John Berlau, historian and author of the book “George Washington, Entrepreneur” says that American founding father and first U.S. President George Washington was an inspiration for his moral integrity and entrepreneurial spirit.
Berlau said Washington engaged his “creative, entrepreneurial mind” starting out as a freelance surveyor, then becoming a pioneer in crop rotation, flour milling, breeding mules, and after his presidency, opening a whiskey distillery.
“Washington encouraged our culture of both entrepreneurship and innovation and invention,” said Berlau. “He made some inventions himself, like different types of plows, but he also, both as president and private citizen, encouraged the early American inventors such as James Rumsey.”
In a 1786 letter encouraging Rumsey to complete his steamboat, Washington wrote, “If you have no cause to change your opinion respecting your mechanical Boat, & reasons unknown to me do not exist to delay the exhibition of it, I would advise you to give it to the public as soon as it can be prepared, conveniently.”
“Before he became president, he visited Rumsey in what is now West Virginia,” Berlau said. “Rumsey showed him this mechanical boat and the town’s folk had dismissed Ramsey as a crackpot, but Washington was fascinated by this invention and what it could do as far transportation across rivers, which was the big challenge, and he wrote a letter of endorsement that helped Rumsey get state patents in Maryland and Virginia.”
During his presidency in January 1790, he called on Congress to establish a patent system and after four months, Congress passed the Patent Act of 1790 and Washington signed it into law.
What made Washington a great leader, besides his great moral integrity, is that “he would read a lot, and listen a lot,” said Berlau, adding that Washington “basically created the president’s cabinet.”
“Washington was the one who decided to have meetings where officials who disagreed, like Hamilton and Jefferson, would sort of hash it out. And then Washington would just sit there and listen.”
His cabinet originally consisted of four members, including Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.
Washington “was born into a system of slavery, not just in America, but around the world, but he ended up seeing the wrongness of it,” said Berlau. He spoke out against the slave trade in 1774 and “then at the end of his life, in a very public statement, in his will, freed all of the slaves, all 124, in his possession.”
His Mount Vernon plantation had over 300 slaves, but the ones on the Custis estate were not under Washington’s legal authority, so were not freed according to his will.
As a historian, Berlau believes that it is important for younger generations to learn about Washington’s greatness and his flaws.
“He certainly had his ups and downs, he made mistakes, and he wasn’t perfect,” said Berlau. “It’s important because everyone can learn from George Washington, just as everyone can learn from Aristotle, even though neither were perfect men,” said Berlau.
“You are shortchanging the younger generations if you don’t teach them about both the humanity and the greatness of Washington and America’s Founding Fathers.”