Science  /  Retrieval

George Washington Saw a Future for America: Mules

A newly minted celebrity to the world, the future president used his position to procure his preferred beast of burden from the king of Spain.

General George Washington, hero of the American Revolution, was world famous in the 1780s, which was exactly the clout he needed to get what he was really after: Spanish ass.

The best donkeys in the world came from Spain, but because of their equine superiority, the Spanish monarchy made them illegal to export without royal exemption, a source of great frustration to Washington. Mules—a cross between a male donkey and a female horse—could do an equivalent amount of work as horses with less food and water, and Washington was convinced they were the future of American farming.

While he had retired from public life after the war (spoiler: it wouldn’t stick, and he’d go on to become the first president of the United States), he still wished to quietly contribute to the infant nation’s success—and his own. Mount Vernon, the Virginia plantation where he enslaved hundreds of people, had suffered from wartime scarcity, inflation and crop failure during the eight years he’d spent away, and mules would help him get back on track.

But Washington faced two big problems. He knew of only one path to get a donkey out of Spain, at least legally: By order of Spain’s Charles III, and the process wasn’t cheap. So Washington, who was cash poor and operated from a penny-wise, pound-foolish disposition, had gone about procuring one like a somewhat shameless modern day influencer would, working his mutual connections.

At first, Washington’s gambit looked promising. Don Juan de Miralles, one of Charles’ agents in the nascent U.S., seemed eager to satisfy Washington, but then he died. Washington struck out for the next four years until William Carmichael, the U.S. chargé d' affaires at the Spanish court, let Charles know about his mule mania. According to Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. minister to France, the king was thrilled to order “two of the very best to be procured & sent you as a mark of his respect.” It was an ideal conclusion: Washington was going to get his mules, and he didn’t have to spend a dime to do it.

The donkeys (the “Jacks,” as Washington referred to them) were set to arrive in Boston with Spanish handlers, and Washington sent his overseer at Mount Vernon, John Fairfax, to ensure the trip down to Mount Vernon went smoothly. But Washington, ever the anxious person, didn’t stop there; he micromanaged Fairfax with lengthy instructions: