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Father of Our Country as an Economist

(Photo: Cliff)

In his book Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow quotes a letter that speaks to the hoary economic historians’ debate about the profitability of slavery.  Washington noted that in his time Virginia estates were forever doomed to lapse into debt, “as Negroes [sic] must be clothed and fed and taxes paid…whether anything is made or not.” Even if slavery were on average profitable, Washington noted that slaves represented a fixed cost of production.  Thus if total revenue were low, perhaps because of the effects of bad weather on his crops, he would earn negative profits. Given that plantation owners borrowed heavily from British lenders, this was a discouraging situation (of course, even more so for his slaves).