When George Washington gave up the presidency in March 1797 and went home to the splendors of Mount Vernon, returning to what he called “my Vine and Fig tree,” he found it hard to lay his hands on ready cash. He wondered how he could make his retirement “more tranquil and freer from cares.”
Washington’s biographer Ron Chernow tells us that “for all the beauty and scenic vistas of his estate, the financial pressure remained unrelenting.” Washington felt this way despite the labor of Mount Vernon’s hundreds of enslaved African-Americans.
Before departing the President’s House in Philadelphia, Washington had already felt compelled to sell two tracts of land to buy “a few necessaries for my family” and searched for ways to cut costs on his 8,000-acre plantation. When a nephew asked the ex-president for a loan of $1,000 (about $18,000 today), Washington gave in but admonished him, “You are under the same mistake that many others are in supposing that I have money always at command.”
Washington had a new plantation manager, James Anderson, who was from Scotland and had been trained as a distiller. Anderson cast an appraising eye on Mount Vernon’s fields of rye and proposed that they go into the whiskey business. Washington wrote Anderson that distilled spirits were “a business I am entirely unacquainted with,” but he allowed him to purchase a still and to convert part of a cooper’s shop at Mount Vernon. He wrote a nephew, “Rye chiefly, and Indian Corn in a certain proportion, compose the materials from which the Whiskey is made.”
It was not exactly in keeping with Washington’s public image to enter the whiskey trade. One scholar, Dennis Pogue, notes that in 1755, Washington failed to win election to Virginia’s House of Burgesses after refusing to match his opponent in passing out whiskey, rum punch and beer. (The next time, Washington gave out alcohol and won.) He had been disgusted when his troops were “incessantly drunk, and unfit for service,” and he had offenders punished. (In 1840, one Baltimore society that tried to help people who drank too much honored his demands for moderation by naming itself the Washingtonians.) As president, he sent 13,000 militiamen to put down the Whiskey Rebellion by distillers in western Pennsylvania, who had risen up against the federal whiskey tax (designed by the secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton) and threatened those who enforced it.
But Washington was not averse to alcohol. He is said to have liked sweet wines, rum punch and whiskey. During the Revolution, he declared that “the benefits arising from moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all Armies.” In 1782, American soldiers were given daily rations of four ounces of whiskey, which was supplanting rum as the nation’s most popular liquor because it didn’t require molasses from the British West Indies.
And although he was happy to gain the additional income if the venture worked out, Washington, who had always taken great pains to make sure he was presented to the public as a leader worth emulating, may have feared having it widely known that he had become a whiskey baron. Feeling (or feigning) mixed emotions, the general was soon writing to a friend that Anderson had “run me into a very considerable expence (contrary I may say to my intention, or wishes)” to build a large new distillery, which was completed by the spring of 1798, and is considered, at a minimum, to be one of America’s largest of the time.
As it turned out, Washington’s whiskey business was a smashing success — he and Anderson couldn’t produce the spirit fast enough. In October 1799, he wrote another nephew, “Two hundred gallons of Whiskey will be ready this day for your call, and the sooner it is taken the better, as the demand for this article (in these parts) is brisk.” According to Mount Vernon scholars, that year he produced nearly 11,000 gallons, which achieved a profit of about $7,500 (about $142,000 today).
The venture did not instantly provide Washington with much ready capital — many of the transactions were not cash on the barrelhead but by barter or credit. But he was on the way to building what might have become a great American business when, that December, he died at the age of 67. The coppersmith who had created the general’s stills was now asked to fashion a liner for his coffin. The whisky operation was left to a granddaughter of Martha Washington’s, but she and her husband could not sustain Washington’s early momentum. In 1814, a fire devastated the distillery.
Some of Washington’s early biographers, probably taking their lead from what they considered to be his wishes, avoided the story of his whiskey project because they thought his eagerness to make a profit from alcohol seemed out of keeping with his reputation. In recent years, however, Washington’s Mount Vernon distillery has been recreated and opened to tourists. It offers whiskey for sale, made from the general’s old recipe. Had he lived long enough to expand his venture, given his public renown and leadership skills, Washington might today have enjoyed a significant place in the history of American entrepreneurship.
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