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This article originally appeared in Mount Vernon magazine, published three times a year by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
Washington kept fastidious financial records throughout his life—and the digitization of these papers carries out the General's final wish.
By John J. McCusker
In 2017, a fully searchable digital edition of the most important of George Washington's carefully organized business records—preserved in disparate collections—was made public, opening a remarkable trove of information to modern researchers.
Almost all of us need to keep records of our business affairs, some more so, some less. Ancient societies, even those dating to before the advent of written languages, organized such records on clay tablets. In complex modern societies, as the time approaches every year for us to address our tax obligations, many simply resort to the proverbial shoe box stuffed with a year’s worth of bills and receipts, credit card statements, the reports of our checking accounts, and the like. The more complicated our business interests, the more elaborate our record-keeping systems become. The largest enterprises have recourse to teams of professional accountants to deal with all their documents.
George Washington, a private man with extensive business interests, behaving in similar fashion, organized and preserved the same sorts of records. He did it by himself. To the long list of attributes that describe our first president, we must add that the General was a careful keeper of his business records, neither baked in clay nor tucked away but personally scratched by pen on paper.
Pride of place on the desk in Washington’s study at Mount Vernon, resorted to almost every day he was in residence, were the sine qua non of 18th-century commercial record keeping, documents so significant that furniture makers designed and fabricated combined desks and bookcases to accommodate them. These grand “ledgers of accounts” were, for “almost any 18th-century American merchant...the epicenter of his enterprise.” In these cumbersome volumes, George Washington tracked every farthing he earned and every penny he spent—writing entries in his own hand at the end of nearly every day. He did so because the success of his business enterprises depended on the information painstakingly assembled on his ledgers’ pages.
The easiest way for us to understand the ledgers of accounts that George Washington created is to view them as an amalgam of our modern checkbooks and credit card statements, a unified listing of all his business transactions. All income and all expenditures are combined in one long set of pages, details set out, not chronologically, but organized by the names of people with whom he did business. Listed under each individual’s name is everything that Washington owed to him or her—day by day, week by week—entered as a debit on the left-hand page of the book. Across the open ledger on the right-hand page, he entered what that same individual owed him, a stream of credits. Just as our banks and our credit card companies keep track of what we owe them and what we have paid to them in coterminous lists of debits and credits, so too did George Washington maintain the same kinds of records of his business enterprises.
To accomplish all this, Washington adopted the most up-to-date modes for business accounting in the same way that he pursued what worked best for much else in his life. We know him as a citizen of the Age of Reason, the Era of Enlightenment, as a gentleman farmer, an “improving farmer.” A gentleman farmer kept good books. George Washington’s status as such is confirmed in his assiduous bookkeeping, which followed the best accounting methods taught and practiced in Great Britain. His guide was the preeminent English-language accounting textbook of the 18th century, John Mair’s Book-Keeping Methodiz’d, which was issued and re-issued in more than two dozen editions between 1736 and 1810. From the third edition on, Mair’s book included a section on the tobacco colonies and how their merchants and storekeepers kept their accounts. Later editions offered specifics on commerce for the sugar colonies and on accounting for wharf managers and plantation owners.
Washington not only practiced what Mair preached, but he also placed at least one copy of his book in the hands of another, younger Virginia planter. In 1762, he ordered it from London for his stepson, John Parke Custis, apparently at the request of the eight-year-old boy’s Scottish tutor. Unfortunately, young Jacky was not much of a student; he had trouble with all things economic and certainly never mastered compound interest.
To record his numerous and diverse business activities, George Washington, like his contemporaries, used a set of documents. To understand the contrasting and complementary roles played by each type of business record, it is useful to follow an individual businessman or woman in the 18th century through a day in his or her life. The starting point of such records was, necessarily, a makeshift one—called variously waste books, pocketbooks, day books or memorandum books, all such terms for these rough records underscoring their ephemeral nature. Following the advice of Mair, George Washington appears never to have left home without a day book in his pocket, and many examples of his remain in the Library of Congress’s collection. Sometime later, the owners of such waste books (or their secretary) copied these notes into a more formal, fuller, more-detailed documentation of what had transpired. Organized hour by hour, day by day, this more robust record of each day’s business was known as a “journal of accounts.” While a simple farmer or the owner of a small business could satisfy herself or himself with day books and a journal or two, larger and more complex businesses created a third record book that utilized double entry accounting, the ledgers of accounts. Usually the product of a wide-ranging business, such a grander enterprise might be kept by a trained clerk of accounts—an accountant— whose more polished penmanship made it a work of beauty.
George Washington, however, managed all his business records himself. He seems to have attended to these tasks toward the end of his day, after dinner and before going to bed, but, we must note, not always as regularly as he wished. Writing two years before he died, he confessed to James McHenry that, every day, after dinner “I resolve ...[to] retire to my writing Table and acknowledge the letters I have received; but when the lights are brought, I feel tired, and disinclined to engage in this work, conceiving that the next night will do as well; the next comes, and with it the same causes for postponement, & effect; and so on.” Still, the fact that Washington himself was the one making entries in his journal of accounts, answering letters received, and recording his thoughts in his diary, indicates just how seriously he considered himself in his role as a businessman running sophisticated and successful enterprises.
