Many Americans voted for Donald Trump because they believe that the country needs a businessman president. Career politicians, they reason, know nothing about balancing budgets and turning a profit in the real world.
But a successful, billionaire businessman like Trump understands how the economy works, knows how to cut waste, increase efficiency, and hire and promote competent employees. Most important, Trump supporters argue that he has created thousands of jobs and will create millions more once in office. Trump’s immense wealth, moreover, enabled him to finance his own campaign, a sharp contrast to career politicians, who find themselves politically indebted to the special interests that bankroll their campaigns.
But Trump will not be America’s first businessman president. The first businessman president was also the first president, George Washington, who was sworn in 225 years ago.
In his book “First Entrepreneur,” historian Edward Lengel has demonstrated that Washington, the owner of the Mount Vernon plantation on the Potomac River in Virginia, was engaged in the “agribusiness” of the 18th century.
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Administering an 8,000-acre plantation then might be compared to being the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation today. Washington supervised a vast labor force that included free white indentured servants and more than 300 enslaved African-Americans.
After falling into debt in the early 1760s to British consignment merchants who sold his tobacco overseas and who sent him European manufactured products in return, Washington reversed his economic fortunes by becoming one of Virginia’s first planters to switch from tobacco production to wheat. Unlike tobacco, wheat proved highly profitable for Washington. Not only was wheat less labor-intensive and better for the soil, it could be sold locally by Washington himself. By building his own threshing barn and gristmill, Washington took control of the entire flour production process from start to finish. Recognized as a superior product, Washington’s brand of flour commanded a high price.
Washington’s entrepreneurial ventures also included America’s biggest distillery (producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey every year), and a fishery. Indeed, fishing with nets for shad in the Potomac proved to be one of Washington’s most profitable businesses. He caught, salted and barreled more than a million shad — mainly for export to the West Indies — in a single year.
To increase efficiency and profits, Washington experimented with new machinery and the latest technology. For example, he bought the rights to the latest gristmill design from Delaware inventor Oliver Evans. Washington personally conducted experiments on new crops, crop rotations and manures and corresponded extensively with Englishman Arthur Young, one of the foremost authorities on agriculture of the age. Becoming the first person to breed the mule in America earned the “Father of His Country” a second title: “Father of the American Mule.”
Washington grew his fortune by wisely investing his profits in land purchases, eventually acquiring nearly 50,000 acres not only in Virginia but also in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Like Trump, Washington was elected to high public office because his immense personal wealth was seen as a guarantee of independence and immunity to corruption. In a 1775 speech nominating Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, John Adams pointed out that among Washington’s other attributes, his “independent fortune … would command the approbation of all America.” (Today, some worry that Trump’s business dealings may have left him under obligations — not to special interests in the United States but to financial interests overseas.)
Unlike Trump, Washington had vast political and military experience to go along with his years as a businessman. He served as a lawmaker in colonial Virginia’s House of Burgesses, in the First and Second Continental Congresses in Philadelphia and as president of the 1787 Constitutional Convention that met in Independence Hall. He gained executive and military experience as colonel of the Virginia Regiment in the French and Indian War and as commander-in-chief during the Revolutionary War.
Other American presidents with business experience include Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. But none of our presidents was a lifelong businessman to the degree of Washington and Trump.
Today, Washington is rated by professional historians as one of the greatest U.S. presidents. A combination of business, political and military experience enabled him to reach this presidential summit. Time will tell whether Trump’s business experience alone will enable him to attain presidential greatness, or whether the areas in which he is lacking will be his Achilles heel.
Stuart Leibiger, a professor and history department chair at La Salle University, wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.