George Washington was, according to Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee, “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Although it is much less well known, Washington was also first among the philanthropists of his generation. Throughout his life, he was generous toward the poor; as he approached his death, he was revealed as the era’s greatest patron of higher education.
The achievements of George Washington are without parallel in American history. Without his leadership, it is unlikely the Continental Army would have survived eight years of brutal war. Without his endorsement, the Constitution would probably never have been ratified. Without his guidance, our great experiment in republican government might have faltered. He was, in the elegant summation of one of his most perceptive biographers, the “indispensable man.”
The brilliance of his public service sometimes blinds us to Washington’s considerable achievements in private life. He was a self-made man, who rose from relatively humble origins to acquire one of the largest fortunes in American history. Considered as a percentage of GDP, the value of his estate ranks him slightly behind Sears patriarch Julius Rosenwald and a bit ahead of oil baron J. Paul Getty. Still more impressive, Washington refused a salary for his years as commander of the Continental Army. His wealth was acquired in the private sector.
The basis of Washington’s fortune was land. A surveyor in his youth, Washington had an eye for promising acreage and owned property throughout Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky. This he collected by inheritance, purchase, and marriage—the widowed Martha Custis was the wealthiest woman in Virginia, and her marriage to Washington added some 17,000 acres to his holdings. Liquidity, however, was often a problem. Like many of his fellow planters, Washington was often poor-in-cash relative to his wealth of land.
Washington’s early charitable giving reflected his upbringing in colonial Virginia. Life in the Northern Neck was built on reputation and hierarchy, British North America’s closest approximation to the feudal mores of the English country. Charitable giving was rarely institutional, but rather centered on a personal relationship between patrons and beneficiaries.
In 1769, for example, Washington offered his friend William Ramsay a sum of £25 annually, in order that Ramsay’s son could attend college in Princeton, New Jersey. “No other return is expected or wished for this offer than that you will accept it with the same freedom and good will with which it is made,” he wrote, “and that you may not even consider it in the light of an obligation, or mention it as such; for be assured from me that it will never be known.” It was the gesture of a patron—generous, certainly, but patronage nonetheless.
When Washington left Mount Vernon to assume command of the Continental Army, he left instructions to the groundskeeper that reflected a Virginian’s sense of liberality. “Let the Hospitality of the House, with respect to the poor, be kept up,” he wrote. “Let no one go hungry away. If any of these kind of People should be in want of Corn, supply their necessities, provided it does not encourage them in idleness; and I have no objection to your giving my Money in Charity, to the Amount of forty or fifty Pounds a Year, when you think it well bestowed. What I mean, by having no objection, is, that it is my desire that it should be done.”
Many biographers have observed that the Revolutionary War changed Washington’s perspective. After eight years campaigning in the states of the mid-Atlantic and New England, his outlook became much more nationalistic. His politics were more those of a Philadelphian than a Virginian, and his Federalist principles ill-fit the Old Dominion’s increasingly Republican temperament.
The transition of his Revolutionary years was reflected, to some extent, in Washington’s charitable giving. He grew more inclined to give as a donor than as a patron, to provide money for a cause rather than a cousin. While in New York and Philadelphia, President Washington made hundreds of donations to churches and charities, many of which were given under condition of anonymity and were only discovered after the publication of his papers.
“Washington,” writes biographer Ron Chernow, “had particular sympathy for those imprisoned for debt and gave generously to an organization—later called the Humane Society of the City of New York—that was formed to assist them.” He often sent surplus food from the presidential mansion to a nearby prison; after he designated the first Thanksgiving Day, Washington made a personal donation of beer and hot meals to persons imprisoned for debt. It was a rare instance in which Washington allowed his contribution to be made public, presumably because he thought it appropriate to set an example for the rest of the country.
Another favored cause for the childless Washington was the care and education of orphans. He contributed to orphanages in several states, but reserved his largest donations for the Alexandria Academy, established only a few miles from Mount Vernon.
In 1796, three years before he died, Washington offered a gift to Liberty Hall Academy of Lexington, Virginia: 100 shares of the James River and Kanawha Canal Company, worth at the time approximately $20,000. It was then the largest contribution to higher education in American history. Grateful for the gift, the school’s trustees immediately renamed the college Washington Academy; today it is known as Washington and Lee University. The contribution, according to Professor Taylor Sanders of Washington and Lee, was roughly the equivalent of $20 million today. By one estimate, a little more than $11 of every current student’s tuition is underwritten by the generosity of George Washington.
Generosity was an obligation to Washington. It was a virtue to be practiced constantly and liberally. “One thing more and I will close this letter,” Washington once advised his step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who was then attending college in Princeton, New Jersey. “Never let an indigent person ask, without receiving something, if you have the means; always recollecting in what light the widow’s mite was viewed.”
~ Christopher Levenick