wrote a letter to a certain James McHenry expressing a desire to build a structure to house all his papers – “which are voluminous and may be interesting,” he wrote.

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