Washington’s Finances

When George Washington was unanimously elected President of the United States in February 1789, he was “amid a full-blown financial crisis,” was deeply in debt and unable to pay his bills. He borrowed five hundred pounds to cover his travel expenses from Virginia to New York to attend his presidential inauguration. According to historian Ron Chernow, “One can only imagine Washington’s humiliation, …especially on the man who liked to emit an air of comfortable prosperity, …when his request for an additional one hundred pounds for the trip was denied.”

When Washington returned home in December 1783, after being away during the Revolutionary War for some eight years, he found Mount Vernon to be in need of major repairs. Thereafter, the persistent failure of his corn and wheat crops, due to a draught, a frigid winter and a severe chinch bug infestation, had slashed his income drastically. His expenses ballooned for entertaining a long line of invited and uninvited guests who came to meet and stay at the home of the great General. It forced Washington to repeatedly dun delinquent debtors. On the eve of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Washington confessed to his property manager that “My estate for the past 11 years has not been able to make ends meet.” He was in arrears for taxes on his western lands for 1785, 1786 and 1787. His attempt to sell his western lands in the recession was unsuccessful. On three occasions, he rebuffed the sheriff of Fairfax County when he came to collect arrears on Mount Vernon taxes. While his name was being bandied around for President of the United States, Washington struggled desperately with his debt load. Just as Washington had renounced his salary as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, he let pride interfere with good judgment and tried to waive his presidential salary, but Congress (fortunately for Washington) insisted that he accept the handsome sum of $25,000 per annum, thus resolving his financial problems. Washington said not a word of his financial troubles to his political associates, “who never knew of the handicaps he overcame.”

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