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Put it on Washington's Tab

General George Washington of the US Continental Army abuses his expense account.

Parsimony may be ill-placed. -George Washington

It was June 16, 1775, and American statesman George Washington was feeling magnanimous. Or, at least, that's what he wanted everyone to think. Washington had just been appointed general of the Continental Army over the soaring hopes of John Hancock,[1] and, in order to not look too pleased with himself, America's future first president declined fiscal remuneration for his services. Well, almost. He said:

Sir, I beg leave to assure the Congress that as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to have accepted this arduous employment, I do not wish to make any profit from it. I will keep an exact account of my expenses. Those I doubt not they will discharge, and that is all I desire.

"Expenses", eh? Latter-day patriots, infused with nationalistic fervor, might assume this meant Washington would only take the barest hint of sustenance for his labors. As Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, Washington might expect a comfortable salary. For a little perspective, the very day Washington accepted his commission, Congress drew up the pay for officers and privates. A private made $6 2/3 a month, a captain $20, and a major general $166. Seems to us Washington was giving up a decent sum in exchange for this promise of discharging these expenses. He was well-regarded for stonily taking this economic hit for the team.

He Pooh-Poohed the Giggles

Of course, Washington is a famously humorless man, and the late president enjoys this reputation as the result of his own tireless labor. He intentionally curbed his wittier self in an effort to solidify a legacy as a sober statesman. George followed in the steps of Benjamin Franklin, who subscribed to "charity, humility and pacific temper." However, Franklin seems to have taken these words with a grain of salt, as he somehow managed to pen an essay called "Fart Proudly" in the interim.

By contrast, George easily followed that maxim because he wasn't funny at all. The man was so spectacularly unfunny that when P.M. Zall tried to write a book called George Washington Laughing in an effort to prove otherwise, he had to stop after only 52 pages. As if that weren't bad enough, most of these episodes describe jokes being told in Washington's presence rather than being uttered by the man himself. The President appears to have enjoyed pratfalls and seeing the hats of clergymen get blown into lakes, but rare was the day a witticism passed his lips. Surely, such a stoic, servile man would be content with meager rations. So Congress must have thought when it approved his expense account. Fortunately for posterity, a complete record of Washington's account exists. You can even look at scans of it, in entirety, online.[2] The father of the United States, it seems, was magnificent at padding his accounts.

Take, for example, the entry on June 22, 1775:

To cash paid for Sadlery, a Letter Case, Maps, Glasses, &c &c &c. for the use of my Command... $831.45

Eight hundred dollars? Ten times what a private made for saddles? That must have been some pretty damn nice tackwork. 3, or about $81, went to the letter case, which was made of Russian leather. We're sure it kept his letters very dry. As for those "&c"s, they were probably worth a couple hundred each. Washington was a great fan of "&c" and "Ditto". There are innumerable "ditto"s in the account, most of which cost at least a hundred dollars. Other bits of finery are equally outlandish:

To sundry Exp.'s paid by myself at different times and places... on the Retreat of the Army thro' the Jerseys into Pennsylvania & while there... $3,776.

Yes, George Washington charged thousands of dollars to retreat from the enemy. He also gave loans to his friends that were never repaid, he bought limes by the crateload (400 at one point), and he treated himself to every "sundry" good available. From July 21-22 1775, he bought a pig, an unreadable number of ducks, "1 dozen pigeons, veal, 1 dozen squash, 2 dozen eggs, hurtleberries, biscuit and a cork cask."[3] The Washington family diet for the month of August included chickens, oysters, whortleberries, pears, cucumbers, veal, mutton, bread, and milk. In October, they bought nearly 32 dozen eggs. Washington's taste for Madeira wine shows up with mindnumbing regularity: from September 1775 to March 1776, Washington spent over six thousand dollars on booze.[4]] He was careful enough to note a change in his wine supplier no less than three times.

Getting Fat for the Winter

To say the least, Washington was resplendent in gastronomic finery. Some of this business extended into the infamous 1777-78 winter spent in Valley Forge. That winter, some 9,000 troops lacked shoes or coats. Many sat next to the fires all night for want of blankets; starvation and sickness were rampant. Of course, Washington didn't have to suffer through all this. He was too busy chowing down on mutton and fowl. He also hired a band to play on his birthday (we speculate he took Monday off). However, it is important to note that, despite enjoying himself, he worked extremely hard to keep the army from dissolving entirely. The fledgling government owned sufficient supplies in Boston and Newport; they sat molding in warehouses due to problems in military distribution. Washington must have paced in disgust and thrown up his hands. He wrote to another General:

The Army, as usual, are without Pay; and a great part of the Soldiery without Shirts; and tho' the patience of them is equally thread bear, the States seem perfectly indifferent to their cries.

