GW: The Gentry Background
George Washington (1732-99) was born to a solid middle class gentry family. His father, Augustine Washington, had been married previously, fathered two sons and a daughter, was widowed, and remarried Mary Ball. They had five children together, George being the eldest.
The Washingtons, raised in the Fredericksburg, VA area, owned property and prospered, but they were a far cry from the wealthy planters. The Dandridges, Martha Washington’s family, were in similar circumstances financially, albeit down in New Kent Country, some 100 miles away.
Martha Dandridge married Daniel Parke Custis when she was seventeen, and he more than twice her age. It was a happy union lasting eight years until Custis’ death. He was one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia, and Martha and her two surviving children were his only heirs. She inherited around 18,000 fertile acres, a workforce of some 200 souls, fine household furnishings, and the rarest of all commodities, ready cash.
When she married George Washington less than two years later, he became custodian and guardian of the Custis children’s estate, and sole custodian of Martha’s property. Possessing a fine business acumen, he parlayed his own inherited plantation on the Potomac into a magnificent showplace, making him one of the wealthiest landowners in the Colony.
By 1775, when he was 43 years old, the former Militia Colonel was elected to the Continental Congress on the eve of the American Revolution.
The Unpaid General
Shortly after shots were fired at Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts, George Washington came to Congress in a splendid military uniform and, according to John Adams, offered to raise 1000 men, subsist them at his own expense, and march them to Massachusetts. It definitely attracted attention.
Congress was willing to pay its now-General-in-Chief a princely sum of $500 a month. To put things into perspective: a lowly private was paid about $6.65 a month, a Captain warranted $20 a month, and other general officers were awarded around $125 a month.
It is very hard to equate colonial money into today’s currency. The United States (and they were still colonies then) had no currency of its own. Some locations used the British pounds and shillings; some used Spanish dollars. Gold worked, too. Bartering was still common.
Washington disdained making any profit (salary) in serving his country, preferring to volunteer, and only accept reimbursement for his expenses. In hindsight, of course, nobody knew the war would last for eight years; nor would they know that Congress would not have the money to pay its officers for the better part of those years.
Washington made a pretty good deal for himself, however. He was accustomed to the very best accoutrements, which included a top-of-the-line new carriage for the trip to Massachusetts. His uniforms were custom made. His swords and epaulets were flawless. His field tent and its furnishings were splendid. His personal table was always elegant – and when Mrs. Washington was present, even more elegant. General Washington knew, perhaps better than anyone else, that a great part of his responsibilities lay in attracting wealthy Americans to help finance independence. He needed to face them as an equal, which, in truth, he was.
When he finally relinquished his commission in 1783, he presented the Congress with his expense account. It was a staggering sum, somewhere around $475,000. About ten times the amount he would have earned with a salary, i.e. eight years at $6000 per annum, or $48,000 (which may or may not have been paid, anyway).
George Washington was a meticulous record keeper, handwritten in his superb penmanship. He included, along with all his legitimate and personal expenses, the exact amount that he had “advanced” the Army from his own pocket (a considerable sum), and only charged a mere 7% interest. It is said that when Congress reviewed our Founding Father’s Expense Account, they were well satisfied. All the numbers added up correctly.
The Salaried President
There is no indication that Congress (or any of its members) were dissatisfied, or believed Washington’s “expenses” were out of line. GW returned to his beloved Mount Vernon, and for the better part of five years channeled his energies into enhancing his plantation and its holdings. He also kept a very sensitive finger on the public pulse of politics.
When he was recruited to serve as President of the Constitutional Convention, dedicated to revising and reforming a central government, there was little doubt that his august presence would earn him the role of President of the new United States.
He modestly demurred, but when pressed, accepted the nomination and the unanimous election. He also offered Congress (a different Congress, by the way), the same deal: serve gratis, and only be reimbursed for expenses.
This Congress, perhaps wary of a tenfold increase in expenditures, said no. They authorized a salary of $25,000 per year – considered a humongous amount of money. The VP only got $5K. They specified that the President’s expenses should be paid from his salary, to avoid being nickled-and-dimed, as it were. This included the enormous amount of entertaining and hosting expected of a POTUS. Nevertheless, George Washington was still forced to dip into his own pocket, and even accrue some debts in order to preserve the style that he believed befitted the President of a Sovereign Nation.
More on The Salary
The $25,000 per year salary for Presidents remained in place for more than three quarters of a century: until 1873. Ulysses S. Grant got the first raise.
All our Presidents were expected to preserve the style and appearances. Most were forced to augment their salary, opulent as it was, or go into debt. A few were definitely not wealthy men, and some were downright miserly by nature.
It would not be until the 1920s, during the Coolidge Administration, that a separate budget was authorized for Presidential entertaining.
Kitman, Marvin – George Washington’s Expense Account – Simon & Schuster, 1970
Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington – Galahad Books, 2000