The presidents we celebrate today were very different men. Abraham Lincoln loved to talk and debate and write and read books and be boring. George Washington was quiet and dignified, never wasting words. Abraham Lincoln led the United States into war over slavery. George Washington actually owned slaves. And in finances—the most important aspect of American life—Abraham Lincoln was a loser, while George Washington was the richest president ever.
With a net worth of more than half a billion in today's dollars, President Washington was a real success. From his luxurious hilltop estate in the fanciest part of Virginia, the military hero and father of our country looked over 8,000 acres of his own prime farmland. He owned many businesses and industrial operations, as well as expansive tracts of real estate in new lands he fought the Native Americans to keep for himself. He had a whiskey distillery, he ran a commercial fishing operation, he grew tremendous quantities of wheat and tobacco and hemp. Most controversially, he even owned the employees of his farms and factories and distilleries—this was slavery, which moral people hated even in Washington's time.
Born into poverty, Abraham Lincoln utterly lacked the financial skills common to rich people. He failed at retail and then got sued after his business partner died. To pay off the debt, he had to sell his surveying tools and his only transportation, a horse. Then he became a trial lawyer, which is a pretty good way to cash in ... as long as you're not Abe Lincoln.
"Honest Abe" was congenitally unable to exploit people and resources for profit. While he sat around alone at night looking at his books by candlelight and thinking about poetic ways to say the number "87," successful Americans were turning the country's forests and rivers and mountains into private businesses. While he fell into somber depression over Civil War bloodshed, his peers on both sides of the fighting were creating vast fortunes and launching the modern weapons industry.
Lincoln's financial failures followed him to the U.S. Congress, an institution that rewards even the most venal mouth-breathing idiots with immense riches. Not even the presidency could turn Loser Lincoln into an American winner—at the time of his murder, he owned little more than a home and the kind of small investment portfolio common to a neighborhood chiropractor.
There is no doubt that in morals and ethics, Abraham Lincoln was a far better man than George Washington. And all he got for his trouble was a Civil War, the sorrow of losing most of his children, poverty for most of his life, and a bullet through his skull.
Washington was a king of a man from the day he was born. He looked down on the rest of America from the highest horse. George Washington was the kind of president who would rotate his personal slaves out of the old U.S. capital city of Philadelphia so they'd never be around long enough to win freedom under Pennsylvania law.
Like Donald Trump or Tom Perkins or the Koch Brothers, George Washington represented what this country is really about: outrageous riches for the very few, and endless pain and struggle for everyone else. Washington lived more than a decade longer than Abraham Lincoln and died of natural causes, in his mansion. America has always been the safest country for the filthy rich.
[Image by Jim Cooke]