Like most American schoolboys,
I had heard the story of how George Washington offered to serve his country during the
War without salary.
In one of the most stirring speeches in the annals of patriotism, after his election as Commander-in-Chief in June 1775, he explained that all he asked of his new country was that it pick up his expenses in the war against British tyranny. Nothing much is heard in the classroom, however, about the equally stirring expense account General Washington handed in after the war.
I stumbled across a copy of it in the stacks at the New York Public Library while researching a larger work, titled "The Making of the Prefident (cq) 1789" , the story of how the Mt. Vernon Machine engineered the first election. The book was first published in 1837, under the title "Accounts, G. Washington with the United States, Commencing June 1775 and ending June 1783." For some reason, it never caught on. I am not a professional historian, but I was a freelance magazine writer, and if there is anything freelance writers are authorities on, it is expense accounts. I whistled in admiration.
There are 43 basic principles of expense account writing. Washington used 42 of them. Nobody is perfect. The rules include: be specific about smaller expenses and vague on the larger ones . Describe, in some depth, the purchase of a ball of twine (Brown, 2 3/4" circumference, $1.98) and casually throw in "Dinner for one army, $1,010." Use descriptive adjectives . As in one of the general's better written entries:
The general, to his credit followed basic
rule #12 ("Omit nothing") for eight long years. His expense account thus tells the whole story of the war in
an exciting new way. One experiences, again, his famous crossing of the Delaware, the first expense account
trip. Here are all the places he actually slept at, the hardships of being in the field, from the first
day he went shopping in the department stores of Philadelphia to the last time he picked up the tab for the boys
at Fraunces Tavern, the 21Club of its day in New York.
His entries for Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-8 especially will bring tears to patriots eyes: "Hd.," or "household," expenses covered a multitude of sins, such as eating. On this entry, I found by checking into accompanying documentation, what Gibbs paid for included: "geese, mutton, fowls, turkey, veal, butter, turnips, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage". The troops not on the expense account were eating less well at
Valley Forge. By no means am I suggesting that George Washington invented expense accounts, only that a careful reading of this least widely read of the Washington's papers shows he may have been the founding father of the American way of life known as expense account living.
Fortunately, a few copies remain of "George Washington's Expense Account," written by Gen. George Washington and Marvin Kitman, PFC (Ret.). Republished by HarperCollins in paperback, it contains a facsimile of the original in the General's hand, with a translation by the co-author. Available through Working Press, P.O. Box 552, Palisades Park, N.J. 07650 for only $8.95 plus $3 S&H. I strongly recommend the General's definitive work on the subject. And, remember, you can put it on your expense account as "research."
NOTE: since this article was
originally published, "George
Washington's Expense Account," has been re-issued by Grove Press
Marvin Kitman is the media critic of Newsday. He is a member of the Washington Association of New Jersey, and winner of the Television Award of Merit from the Mary Ball Washington Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (1990). He is the author of numerous books, including "The Making of the Prefident 1789," and many prize winning expense accounts.
© 1996 The History Channel. A&E Television Networks.
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