WASHINGTON: One day in 1791 George Washington received a bill for £60, 1 shilling and 7 pence from his friend Dr James Craik, who regularly made the rounds at Mount Vernon, where the great man lived. 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 US president.Washington’s diaries and letters have been carefully transcribed, annotated and bound in stately volumes. But his financial records have been treated as scraps.Documenting lives of ordinary people – merchants, tradesmen, servants and slaves – these records are scattered around institutions. In most cases, they have never been transcribed or published in accessible form.That archival quandary lured 25 scholars, some of them ”forensic accountants”, to Mount Vernon, now an educational tourist attraction, for a workshop to plan how to get the records online. ”It is going to be a treasure trove,” said Ted Crackel, editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington, a project co-ordinated at the University of Virginia.Washington’s first record dates to when he was 15: a list of books he bought. In the years thereafter he 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 black Americans who lived at Mount Vernon can be tracked as they reappear in other documents, letters and diaries.As thoroughly researched as the life of Washington has been, his career as a warrior and statesman has largely overshadowed his entrepreneurial history. He was the chief executive, in effect, of a farming, manufacturing and real estate operation that by the end of his life encompassed more than 20,000 hectares of field and forest. Farms, fisheries, weavers, smithies, a grist mill, a distillery – these were just part of the empire.By the end of his life he 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 trans-Atlantic 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 neighbour to travel to his presidential inauguration.He detailed business matters with double-entry bookkeeping in ledgers running to 100 pages or more. ”He was extraordinarily careful with his accounts,” Mr Crackel said. ”He checks them. Inevitably, they balance.”Joyce Chaplin, a Harvard historian, said the papers offered a picture of ”material culture.” She asks: ”What kind of clothing, what kind of food, what kind of medical care did people have? When did ordinary people have cash?”As Washington aged, he was increasingly repulsed by slavery. After commanding black soldiers during the Revolutionary War, he recognised 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, in effect dismantling the estate he had spent a life creating. He lacked a direct heir so his assets went to nephews and other relatives.His most enduring gift, though, may be his records.The Washington Post
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