Yesterday, my sister, who writes for Salon, sent me a very good piece about Trump and today’s political culture, which pointed out how so many people around Trump are ‘grifters,’ i.e., have gotten involved in politics as a way of making a buck, in particular by playing on fears and resentments that people have about the ‘dysfunction’ of Washington.
This is all fine and well, but if you want to accuse someone of getting involved in politics to game the system for personal gain, it’s rather short-sighted to focus on how and why this behavior has become commonplace only over the last few years. In fact, the number one grifter of all time in American politics wasn’t the 45th President of the United States, it was the guy who was our first President, believe it or not.
Recall that before he became involved in the Revolutionary War effort, Washington was a surveyor and did over 200 surveys beginning in 1749. You can see the results of one of his surveys by taking a walk through the remarkably-sylvan landscape of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, where a canal based on his work still connects farmlands south of the Swamp out to the Elizabeth River, then past Norfolk, into the Atlantic and beyond.
Before railroads were invented, the basic way that foodstuffs moved from where they were grown to where they were either consumed or sold was by canal. And some of these canals can still be seen, such as the Blackstone Canal which runs alongside the Blackstone River in Massachusetts, or the canals alongside parts of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, or the Mohawk River in New York.
At some point Washington put together a group of investors and formed something called the Potomac Company which planned to build a canal connecting the rich farmlands of the upper Potomac, down to what would become the country’s capitol city, thence to the Chesapeake and then to cities and markets up and down the East Coast. The venture was interrupted first by the Revolution and then by the goings-on at the Constitutional Convention, but in the meantime, Washington secured a unique and potentially lucrative deal, namely, his Potomac Company was given the exclusive rights to charge tolls along this new waterway, assuming it could be built.
The problem with the deal, however, was that despite a big investment by Washington and his friends, the canal wasn’t finished because the construction required to overcome the cataracts of the upper Potomac turned out to be far more costly than anyone had estimated when the original project was surveyed and mapped out.
How did Washington recoup his investment in this failed real-estate venture? He got Congress to pass a bill in 1794 which appropriated money to build a second federal gun-making arsenal alongside the Potomac River in Harper’s Ferry, the first arsenal having been constructed in 1777 in Springfield, MA, a site chosen by then-General George Washington who needed a site to store guns and ammunition during the Revolutionary War.
The Springfield Arsenal was eventually managed by Henry Knox, whose heroic overland movement of cannon from Ticonderoga to Boston in 1775–76 broke the British siege of Boston and probably kept the Colonial Army from losing the war. Locating the arsenal at Springfield was Washington’s payoff to his friend Henry Knox, although the official story was that Springfield was chosen because the Connecticut River at that point was too shallow for the British to bring up their heavy gun boats and blast the arsenal to smithereens.
Why did Washington choose a crummy, little town alongside the Potomac for the nation’s second arsenal? Because he knew that the arsenal would attract skilled workers, machinists, craftsmen, and other new residents who would all be getting paid top dollar on the federal dole. And the money that the government would put into the pockets of these workmen would then be spent on food, clothing, booze, and other necessities, which would just increase the value of the upper Potomac region and allow Washington to sell off his shares in the Potomac Company and take a profit rather than a loss.
The Potomac Canal was never completed although parts of it were taken over by the more successful Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. When Washington’s widow, Martha Custis Washington died in 1802, her estate still contained the Potomac Company shares, which were worth what Grandpa would call ‘gurnisht helfen’ (read: nothing at all.)
Now we move ahead to what happened at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. This is when a machinist from the Springfield Arsenal, John Brown, raided the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry with the idea of taking the guns inside the arsenal, marching down through Virginia, giving the guns to slaves who would then rise up in a massive revolt and end slavery once and for all,
The only problem is that Brown and his men had no problem getting themselves into the Arsenal, but they had a big problem trying to get themselves out. In fact, they didn’t get out because a detachment of marines under the command of a West Point graduate named Robert E. Lee, surrounded the warehouse, captured seven of the attackers, all of whom including John Brown, were then executed for their attempt to spread the abolitionist doctrine throughout the South.
Brown attacked the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry because he was a dedicated abolitionist in Springfield, MA where he happened to be a machinist at the Springfield arsenal. He originally planned to steal guns out of his own arsenal, but it was too well defended, plus his followers would have to tramp several hundred miles to reach a state which still had slaves. But he also knew from his work at Springfield that the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry was much less secure. Except he turned out to be wrong.
Brown’s raid inflamed passions on both sides, particularly on the Southern side. The attack and its aftermath were cited again and again as a ‘proof’ that slavery would only be preserved if Southern states formed their own country and enforced a national border against Northern incursions by force of arms.
Thanks to George Washington’s decision to bail himself out of a bad investment in a canal project that never came to pass, the United States ended up fighting a civil war which cost more than 600,000 lives on both sides. Compared to Washington’s grifting when he was President, Donald Trump’s a rank amateur in this respect.
Frankly, I don’t see anything wrong with public officials using their connections to build and expand their business careers. After all, as a business gets bigger it usually creates more jobs. And since everyone says that private-sector jobs are always better than jobs paid for by the public dole, what’s so bad about that?