I just finished Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington, and I learned some really interesting things about Washington that I never knew.

  • He was abnormally calm in battle: time and time again, Washington placed himself in harms way, giving the opposing armies a clear target to shoot at, but he always escaped unharmed and he was never rattled. It might be that he came to grips with his own mortality early on given the fact that most of his direct family members died at early ages.
  • He regularly sought out as many opinions as possible before making hard decisions. I wrote more about this here.
  • He had the foresight (and maybe ego) to know that he would be a historic figure, and he went to unnatural lengths to preserve all of his communications from the American Revolutionary War.
  • He loved farming and never achieved his dream of fulfilling his farm’s potential, although he dabbled with scientific farming methods ahead of their time, like crop rotation
  • He was a bit of a flirt, and regularly took pleasure in seeing a lot of pretty women at his gatherings

But the most interesting thing was learning that time and time again, he acted against his own beliefs on slavery and emancipation on account of strong financial incentives to avoid manumission. Washington struggled to make his farms profitable. On top of this, Washington was never able to stop leading a lavish lifestyle to maintain the perception that he was a wealthy landowner, so he borrowed heavily and lived well above his means. He even had to borrow money to make the trip out to his first presidential inauguration.

He didn’t have the financial resources to replace his slaves or compensate them if freed, so he continued to live with a system that he abhorred, although he realized it was economically and politically unviable. When slaves ran away, he discreetly used all of the resources at his disposal to recapture them, and while he was in Philadelphia as President, he actively juggled his slaves in and out of the state every 6 months to avoid their emancipation under the city’s laws.

For Washington, freeing his slaves would only make sense once he was freed from his financial responsibilities after his and Mary’s death, so he worked the provision into his will, making him one of the only founding fathers to free his slaves after the Revolutionary War.

Learning about this conflict that plagued Washington was a stark reminder of how powerfully incentives can impact our behavior, causing us to act in ways that violate our strongly held beliefs.