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Special Issue Articles

Vol. 3 No. 2 (2022): The American Entrepreneurial Spirit

George Washington, the Godfather of American Entrepreneurism

January 23, 2020


Among all U.S. presidents, George Washington still ranks as the wealthiest. By the time of his death, he owned more than 52,000 acres, which secured his position among the top-ranked land-holding gentry of his day. In Washington's America, secured property was one of the most potent and consequential ideals, much as it also was a dominant cultural investment, with property figuring as "a matter of progress," in the words of a British social philosopher. In eighteenth-century America, individual property was related to working one's own land, which became the basis of civic virtue, conveying status and authority. At Mount Vernon, Washington was a farmer, not a planter, and a scientific farmer at that. Farming was not the easiest route to riches, though, and Mount Vernon's glorified façade of wealth and grandeur only covered up an operation that was, at best, only marginally profitable. Over the years, therefore, Washington became an intrepid figure in financial investment and risky enterprise, not the least of which was the development of the new national capital, whose location on the Potomac had been decided upon in June 1790. With his involvement in the capital venture, Washington fashioned for himself a new mode of economic selfhood and familial belonging that was keyed to the emerging market economy. He became what Joseph A. Schumpeter in 1911 described as a "risk-taker," America's "first commercial man" (President Calvin Coolidge in 1932), and, finally, the "godfather of American entrepreneurism" (historian Richard Norton Smith in 1993).


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