Indeed, in an effort to keep his troops happy, the General staged a play. Of all the outlandish purchases he stiffed Congress with, however, this was the one uniquely singled out by his Puritanical superiors as being work of the devil: "Any person," Congress subsequently decreed, "holding an office under the United States, who shall attend a theatrical performance shall be dismissed from the service." Too bad that wasn't enforced when Lincoln was President.

A Weighty Problem

Fortunately, the Valley Forge winter eventually let up, and Washington was again free to indulge himself. He did so, without reservation, until July 1, 1783, some six months after the Peace of Paris had been signed in early February. In those eight long years of belt-tightening war, Washington himself had put on nearly thirty pounds. All of his close cronies, who dined with him frequently, weighed over 200 pounds each; General Henry Knox won the fat man prize at 280. In comparison, Brigadier General Eben Huntington, not a close associate of Washington's, tipped the scales at 132 pounds dripping wet at war's end. When Washington's account was closed, though, he was not chastised for living extravagantly. The auditors accepted every claim, and we mean every claim. One entry for $20,800 read, "the accounts were not only irregularly kept, but many of them were lost or mislaid, & some of them so defaced as not to be legible, that it is impossible for me to make out a statement of them." Put simply, George lost the receipts. Or maybe he never had them. Did Congress blink? Of course not. Instead, they lauded for his exacting arithmetic, and gratefully signed over the requested amounts.

So, in the end, how much did Washington spend over his eight years of service?

$449,261.51, in 1780 dollars.

Taking into account 220 years of inflation that'd be worth over $4,250,000.00 today.[5]Four million dollars' worth of "expenses", and, after going over the account with a fine-toothed comb (at one point he was corrected for undercounting 89/90 of a dollar), Congress approved the lot of it.

Er, Thanks, But No Thanks

That's not to say there wasn't some grumbling. Once President, Washington made the same offer to exchange a salary for an expense account. He was politely rebuffed and given a modest $25,000-a-year salary. After finishing his office, he retired to Mount Vernon, where he was obliged to serve every guest who happened by the new national shrine otherwise known as his house. Martha Washington soon had to declare a moratorium on serving visitors: "We shall have very little wine for ourselves," she admonished a servant who was too generous with the guests. The salad days were over: rather than carousing and buying expensive clothes and saddles, Washington had to settle for advancing age and posing for most of the 42 portraits painted of him in his lifetime.

Footnotes

  1. John Adams had put forth a litany of virtues praising the future general of the army without actually naming him. Hancock's chest filled with pride, as he assumed he was a natural for the job; at least, it swelled until Adams announced that Washington would be doing it.
  2. At the Library of Congress
  3. Washington and Kitman, p.128
  4. Revolutionary War-era persons drank a phenomenal amount. We have here an account of a gentleman's average consumption: "Given cider and punch for lunch; rum and brandy before dinner; punch, Madeira, port and sherry at dinner; punch and liqueurs with the ladies; and wine, spirit and punch till bedtime, all in punchbowls big enough for a goose to swim in." Washington and Kitman, p.143.
  5. We tried to translate this figure into modern perspective using the venerable History House Cheese Tonnage Economic Index, but we couldn't find published cheese prices in the United States earlier than 1879. The USDA told us that "prior to that, cheesemaking was a fairly decentralized endeavor... [we] doubt you'd be able to get those figures." Thanks a lot, guys.

Bibliography

  1. George Washington and Marvin Kitman. George Washington's Expense Account. Simon and Schuster, 1970.
  2. P. M. Zall. George Washington Laughing: Humorous Anecdotes by and about our first President from Original Sources. Archon Books, 1989.
  3. Steven E. Lucas. The Quotable George Washington: The Wisdom of an American Patriot. Madison House, 1999.
  4. Robert F. Dalzell and Lee Baldwin Dazell. George Washington's Mount Vernon: At Home in Revolutionary America. Oxford University Press, 1998.

 
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