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George Washington’s expenses and how we paid them

February 24, 2014
The Leader Herald

Due to George Washington's recent birthday, this article focuses on a seldom-discussed aspect of his life: how Congress, and ultimately colonial-era taxpayers, paid him for his Revolutionary War services.

Contrary to what one thinks while viewing photographs of Washington's Mount Vernon plantation, George Washington wasn't rich by southern plantation-owner standards. Washington often endured financial hardships, but was a good plantation manager and shrewd with what money he possessed. On the downside, his estate's wartime value suffered significantly from bad decisions by mediocre hired managers.

Unlike other Virginia planters, Washington wouldn't break up slave families by selling members. He fed, clothed and housed them, and paid for doctors when they were sick. This humane policy only increased his financial woes while other planters profited from selling off their excess slaves and Washington didn't. When he died, there were more than 200, many more than necessary for the work.

Thus it seems surprising that, when Congress offered Washington a monthly salary of $500 as Commander in Chief, he didn't accept the deal, since he knew Martha could use the money for groceries and plugging Mount Vernon's financial leaks.

But when offered this very excellent salary - Major Generals received only $166 a month - Washington shrewdly replied, "I beg leave to assure Congress that as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to have accepted this arduous employment at the expense of my domestic ease and happiness, 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 it is all I desire."

Congress, having little money anyway, was highly pleased with this arrangement. Congressmen couldn't foresee that eight hard years later their commander, who kept detailed daily records to the last penny, would submit a bill totaling $449,261.51, with detailed ledgers verifying his claim, thousands more than the monthly salary.

What were Washington's reasons for preferring an expense account over a salary? Remember this wasn't his first war: As a result of his 1750's French-Indian War experience, Washington already knew that money from contracted pay agreements arrived late or not at all, and likely arrived at greatly discounted value.

Was Washington dishonest with Congress regarding his expense account? Scholars don't think so. There was just a vast difference between what Congress expected and what they got. Congressmen probably expected Washington's expenses would consist of little more than what their own congressional expenses entailed, common items such as travel, bed and board, meals in a tavern, etc., but for Washington, constantly reacting to the unpredictable circumstances generated by both his position and wartime emergencies, there was never a controllable expense level. While a colonial congressman's expenses were routinely predictable, Washington's almost never were.

Congressmen, for example, never had expenses such as, "To Mr. Philips for riding express to Commodore Hopkins at New London, 3 Pounds," or, "To expenses for a party of Oneida Indians on a visit to me and for presents for them, 15 Pounds." There are also many cryptic entries scholars believe refer to paying members of Washington's personal spy network. Yes, although there were others beneath him officially in the spy business, Washington operated his own clandestine network and protected the members so successfully that even today little is known about them except for their effectiveness: Spies are always paid cloak and dagger style. Thus, for example, an entry such as, "Paid a French cook, 2.5 pounds," may represent payment to a real French cook, or might also have gone to an American spy.

If readers who enjoy auditing as a hobby wish to examine General Washington's expense accounts, they can acquire an out-of-print copy of George Kitman's informative 1970 book, "George Washington's Expense Account," via Internet book sites. Kitman offers an often-humorous analysis of our general's accounting system and the book also contains a facsimile of the original ledger. Washington's expense ledger was first published by the Treasury Department in June 1833, and has been studied by historians ever since: it also helps document Washington's wartime movements.

For example, Leader-Herald readers may recall the recent dedication at our colonial jail of a new historic marker, erected to replace the earlier marker that erroneously stated Washington visited the jail. Part of the evidence proving Washington bypassed Johnstown during his trip through the Mohawk Valley came from studying his list of financial expenses ($1,031.03) incurred during the trip, as well as another detailed ledger by one of his traveling companions, both of which contained no entries for Johnstown.

Were Washington's expense ledgers accepted and paid by a grateful Congress when he finally resigned as General of the Army in 1783 and submitted them? As Sarah Palin would say, "You betcha." Washington's accounts were audited by nameless Treasury Department accountants (yes, we had them even then) and were quickly paid in full. Indeed, when the accountant's final report reached Congress, these sharp-eyed colonial bean counters concluded Washington committed only one mathematical error. As a result of his error, they recommended he be paid an additional 90 cents.

Peter Betz, a former Fulton County historian, lives in Fort Johnson.



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