George Washington, Mules, and Donald Trump

I’m reading The Oregon Trailand the author reminds us that real estate speculator-to-president is not an entirely new path:

George Washington was America’s original maharaja of mules. Historians have long been squeamish about acknowledging that General Washington, like many of the American founders, was a voracious land speculator. Few academics and high school history teachers want to risk their careers by suggesting to their students that the father of their country worked the same day job as Donald Trump. Washington was a land developer, often described as the richest of his generation. By the end of the American Revolution, General Washington controlled about sixty thousand acres of land, more than half of it in the promising frontier country west of the Alleghenies, in what we today call West Virginia, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. Wresting clear title to this rich bounty of soil from the English crown may not have been a principal motive for fighting the Revolutionary War, but Washington knew that he would profit mightily if independence was achieved.

How does this relate to mules? It seems that Washington needed a way to get around and collect rent:

The traditional draft horses imported from Europe or bred on colonial plantations were magnificent equine specimens, weighing up to a ton apiece, their marbled thighs glistening under the sun as they pulled plows and farm wagons over the flat corn and tobacco fields of eastern Virginia or Pennsylvania. But these agrarian mastodons were enormously hungry at the end of the day, and, like so many “purebred” species, suffered the common defects of animals mated too often within the same bloodlines. The big, beautiful drafts were prone to lameness and chipped hooves, they lacked stamina, and essentially they could perform only one job— yanking a plow or a wagon across level cropland. Heavy draft horses were notoriously ungainly on the kind of steep slopes and rocky ground that would be encountered while conquering the Alleghenies.

Washington and his fellow Virginia planters had long known about the plucky, kick-ass little mules developed for pack trains and for pulling light freight wagons in the Spanish territories of the lower Mississippi and Texas. These “crosses” were bred from horses and small Mexican donkeys, usually producing a mule that stood only four feet at the withers, the part of a horse or mule where the neck joins the body. What the young republic needed now was something much bigger— sturdier, draft-quality mules that stood at five or six feet. In Spain and France, where farming required pulling loads up the steep paths of terraced vineyards and wheat fields, mules of this size had been bred for centuries out of tall donkey sires called “Mammoth Jacks.” Mammoth jacks were any of several long-legged, large-boned studs selectively developed for draftlike qualities, probably from Middle Eastern donkeys brought back from the Crusades. The mammoth jacks had eventually branched off into several discrete European breeds: the Andalusian, Catalonian, Majorcan, and Maltese lines. But the courts of France and Spain, reluctant to share such prize breeding stock with the colonies of their rival Britain, had always banned the export of mammoth jacks to America. After the American Revolution, however, Washington was a global hero, and the Europeans were glad to help the man who had trounced their old British foes. In 1785 the king of Spain, Charles III, dispatched to Mount Vernon a shipment of mammoth breeding stock that included an Andalusian jack named Royal Gift. The shipment included two “jennies,” or female donkeys, suitable for mating with Royal Gift to create more mammoth studs. In the meantime, Washington’s old fighting companion during the Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, had shipped from France his own gift, a Maltese jack named Knight of Malta and four jennies.

By 1810 the region’s initial breeding stock had yielded an estimated 800,000 mules distributed throughout the South and beyond the Allegheny frontier.

12 thoughts on “George Washington, Mules, and Donald Trump

  1. Once Trump successfully becomes a general and ends violence in the middle east he would have my vote.

  2. Horses and donkeys are pregnant for a year and have one offspring at a time, so it’s impossible that a couple of mammoth jacks turned into 800,000 mules in a couple of decades.

  3. Aren’t you a bit hard in the old George? What was he expected to do instead of, say, land speculating. It’s not like he could draw unemployment to survive or run for President before there was a presidency to be run for. Besides, far as I reckon, he was his own self-made man, didn’t inherit a cent from his daddy as was the case with The Donald. Nor was he ever called his-time-equivalent of a “short-fingered vulgarian” (SPY Magazine in the 80s) – or holler that he was.

