Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

George Washington’s Expense Account

by Marvin Kitman
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date February 15, 2001
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3773-9
  • Dimensions 5.75" x 9.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

Everybody knows George Washington as our foremost Founding Father, the man who led the forces that liberated the Colonies and became our first President. But how many today give him due credit for his unprecedented successes with creative accounting and financial wizardry?

In George Washington’s Expense Account, coauthor Marvin Kitman shows how Washington brilliantly turned his noble gesture of refusing payment for his service as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army into an opportunity to indulge his insatiable lust for fine food and drink, extravagant clothing, and lavish accommodations. In a close analysis of the actual documents that financed our Revolution, Kitman uncovers more scandals than you can shake a Nixon cabinet member at–and serves each up with verve and wit.



A MAN’s expense account needs no introduction; it usually speaks for itself. Still a few general words are in order about this revealing form of autobiography.
One of the great American institutions, the expense account, can make even a square-jawed, clean-cut American businessman or civil servant who rises early, works hard and always has his employer’s interest at heart feel vaguely un-American. It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t done anything wrong. The concept of sleeping, eating and forgetting about the cares of a hard day away from the office at no expense to oneself seems immoral. General recognition of this negative attitude can be seen in the widespread usage within business and government communities of the phrase “swindle sheet.”

The fact is, there is nothing nefarious about the expense account. It is not, as some may have supposed, the product of a Machiavellian or Eastern European mind. Indeed the classic in the field was handed in by that pillar of rectitude George Washington, for his work as father of his country.

Like most American schoolboys, I had heard the story of how George Washington offered to serve his country during the Revolutionary War without salary. In one of the most stirring speeches in the annals of patriotism, he explained, after his election as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in June 1775, that all he asked of his new country was that it pick up his expenses.

In his own immortal words, which were written by his speech-writer, Edmund Pendleton:

As to pay, Sir, I beg leave to Assure the Congress that as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to have accepted this Arduous employment (at the expense of my domesttic [sic] ease and happiness) I do not wish to make any Proffit [sic] from it. I will keep an exact Account of my expences. Those I doubt not they will discharge, and that is all I desire.*

Nothing much is heard in the classrooms about the equally stirring expense account General Washington submitted after the war.

I found this copy of his ledger book in the stacks of the New York Public Library, where for the past few years I have been researching a larger work, titled “The Making of the Prefident 1789” (to be published as part of the bicentennial celebration), about the way the Mount Vernon machine engineered the first national presidential election. It was what scholars call a very exciting discovery.

I am no historian. So I have to be very cautious about getting involved in the issues which Washington scholars have quibbled over for the past century. Was Washington soft on civil rights, as his 212 slaves might suggest? Or do his private letters, in which he said he detested the institution of slavery, qualify him as a prenatal member of the NAACP? Was he guilty of using profanity at the height of the Monmouth Court House battle, when he purportedly cursed Gen. Charles Lee, “Get your fat ass out to the battlefield”? Or was he simply issuing a command regarding the disposition of military vehicles? Did he marry the widow Martha Custis on January 6, 1759,* for her money? Or for her land-holdings? Who really nominated him to be commander-in-chief with his earlier military record, John Adams of Massachusetts or Thomas Johnson of Maryland–and why?

But I am a free-lance writer. And if there is anything free-lance writers are authorities on it is expense accounts. Editors have said that some of my most creative writing goes into the composition of expense accounts accompanying my articles. Internal Revenue men have been known to whistle in admiration at some of my interpretations of what is just.

There has been a tendency on the part of modern historians to belittle Washington’s accomplishments in war and peace. But expense account writing is the one area in which the man was second to none.

As I leafed through the yellowed, brittle pages of this priceless document, the refrain of a song I remember hearing while working for the government as a draftee” in the same army the Virginia planter founded drifted back:

You’re in the army now.You’re not behind the plow.You’ll never get rich,You son of a bitch.You’re in the army now.

That Washington was able to function as an artist in a place that traditionally offered so few growth opportunities told me that I was in the presence of true greatness.

While it made me sad to discover that much of what I considered original in my work in the field was derivative, I think it is only right that we give credit where it is due. Just about everybody who writes expense accounts today–the so-called “expense account crowd” – is following in George Washington’s hallowed footsteps. I might even go so far as to say that General Washington’s expense account is the obviously revered model for the nation’s current defense budget.

Washington’s expense account isn’t perfect. There are 43 basic principles governing the art of writing this kind of introspective literature, and Washington has used only 42 of them. Still, he holds the record.

Some modern expense account writers believe the only principle they ever follow is that each one should be higher than the next. In today’s military language, this is the escalation principle, which Washington followed scrupulously during the 96 months he was on the expense account.

Now nobody likes to give away one’s trade secrets, but some of the less important rules, as demonstrated in the Washington model, are:

* Omit nothing. When in doubt, charge anyway. Put it on the train to Westport, and see if it gets off.

* Be specific on the smaller expenditures and vague on the larger ones. Describe in some depth the purchase of a ball of twine, but casually throw in the line, “dinner for one army.”

* Whenever possible, intermingle personal and business expenses.

* Pick up the check for one’s associates. Washington was perhaps generous to a fault this way with taxpayers’ money.

* Above all, be reasonable. Know what the market will bear. As Washington undoubtedly heard Torn Paine–a leading PR man of the day (his client was the Declaration of Independence)–say often, “You have to use common sense.”

Sometimes General Washington manages to illustrate his grasp of the 42 basic principles in the narrow space of three-fourths of a single page (see my accompanying translation). By no means do the items in the ledger book suggest that Washington invented the expense account–I want to make that clear–only that he may have been the founding father of the American way of life known as “expense account living.”

My purpose in seeing now to the reprinting of this watershed document in the history of commercial writing is not in the spirit of boasting of one’s Revolutionary War antecedents, although I am proud to establish yet another link to the first President. (The first one is that he passed, in great haste, within a block of my house in Leonia, New Jersey, in 1776 on the retreat from Fort Lee to Hackensack, Paramus and eventually, Valley Forge.* My purpose, rather, is to aid in rehabilitating Washington’s name.

The average fellow in our expense account crowd today thinks of Washington about as much as Millard Fillmore. After reading this book, I hope every drummer and influence-peddler in Washington will make a pilgrimage to Mount Vernon to pay his respects at the shrine of this great writer–and on somebody’s expense account.

With this new appreciation of Washington, the monument and the man, I also hope to revive interest in him amongst the young. My coauthor was the Ch” of Fairfax County, Virginia, a dangerous revolutionary who was willing to risk everything–foxhounds, slaves, beloved shrubs and rose gardens–to overthrow the establishment. He was a radical of no political party, without program or ideology, except perhaps a belief in the magical ability of the weed tobacco to solve his problems. His relations with his mother were strained.” The way Washington fought the war on an expense account also should have great appeal to radical students of today who ask for amnesty in their insurrectional activities.