George Washington, self-made farmer
The following post is part of a series on the self-made man in American history
Perhaps no figure illustrates the intersection between farming, soldiering, the American Revolution, and the self-made man than George Washington. We tend to think of Washington as a general and a statesman, but he considered his role of farmer as central to his identity. (Land speculation was also part of the mix.) “I had rather be farmer than emperor of the world,” he is reputed to have said in response to newspaper criticism of his policies as President. It’s tempting to view such remarks as the typical fodder of politicians trying to pose as ordinary people, particularly given Washington’s well-known concern for his reputation. But his oft-invoked reluctance to leave, and desire to return, to Mount Vernon estate appears to have been genuine.
Washington, born in 1732, was the son of a tobacco farmer. His great-grandfather, John Washington, emigrated to Virginia in the 1650s, and participated in the Bacon’s Rebellion, earning a rebuke from Governor Berkeley for his role in an Indian massacre. By the time of Washington’s birth the family was second-tier gentry, a status made more precarious by his father’s death when he was a child. Besides his mother, the pivotal figure in the boy’s life was his brother Lawrence. In 1752 he inherited the farm Lawrence had dubbed Mount Vernon.
Washington was an ambitious man, and his ambitions ran in many directions. He aspired to be a regular officer in the British army, but his application was rejected. As a teenager, he found work as a surveyor, work that propelled him to an association with Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie, the de facto executive of Virginia (post-Berkeley, most Virginia governors were absentee rulers based in London). Dinwiddie delegated Washington with the task of delivering a message demanding French troops leave western territory, a mission that triggered the global conflict known as the Seven Years War in England and the French and Indian War in America. Washington served in that conflict, acquitting himself well in the debacle known as (General) Braddock’s Expedition and gaining experience that would prove invaluable later in life. In this sense, one could say he was a self-made soldier, particularly since he was derived the sense of legitimacy he craved as a bona fide regular British officer. (Colonial perceptions that the British regarded Americans as second-class citizens was an important factor in the coming of the Revolution.)
But for much of his career, Washington staked his identity not as a solider, but rather as a farmer, something that became a workable proposition after his favorable marriage to the widow Martha Custis. In the last two hundred years, many American politicians, from Thomas Jefferson to Jimmy Carter, have laid claim to that mantle of farmer. But Washington was the real thing, a planter who took a hands-on approach to running his estate and making it a genuinely productive enterprise. Unlike some plantation owners who relied solely on their overseers and considered their slaves an economic abstraction, Washington knew his personally and issued specific instructions to them as part of a larger process of active management that involved personal inspection of his fields. Washington was also well informed about the latest scientific techniques for improving crop yields, and implemented them attentively. “Every improvement in husbandry should be gratefully received and peculiarly fostered in this Country, not only as promoting the interests and lessening the labour of the farmer, but as advancing our respectability in a national point of view,” Washington wrote in a letter of 1788, during his Mount Vernon interregnum between the Revolution and the presidency. “For in the present State of America, our welfare and prosperity depend upon the cultivation of our lands and turning the produce of them to the best advantage.”
Moreover, Washington’s awareness of the economic and political implications of agriculture was apparent long before the Revolution. At a time when Virginia planters like Thomas Jefferson were deeply in debt to British bankers—a significant source of their animus against London and all it represented—Washington systematically extricated himself from this snare. A key strategy in this quest involved curing himself of the widespread planter addiction to tobacco, relying instead on grains that would make Mount Vernon more economically self-sufficient.
Washington grappled less effectively—but meaningfully and with partial success—regarding the racial implications of his estate. The prosperity of Mount Vernon depended upon the hundreds of slaves who lived and worked at Mount Vernon, a fact that made him uncomfortable for most of his life. During the Revolution he wrote his cousin Lund Washington, who ran the plantation in his absence, asking if it would be possible to make Mount Vernon work as a non-slave plantation, something he hoped to accomplish by selling off his slaves, but only under his existing policy of not doing so without their consent, something they almost never gave. His cousin said no. Washington explored a series of schemes, personal and public, for emancipating slaves during his presidency. Though he remained silent on the subject as a political matter, his will freed his slaves upon his wife’s death, making specific provisions to override the grasping claims of his in-laws. (Martha Washington freed them a year later.) Aware of the limits and contradictions of the self-made man, Washington pressed them to the limits of his morality and that of the society in which he lived.
Despite these contradictions, Washington held fast to his identity as a farmer, one fused with that of his more famous one of soldier, something that was possible because such a fusion was so widespread in American society. Indeed, Washington’s attachment to the iconography of the famer-soldier was strong enough to lead him into one of the few personal controversies of his career, his decision to accept the presidency of the newly formed Society of the Cincinnati, a Continental Army veteran’s benevolent organization, in 1783. The organization was named after Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus, the legendary Roman republican of the fifth century BC who left his farm to serve as Consul with dictatorial powers in wartime, and who upon victory relinquished power to return to his farm. (The most dramatic gesture of Washington’s career involved his surrender of his sword to Congress in 1784, a gesture of deference of military power to civilian rule that prompted an astonished George III to say, “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”) In addition to ongoing suspicion of military organizations of any kind, the Society of the Cincinnati engendered opposition in a policy that membership could only be passed on to oldest sons. Such policies were widely considered anathema in a new nation that had recently overthrown an established aristocracy and which already had a deep investment in the self-made man as the basis of its society. The controversy eventually died down—as with so many other aspects of the self-made man, blood proved thicker than symbolism—and Washington held fast to his membership in the organization to his death. In the generation that followed, Americans proceeded to discard age-old policies of primogeniture, and systematically reduced voting qualifications, greatly widening the scope of what was rapidly expanding democratic republic.