John Berlau: America's First Entrepreneur-in-Chief

Historians in the News

[John Berlau is director of the Center for Investors and Entrepreneurs at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and blogs at]

February is an important month in the history of American commerce. In this month is the birthday of one of the country's earliest business innovators and large-scale entrepreneurs.

During a time period of America's existence as an English colony and then a young nation -- when, to put it mildly, communication and transportation faced challenges -- this businessman's enterprise processed 1.5 million fish per year sent throughout the 13 American colonies and the British West Indies. The mill he built grinded 278,000 pounds of branded flour annually that was shipped through America and, unusual during colonization, even exported to England as well as Portugal. And in the 1790s, during the last years of his life, this mogul built one of the largest whiskey distilleries in the new nation.

Don't think you've heard of this entrepreneur? Well, it's possible you might know him from some of his achievements in the political sphere. He did, in fact, have a few notable accomplishments there. Like serving as a representative in colonial Virginia's House of Burgesses and as a Virginia delegate to the pre-Revolutionary War Continental Congress. Then being chosen to lead the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and leading the American nation to a hard-fought victory for independence. And then, a few years after that, becoming the new nation's first president.

For many Americans, and indeed quite a few scholars, George Washington has been little more than just the face on Mount Rushmore and the one-dollar bill. People revered him but just didn't know how to relate to him. Whereas Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin generated interest with their passions and achievements in practical science and architecture, Washington didn't seem to have a career -- or much of a life -- outside of his leadership as general and president.

But now, some pioneering scholars are documenting that Washington's life's work was just as enthralling as that of any of the Founding Fathers. His pursuits can be said to be just as creative as those of Franklin and Jefferson, but in a different way. Washington's creativity of the type one associates with modern entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and even Donald Trump. Whereas Franklin built gadgets at his homestead, and Jefferson built fancy buildings, the notable thing Washington built were a series of interconnected businesses.

In the 2006 biography The Unexpected George Washington, historian Harlow Giles Unger calls Washington "one of America's leading entrepreneurs" and chronicles Washington's transformation of Mount Vernon from a sleepy tobacco farm into a type of industrial village. As Unger writes, Washington "expanded a relatively small tobacco plantation into a diversified agroindustrial enterprise that stretched over thousands of acres and included, among other ventures, a fishery, meat processing facility, textile and weaving manufactory, distillery, gristmill, smithy [blacksmith shop], brickmaking kiln, cargo-carrying schooner, and, of course, endless fields of grain."...

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Jon Kukla - 2/16/2010

grind, ground