Column: Ask George Washington: Conflict Should Be Avoided

For the Valley News
Friday, March 17, 2017

The recent Presidents’ Day holiday coincided with growing concern over President Trump’s and his family’s domestic and international business entanglements, and arguments about regulations and precedent regarding presidential conflicts of interest. George Washington faced a similar circumstance when he assumed the first presidency. We don’t have to ask, “What would George do?” We can see what he did ... and it is an important ethical and political lesson for Trump.

At the first inauguration there were literally no guidelines, nor perhaps even a clear understanding of presidential conflict of interest. Further, it is likely that Washington’s name was the only one known throughout the hinterlands of all the colonies. He was a “celebrity” like Trump. But it is as a businessman/developer that Washington most resembled Trump as he faced what he viewed as an ethical issue in accepting office.

When Washington resigned his military commission, he did not simply retire to Mount Vernon to become a gentleman farmer. He was eager to return to his successful career in land acquisition and development. Unlike the families that received enormous land grants from British kings, Washington was a self-made landowner. He amassed almost 59,000 acres during his lifetime. In addition to his Mount Vernon estate and Alexandria properties, Washington had vast holdings throughout Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky. Importantly, he also held property in the developing Northwest Territory.

Washington was not a mere passive land owner. He was a pioneer agronomist, shifting his tidewater properties from soil-depleting tobacco and experimenting with other crops. He built grist mills, established fisheries on his property along the Potomac River, and oversaw tenant farmers on his far-flung properties. But his most important development efforts came in trying to build infrastructure to provide transportation to his frontier lands.

At the time of Washington’s return to private citizenship, canals were on the cutting edge of transportation infrastructure development. For instance, his contemporaries John Hancock and John Adams were principal investors in the Middlesex Canal linking the emerging industrial center of Lowell, Mass., to Boston Harbor. Washington, as president and financier of the Potowmack Canal Company (the predecessor of the C&O Canal), led the more ambitious attempt to “canalize” the Potomac River and develop portages to Ohio River tributaries, to open a trade route through the mountains and to western properties.

Washington’s efforts as a private citizen had mixed goals, both “geopolitical” and personal. By providing access to an American port (Alexandria, Va.) and commerce, the proposed canal and portages would help keep the settlers in the western frontiers and the Northwest Territory in allegiance with the new republic, rather than with the competing British, Spanish or French transportation and commerce systems in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainage areas. It would also greatly increase the value of Washington’s western holdings.

With his unsought election as the first president, Washington faced a possible ethical dilemma. If the federal government built the Potomac Canal, he would personally benefit, but he was troubled with the appearance of personal gain arising from official actions. Development of the canal, as envisioned and championed by private citizen Washington, was never urged by President Washington, nor undertaken by the weak federal government.

Washington’s decision to leave the completion of the canal to the states and private sector was at least partially based on his desire to protect his good name.

In any event, transport technology overcame the canal effort. America’s first railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, surpassed the canal and reached the Ohio River, largely following Washington’s surveyed and designated route. The Port of Baltimore replaced Georgetown/Alexandria as the maritime connection of Washington’s transportation dream.

Washington, long dead before the advent of the railroad, left office with his good name untainted by doubts about conflict of interest. President Trump would do well to study Washington’s actions as precedent.

Charles H. White Jr. is a senior research fellow at the Tuck School at Dartmouth. He was formerly head of railroad policy at the Federal Railroad Administration, and port commissioner for the Port of Baltimore.