All three of these account books existed as a tightly integrated exercise, but each was different in function and in form. The ledger of accounts had its origins, of course, in the journal of accounts—which had its origins in the day book. The day book and the journal of accounts listed entries, day by day, transaction by transaction. The purpose of the ledger of accounts was to restructure those sequential transactions into a record of business activity listed by client. It could be less detailed because of its direct connection to the journal of accounts from which it sprang, which was always available for reference purposes. Authors of bookkeeping manuals like John Mair encouraged clerks to make the connections explicit by recording in the margins of the ledger of accounts the page numbers of the original entries in the journal of accounts. Washington did exactly that.
In his ledger of accounts, again following standard practice, Washington treated each customer’s record as a separate entity, with a chronological list of transactions under his or her name. Purchases by the customer were listed on the left-hand page of the open book and payments the customer made were on the right-hand side of the ledger—or, in the parlance of 18th-century accounting, debits on the left-hand, credits on the right-hand.
In our modern world, similar records are generated almost automatically by the computers of our credit card companies and banks and presented to us monthly for immediate payment. In the 17th and 18th centuries, however, accounts were not systematically settled on a regular basis, but persisted for as long as two people carried on doing business together. Consequently, if the ledger entries begun on one page trailed off down the page far enough, the clerk extended the account to a later page, either in the same ledger book or into subsequent ledgers after making careful notation in the margin of both whence it continued or thence it originated. Washington did precisely that, too.
Washington and his business partners each kept their own accounts, of course. When either party wished to do so, he or she could copy the relevant information from a ledger, transcribe it onto a separate sheet of paper, and send to the other person. This “statement of account” became the basis for a settlement of the account as it stood on the date it was tendered. The expected effect was to generate a payment against the balance due, but that did not necessarily mean an ending of the relationship—just as your monthly credit card statement does not constitute a termination of your connection with American Express or Citibank.
Washington's Study on the first floor of the Mansion. (MVLA)
These four fundamental accounting documents of George Washington’s business life each had its own character. The journal of accounts was based in the day book and became the parent of the ledger of accounts and the grandparent of the statement of account. In addition, business correspondence, either copies of outgoing letters sent that were preserved by the sender or original letters retained by the recipient, form an important counterpart to these records. Some business owners kept separate bound copybooks of letters sent to business associates; many bundled and archived the letters they received. Some organized letters sent and letters received by business activity. All too many individuals bunched and blended all the letters they sent into one continuous set of volumes or packets tied up in red tape, just as they—and, reciprocally, their correspondents—combined news about business affairs and personal matters in the same letter. Thus, however helpful and rich in information such documents are, modern readers must remember that bundles of letters were not account books. They simply complemented each other.
George Washington’s business records are remarkable not only for their thoroughness—more than 900 items are known to exist outside the key collections of the George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon and the Library of Congress—but also for their survival. The digitization of business records like those of the General opens tremendous possibilities for researchers. Thus, for instance: every one of the individual letters with its enclosed list of requested items sent to Washington’s London factor and all the responses and invoices of cargoes sent that were gathered and recorded in his order book for 1755–1766 could, theoretically, be matched with records of items purchased in his journal of accounts, and vice versa.
Certainly this is what George Washington had as his purpose when he collected and compiled his business records. What all this means for historians is that we should be able to reconstruct, in a forensic fashion, records that might otherwise have gone missing. In other words, working in reverse from the ledger of accounts, we should be able to reconstitute George Washington’s journal of accounts, though probably in less detail. The surviving business records of many other business owners are much less complete than Washington’s, if they survive at all. The probate records of a South Carolina merchant who died in 1767 lists four ledgers of accounts totaling some 1,400 pages, plus thousands more pages of journals and waste books—none of which have survived. But the possibility of re-creating missing records by working backward and employing such techniques is as exciting a prospect for those interested in using business records to identify commodity prices and foreign exchange rates as it is for those interested in genealogy or social history.
The digitization of Washington’s business records makes possible the establishment and expansion of linkages among every aspect of Washington’s business records and into his broader papers, correcting a once-fashionable but abominable practice of separation and sorting by type of document, what one scholar has called an “archival crime.” This reintegration enhances our understanding of both sets of materials and restores the integrity of the entire corpus of George Washington’s business papers.
In digitizing, and thereby making feasible the reassembly of the totality of George Washington’s business archives, we allow for the fuller understanding of his entrepreneurial expertise. Washington’s meticulous attention to his accounts—which sharpens our own appreciation of what he left for modern historians—is nowhere better confirmed than by his own words from his deathbed in the late hours of December 14, 1799. Tobias Lear, his secretary, noted that, as the end neared, the General stirred, spoke up, and reminded Lear to “arrange my accounts & settle my books.”
An artist's depiction of George Washington's final moments. Life of George Washington: The Christian, lithograph by Claude Regnier, after Junius Brutus Stearns,1853. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert B. Gibby, 1984 [WB-55/A1] (MVLA)
John J. McCusker’s 50-year teaching career was roughly divided into two parts, half at the University of Maryland, College Park, and half at Trinity University, in San Antonio, Texas, from which he retired in 2015. At Trinity, he served as the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of American History and as a professor of economics. He has published many scholarly articles and books focused generally on the economy of the Atlantic World during the 17th and 18th centuries.
This article is a concise version of a commentary prepared in conjunction with the online edition of George Washington’s three ledger books. That iteration expands upon several of the points made herein. It also includes detailed citations for a wealth of fascinating sources that chronicle the history of bookkeeping and accountancy from ancient times to Colonial America.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Mount Vernon magazine. Subscribe to the magazine by becoming a member today.Learn More