We’re Wealthy Already and Bound to Get Richer

Like most 18th and early 19th century Virginia planters, Washington was asset rich but cash poor. His assets were partially earned through work (surveying, officer salary), financial investments (personal bonds and some corporate equities) and the net proceeds of his plantation (Mt. Vernon), and partially inherited from his own family and that of his wealthy widowed wife, Martha Dandridge Custis.

Washington’s most important assets included his real estate holdings and his slaves, but he also owned a large array of valuable luxury goods including a chariot custom-made in London, a collection of silver utensils, a variety of fine china and expensive clothing. He also maintained large stocks of valuable foodstuffs, including 124-pound cheese wheels and pipes (100 plus gallons) of Madeira wine, but those were usually quickly consumed. He never had children of his own but supported two of Martha’s children and two of her grandchildren and, like any proper gentleman of his day, entertained frequently and lavishly.

Washington was an excellent plantation manager by the standards of his day, but the profits generated by Mt. Vernon were not as high as they would have been had he not devoted much of his adult life to winning the Revolution as commander-in-chief and securing its legacy, and his own, as a two-term President. The aging of Washington’s slaves also limited the plantation’s profits because increasing amounts of resources were diverted to care for superannuated bondsmen who Washington refused to sell if it meant breaking up families. Washington was financially secure enough, however, to initially refuse acceptance of his presidential salary of $25,000 per year.

Due to his family’s expensive tastes and lifestyle, Washington sometimes had to borrow in anticipation of harvest (first of tobacco, later of wheat) or the sale of an asset, but unlike some planters (e.g., Thomas Jefferson) the value of his assets usually swamped the sum of his debts. In fact, Washington’s net worth, exclusive of Mt. Vernon, was estimated at his death in December 1799 at over half a million dollars, making him one of the richest men in America at the time. Although most of his wealth was tied up in illiquid western lands, Washington at his death was able to manumit about half of his slaves, the ones that he owned outright.