Contrary to popular legend, George Washington probably never threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. But if he had, he certainly would have recorded the expense.
Though historians have poured over every word of Washington’s letters, papers, and second-hand quotes in the past two centuries, far less attention has been paid to his numbers. And that’s surprising: Not only was Washington a consummate financial manager, but since 1998, his accounts and ledgers have been available online from the Library of Congress.
“Disguised by formidable financial formats,” the Library’s guide to the papers explains, “these records have hidden detailed, exciting information” about Washington’s personal, military, and public life.
Indeed, just the first two pages of his Revolutionary War expense account include both the mundane details of Washington equipping himself for war in June 1775 with “Sadlery, a Letter Case, Maps, Glasses, &c, &c, &c,” for 29 pounds, 13 shillings and sixpence, as well as the deadly serious business of hiring (in rapidly depreciating dollars) one of the many spies that Washington relied on for military intelligence.
“333 1/3 dollars given to *________ to enduce him to go into the town of Boston . . . for the purpose of conveying intelligence of the Enemys movements and designs.” Washington added a footnote to this item that, understandably, failed to improve its transparency. “*The names of Persons who are employed within the Enemy’s lines,” he wrote, “cannot be inserted.”
Washington “took great pride in maintaining clear, concise, and accurate [financial] records,” notes the Library of Congress’s guide to the material. Indeed, at the end of the war, Washington used those expense accounts to request reimbursement from Congress for his total expenses of $160,074. That request was audited by the Comptroller General of the United States Treasury, James Milligan, with a result that today’s CFO can only dream of: Milligan concluded Washington was owed an additional eighty-nine ninetieths of one dollar.
Of course, the modern finance executive might not want to emulate everything about Washington, particularly when it came to executive compensation. Washington asked only for his expenses when Congress selected him as commander of the Continental Army; he refused a salary.
The Library of Congress’s trove of financial records from Washington’s life includes his personal general account books (his general ledger), his colonial military financial accounts (including receipts, expenses, and payroll), his cash memorandum books (a sort of personal financial diary), extensive Revolutionary War financial accounts (including his detailed expense accounts and their later audits), and the financial records from his presidency and retirement.
The Library of Congress guide notes, with some chagrin, that “Although long known to scholars, these [financial] records have been seldom used compared with Washington’s diaries or correspondence.” That’s hardly surprising. Pulitzer-prize winning historian David McCullough notes that Washington wrote 974 letters during the period covered by McCullough’s bestselling book, 1776 (which actually begins in July of 1775 and ends the first week of 1777).
Indeed, Washington’s extensive financial papers form just one of nine series of papers contained in the Library of Congress; in all, there are some 152,000 images. Yet, with their neat columns of figures and terse but evocative entries, they offer a rare view of a man otherwise studied obsessively for two centuries. Indeed, Washington abandoned his diary during the war years, yet his expense account reads like the chapter headings of a Revolutionary War history book.
Like any modern expense account, Washington’s entries record where he was when the expense was incurred. But a summary account from 1776 also reflects the desperate retreat of his disintegrating army in the weeks and months following the Battle of Long Island, with entries that every American fifth-grader should recognize: New York, Harlem Heights, Hackensack, Morristown, Germantown, Wilmington, Valley Forge.