Every school kid knows the legendary status of George Washington. If every detail of the lore is questionable, the legacy is not. Washington led the Continental Army to improbable victory in the Revolutionary War. He presided over the Constitutional Convention that established our government. He served as the nation’s first president and in that role established policies and precedents that guide our country to this day.
George Washington provided for the founding of our country on the battlefield and in the halls of government. He also saved the newborn nation from the tyranny that befalls many other failed revolutions by giving up supreme power, not once, but twice. First, as the victorious war hero with an army at his disposal. Second, as a citizen public servant leaving office after two terms and then retiring to private life.
No wonder the eulogy offered by Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee describing George Washington as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” rings so true.
What may be less known but no less significant is the role George Washington had in creating our nation’s economic system both in the policies he implemented as well as the example he set as an innovator and business leader. This element of George Washington’s genius is on full display at his home at Mount Vernon. It was there he became a student and practitioner of innovative business practices.
The prevailing business of the time was agriculture, in which 90% of Americans were engaged. Washington rotated his crops to both nourish the soil as well as determine what would grow best. He kept meticulous records of these crops as well as different tools and means of innovation. Washington regularly read from and corresponded with the best minds of his generation for improving farming methods and increasing production. He sought out those with expertise and knowledge beyond his own, learned from them and implemented what he learned into his own efforts. Washington was a student of his craft.
Washington was also a teacher. He realized that his prominence and position gave him the power and responsibility to share the knowledge he gained by experimentation with others. One of Washington’s innovations was the 16-sided threshing barn he designed and built to protect his horses from the elements, improve the function of animals treading on wheat to remove grain from the stalk, and storage of that grain as it fell through the planks of the top floor to the basement below.
Washington helped form our nation’s current economic foundation by calling upon Congress in his first State of the Union address to create the patent system. Washington understood the need to protect the rights of inventors and innovators, because he was himself an inventor. Washington was not only a creator of the patent system, he was a user of that system. Washington adopted on his farm an automated milling process to increase production and profitability that was the third patent ever granted.
George Washington the entrepreneur had the same goal that entrepreneurs have today, to improve lives, build better communities and ultimately create a better world. And like entrepreneurs today, Washington understood the core economic principles of freedom and free enterprise that create an environment necessary to accomplish those goals. George Washington is our great example of the civic minded business leader.
Derek Miller is the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber.