George Washington, Father of our Country, father of the modern expense account.
One of the great myths of American history is the notion that George Washington was a very humble man, a man who very reluctantly had power thrust upon him. While there are varying degrees of truth to this notion, there is also a lot of humbuggery. One anecdote that is often touted by modern patriots and proud Americans it the fact that George Washington never accepted payment for his services as commander of the Continental Army. This gives the impression that Gen. Washington was so patriotic he was willing to take a big financial hit for the cause of freedom; he was offering his services for free. Nothing could be so far from the truth.
It is true that George Washington did not accept a salary for his services as Commander of the Continental Army. Washington himself addressed the Continental Congress, “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.” So yeah, Washington was refusing payment, however he humbly stated, “I will keep an exact account of my expenses. Those I doubt not they will discharge, and that is all I desire.” In others words, Washington was asking for an expense account, quite possibly the first person in history to do so. Today, expense accounts are very common, especially among businesspeople that are required to travel as a part of their jobs. So a company will reimburse them for their expenses such as food, mileage, airline travel, rentals, lodging, etc. However, it is not uncommon for an expense account to be abused, with a company paying out for employees expenses that are questionable as to the purpose of their work. G. Washington was also the first person to take advantage of the expense account.
While an expense account may be all Washington desired, it later turned out his desires were great. In the eight years he served as head of the army, he charged $449, 261.51 in 1780 valued money to his personal account. When adjusted for inflation that amounts to around $4.5 million today. In contrast a General at the time earned a salary of around $2000 a year. Obviously choosing an expense account turned out to be a pretty damn good deal for Gen. Washington. So what did he spend all that money on?
Food and drink: Gen. Washington ate and drank a lot during his service. He often hosted grand dinners and feasts for his officers and friends. All kinds of pigs, cattle, sheep, lamb, and fowl were bought to feed the Washington family and their guests. For example, on July 21st, 1775, the Washington purchased “a pig, an unreadable number of ducks, 1 dozen pigeons, veal, 1 dozen squash, 2 dozen eggs, hurtleberries, biscuit and a cork cask”. On October of the same year he purchased 32 dozen eggs. He often bought large crates of limes, sometimes even 400 at a time, that’s a lot of limes! Medeira Wine, a rare and expensive Spanish dry wine grown on a small island off the coast of Africa, was one of his favorites, and Washington notes no less than three times that he had to change his wine supplier. Between September 1775 and March 1776 he spent over $6,000 on booze. He continued to buy tea, though expensive due to the British blockade. During Washington’s command, he gained over 30 pounds.
Entertainment: Washington often hired bands, theater groups, and other various entertainers on Continental Congress’s dime.
Transportation: Lots of horses, a new carriage, he bought a new saddle which cost $800, he purchased a letter container made of fine Russian leather for $81 (an enlisted soldier made that amount in a year). In 1777, during the retreat from New York to Pennsylvania, he charged $3,776 on personal transportation costs.
Very Questionable Charges: One common thing Washington would do is lend money to his friends and charge it to the account. His friends usually never repaid the loans. Throughout his statements Washington would often list “various sundry items” or “for the use of my own command”. Often these ambiguous charges amounted to hundreds or thousands of dollars each. One such whopping charge was for $20,400, Washington left a short note in the ledger stating that he had lost the receipts for this charge. Today any accountant who noticed such a ledger would suspect fraud.
Some Necessary: To be fair to Gen. Washington, he did sometimes use his account as intended. One common charge was for cash to pay spies. During the winter at Valley Forge he hired a theater group to perform plays in order to keep up his men’s spirits. The staunch New England Puritans in the Continental Congress, who thought plays to be sinful, passed a law forbidding those in the military from attending theatrical performances.
When Washington submitted his ledgers the Continental Congress accepted every single charge without question or scruple. In the end the accountants of the congress actually found that the government owed Washington 89/90ths of a dollar. When Washington became the first President of the United States in 1789, he again tried to pull his, “just cover my humble expenses” jive. This time congress rejected the offer and opted to pay him $25,000 a year.
While today we may look down upon such practices, at the time it was perfectly acceptable. I hate to break it to everyone, but the founding fathers acted like gentleman pirates when they held public office. Almost all of them used their power and position to dip into the public treasury and better their wealth. Not only did people turn a blind eye to such corruption, it was something to be expected. In 1779 Benedict Arnold was military commander of Philadelphia. He had alienated many people with his ambitious personality, so they squealed on him making handsome profits by overcharging Congress for war supplies and pocketing the surplus. At his court martial his defense basically was, “hey, everyone else is doing it, why single me out”. Unable to plunder the Continental treasury, Arnold resigned his commission, switched sides, and proceeded to plunder the British treasury.
It’s important to remember that great historical figures were still human beings, they had their faults, they had their prejudices, and more importantly they lived in a time that had drastically different standards than what we have today. Even a great man like George Washington would seem vile to modern standards, someone you wouldn’t want to stay overnight in your home, someone not fit for modern civilization. Despite their flaws it is important to remember that because of their ideals and accomplishments, they were able to further society and mankind. They were able to create a new system that changed peoples attitudes about human rights and civil society in general.
Today, however, it is still an American tradition for politicians to suckle at the bosom of the public treasury by charging questionable expenses in an expense account.
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