  4. Founding US also created the capitalist vehicle of the technological improvements that would make his mule enterprise obsolete. We relied on animal power for thousands of years, never knowing another way of life since the day humans appeared. Then in just 200 years, everything changed.

  5. ianf and joe: George Washington inherited 10 slaves and a sizeable portion of land from his father when he was just 11 years-old and another 20 slaves and even more land from his half-brother when he was only 20 years-old. Great men don’t fall from the sky.

  6. IIRC, President Obama bought real estate in Chicago (with quite a bit of leverage) before he hit the big time.

  7. If you study the American War for Independence in any detail, one thing that leaps out at you is the degree to which the leaders of the new country were basically grifters.

    The UK itself was unbelievably corrupt, but wealthy Americans knew how to work the system and had a pretty good deal. George III consistently appointed ministers who, while they were strong defenders of the established order, were technocrats and chopped away at the “old corruption”. The American elite, who had lived high on the hog with all the war contracts in the 1750s, were one of the first targets.

  8. Izzie: Impossible for 800,000 mules to have been born over a 20-year period? There was no shortage of mares and Buck says that “A single jack could service several horse mares a day, twenty or more a week, up to a thousand a year, and Malthusian growth just took over from there.” If we assume that, for there to be 800,000 alive the birth rate had to be 100,000 in 1810, that would have required as few as 100 jacks alive in 1809. You think that it would have been impossible for the six jennies and two jacks of 1785 to have 100 male descendants 25 years later?

  9. One thousand is a theoretical maximum. I suspect that the average was MUCH lower. I also suspect that there were many other imports of mammoth jacks other than the 2 mentioned.

    This page states that the American stock was composed from many breeds: “The Catalonian ass from Spain was of primary interest to American breeders, but the Andalusian (from Spain), Maltese (from Malta), Poitou (from France), Majorcan (from Majorca), and Italian strains were also used….. Between 1830 and 1890, several thousand large asses were imported from Spain and other parts of Europe, broadening the genetic base of the breed. ”

  10. Wrote #8 Thomas Cooper: “President Obama bought real estate in Chicago (with quite a bit of leverage) before he hit the big time.

    Did he? The cheeky sod! Apparently, however, even in office he was unable to curb the damage to his property’s future value caused by that Chicago Mayor Corruptor Supreme/ Devil Incarnate Kelsey Grammer’s “Boss” (STARZ, 2011-2012) until first after two whole seasons! (18 episodes).

    @ #9 EdIf you study the American War for Independence in any detail…

    I would like to, believe me, but I can not. Life’s too short. If fact I gave up on reading American history beyond essayist “The Best and the Brightest” by David Halberstam, and “Facing the Lions” by Tom Wicker—fictional, but, until Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” came around, the best insight into US electoral process that I knew of. Call it a shallow knowledge, but, without convincing recommendation of/for some volume, I have better things to do.

    The UK itself was unbelievably corrupt, but wealthy Americans knew how to work the system and had a pretty good deal.

    This is not a defense of the olde ways, but “corrupt” applied to the traditional, since-time-immemorial master-vassal patronage/ defense value/ kickback system, sounds way too much like a modern afterthought. Remember, there were no viable liberté-égalité-fraternité alternative society models around, and even Plato’s democracy was expected to degenerate into tyranny.

    @ #10 Phil G., and #11 Izzie L. re: mules breeding numbers (100 to 800k in 25+ years 175+ years ago)

    I presented it to a professional trainer aged 55 (also breeder, though not in any scale) slash stable-keeper of horses for yuppies. Her experience with mules is limited, but she also trains donkeys for children’s carnivals etc. Her verdict: NO WAY. Animals are not copulating machines, have likes and dislikes. And mules and hinnies (offspring of a horse stallion and a jenny) are practically all sterile. “You can not herd mares to be covered in turn by a donkey, they’ll go gaga, it has to be done one by one, so the logistics are considerable. And the donkey will tire after a few days of the same old same old.”

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