A Teacher's Perspective: Washington the Entrepreneur

by Jennifer Egas

I can honestly say that no residential program has impacted me like the George Washington Teacher Institute did in the summer of 2016. (I have attended a LOT of week-long professional learning, content-laden programs, so this is not an exaggeration!) I attended the session that focused on George Washington as an entrepreneur because I wanted to be well-versed in Washington’s businesses and agricultural enterprises. After a week of intensive and exciting learning, I can say that Mount Vernon’s educators and experts solved my problem.

I include Washington’s entrepreneurial acumen in all of my virtual courses from 6th grade to university, and I have found George Washington and his life are applicable to all people, regardless of their age or level of education.

Washington's Cash Crops

Washington, like most Virginia planters of the 18th century, focused on tobacco cultivation. In the residential experience, approximately 25 teachers and I learned almost everything about tobacco cultivation by walking down to the Potomac River to the plot where actual tobacco plants are grown. We learned many valuable lessons from an interpreter and tobacco aficionado:

  1. Tobacco must be checked weekly for very large (and yucky) worms and manually removed.
  2. Hundreds of acres under cultivation were required to earn a living from tobacco, which requires an extensive labor force.
  3. The tobacco plants sap the nutrients from the soil, rendering it useless after a few growing seasons. As a result, planters sought more land to continue the process.

Tobacco plants are hung to dry.While standing beside the Potomac River and listening to the “tobacco expert” explain the intricacies of tobacco cultivation, my mind took me back to the days of George Washington riding through his fields and considering how to best manage his plantation and his family’s assets. What an amazing opportunity to be “on site” where THE George Washington lived and worked and to hear from myriad scholars discuss Washington as an entrepreneur.

Our interpreters led us to the 16-sided barn Washington designed to more efficiently thresh grains. I'm sure you are thinking, why would a tobacco planter need to thresh wheat? 

Washington's 16-sided barn was reconstructed on the Pioneer Farm.

Washington began to diversify his operations after repeated complications with his tobacco agent, Robert Cary, in London. He wanted to retain more control over his business operations and finances, and his agents did not meet his expectations. There are many letters on Mount Vernon’s website that document Washington’s dissatisfaction with Mr. Cary and provide excellent examples of primary sources for students to analyze.

Washington’s shift from tobacco to wheat and grains gave him a more self-sufficient, financially solvent plantation. The successes of this shift are documented in his account books, letters to his overseer while he was away serving the country, and letters to his friend and mentor in England, Arthur Young.

Online Discussions

My fellow teachers and I learned a great deal of information during the residential program, and I believe this knowledge easily translates to students and the general population. While I teach history in my professional life, I also plant seeds of knowledge in my everyday interactions through social media or informal conversation. I post daily trivia in my online courses and use “trivia questions” in face-to–face communication to entice students to learn more about history. In my experience, a daily trivia question can spark a substantive conversation about Washington the entrepreneur.

In the discussion posts in my online courses, I bring up Washington’s amazing bookkeeping and accounting skills. His meticulous accounting practices provide details about the daily operations at Mount Vernon, as well as insight into his money management practices during the American Revolution. I provide links to Mount Vernon's website to spark their interest in new topics and to encourage them to visit Mount Vernon one day. There are so many primary sources housed online that students and teachers alike can use for research.

A section of a 1768 invoice from George Washington to Robt Cary Esq. and Co., LondonI create and post digital newsletters for my online courses, which include information, images, and links to pertinent websites. One newsletter focuses on George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Washington’s entrepreneurial activities, particularly those undertakings that impacted other areas of his life. These newsletters are a great way to gather a lot of resources and information in one location.

Lectures/Online Lectures

In my face-to-face courses and online lecture videos, I mention Washington’s experiences with tobacco in conjunction with the development of the tobacco industry in colonial Virginia. I also bring up Washington's accounting acumen when discussing the lack of funds for the American Revolution and the management of the new government. Finally, I teach about his whiskey enterprise when discussing the Whiskey Rebellion so students can better understand how the whiskey tax impacted Pennsylvania farmers. 


Students research George Washington as an entrepreneur and present their findings. They also use Washington's account books to learn about the enslaved population and his household expenses. How did that translate to his creative financing of the war? I also use Washington’s problems with tobacco to infer what other regional planters were experiencing and to exemplify his strong character and work ethic that stayed with him his entire life.

Here is an example of my online newsletter.

Jennifer Egas teaches 6th grade through college juniors in Atlanta, Georgia.

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