Slave Cabin, Mount Vernon

Slave Cabin, Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon's Slave Memorial

Location. 38° 42.364′ N, 77° 5.346′ W. Marker is in Mount Vernon, Virginia, in Fairfax County. Marker can be reached from Mount Vernon Memorial Highway. The memorial marker is approximately 18 miles south of Washington, D.C., on the grounds of "George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens" whose main entrance is at the intersection of the George Washington Memorial Parkway and Mount Vernon Memorial Highway (VA 235). An entrance fee is required. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon VA 22121, United States of America. Touch for directions.

Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. In Memory of the Many Faithful Colored Servants of the Washington Family (here, next to this marker) Slave Cemetery (here, next to this marker) Slave Memorial (within shouting distance of this marker) Slavery at Mount Vernon (within shouting distance of this marker)

a different marker also named Slavery at Mount Vernon (within shouting distance of this marker) The Potomac Watershed (about 400 feet away, measured in a direct line) George Washington's Fisheries (about 400 feet away) Preserving the Viewshed (about 400 feet away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Mount Vernon.

More about this memorial. The marker is accessible via foot trails and is located in a wooded area about 0.3 miles from the estate's entrance, approximately 150 feet south of General Washington's tomb. It is adjacent to an earlier monument to the estate's "Faithful Colored Servants," dedicated in 1929.

Related marker. Click here for another marker that is related to this marker.

Also see . . .
1. George Washington and Slavery. (Submitted on May 22, 2008, by Richard E. Miller of Oxon Hill, Maryland.)
2. Slave Memorial at Mount Vernon. An article about the memorial written by Dr. Judith Saunders-Burton. The article appeared in the Spring 1996 edition "History In Motion" the Gum Springs Historical Society's periodical. (Submitted on December 27, 2008, by Kevin W. of Stafford, Virginia.)

Where Did George Washington Live?

George Washington lived for much of his childhood at Mount Vernon with his half-brother Lawrence, learning the ins and outs of planting and how to be a cultured member of society. In 1753, he began what would become an illustrious military career.

Washington didn’t make Mount Vernon his home until 1759, after he married the widow and mother of two, Martha Dandridge Custis, the future Martha Washington and first 𠇏irst Lady” of the United States. At the time, Lawrences’s widow, Ann Fairfax Washington, still owned Mount Vernon, so George Washington leased the estate from her until he inherited it in 1761.

Over the next four decades, Washington renovated Mount Vernon’s main house into a two and a half story, 11,028 square foot stately home with twenty-one rooms. He oversaw almost every detail, always making sure the estate reflected his distinguished status, even as he served in the Revolutionary War and as president of the United States.

The walls of the mansion are made of wood, although they look like stone. To achieve the look, Washington used rustication, a technique where wood boards are cut and beveled to look like stone blocks and then sanded and painted while wet to provide a stone-like texture.

A complex history: Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon

Did anybody ever see George Washington nude?

Image caption: Phillip Morgan

Historian Philip Morgan launched his lecture last night with that question, borrowing a jest from Nathaniel Hawthorne about the remote, steely figure the first president has become through history.

"It is inconceivable," Hawthorne once said of the notion of Washington's vulnerability. "He … was born with his clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world."

But Morgan had an actual response to the question: If anyone saw the president nude, it was likely his slaves—the most intimate witnesses to his life. One of those slaves, for instance, washed and prepared Washington's body upon his death.

In Mason Hall last night, Morgan, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, spoke on the conditions of slavery at the president's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. He's currently working on a short book on the topic, expanding on a 2005 article.

As Morgan described it, slave ownership wasn't an incidental slice of Washington's reality, but a consuming occupation. The president "spent more time overseeing slaves than he did supervising soldiers or running a government," Morgan said.

At the time of Washington's death in 1799, more than 300 slaves labored at Mount Vernon, which was by then a sophisticated 8,000-acre enterprise with five working farms.

Washington's attitudes toward slavery are known to be complex and often contradictory. Like many slave owners at the time, he tied himself "in moral knots that proved fiendishly difficult to unravel," Morgan said.

The president was said to call the practice "an abomination," and in his will emancipated all of the slaves who belonged to him. Yet he was also reputed to be a "stern taskmaster who was forever finding fault" with his slaves, Morgan said, even as they "toiled long and hard" toward his own profit.

Washington's slaves developed specialized skills in agriculture, animal husbandry, manufacturing, and craftsmanship, turning Mount Vernon into "a showcase, a self-sufficient estate," Morgan said. Because of that, the president was one of the richest men in America, a billionaire by today's measure.

Many slaves worked from daybreak through dusk, usually under white overseers. Spared from the manual labor were the slaves who worked more closely with Washington as house servants. Many of those were of mixed-race, Morgan noted, which 18th-century masters generally viewed as a more appropriate status for housework.

Though marriage wasn't legal for slaves, those at Mount Vernon nonetheless formed "a dense web of kin ties," Morgan said, with two-thirds establishing informal spouse partnerships. Rarely, though, did the spouses ever live within the same household. Some lived up on six miles apart on separate farms—a distance they had to travel at night, once work was finished.

"Night is the slave's day," Morgan said.

Though Washington was known for his stern distaste for slave escapes and "adopted harsh actions to curtail" the possibility, Morgan said, about 50 succeeded in escaping from Mount Vernon over the years. In one case, Washington considered hiring a bounty hunter to search for his escaped chef, Hercules, who was never apprehended.

With one exodus, 17 slaves escaped to the British during the Revolutionary War. About half were recaptured, Morgan said, "so their fate is instructive about the odds of escape."

To illustrate the peculiarity of some of Washington's attitudes toward his slaves, Morgan looked at, of all things, dogs and teeth.

The president at one point "ordered a wholesale purge" of dogs at Mount Vernon, believing that slaves used them for "nefarious purposes" and conveniently ignoring their utility in catching game for slaves' meals, Morgan said. Washington threatened to hang any dog he found.

As for teeth, Washington—who famously battled with his own set—apparently turned to his slaves for a solution. It's likely that some of the dentures he wore throughout his life contained the teeth of his slaves, which records show he purchased from them on several occasions.

In viewing the larger context of slavery in the Chesapeake region, Morgan's talk also touched upon the lives of slaves owned by the Carroll family, including those at the Homewood estate that eventually became the site of JHU's Homewood campus, and at the Doughoragen Manor in Ellicott City, Maryland.

Morgan's lecture was presented by the Homewood Museum as part of African-American History month.

Reconstructed slave cabin opens, adding realism to Mt. Vernon

MOUNT VERNON, Va. – The homes of the nation’s first presidents receive as much care and attention as any historic sites in the nation. Special societies raise money to preserve and protect them. Researchers dote on the finest points of their architecture and family heritage.

But until recent years, there was little focus on a painful reality in the history of several of the founding fathers: George Washington, who led the colonial forces seeking freedom from the British Thomas Jefferson, whose Declaration of Independence proclaimed the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and James Madison, who wrote the Constitution “in order to . . . secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” all owned slaves.

“How do you deal with the fact that Jefferson’s a national hero, Madison and Washington were heroes, and they all had slaves?” said James Oliver Horton, a history professor at George Washington University . “Most people try to ignore it.”

The most famous – and most visited – presidential home, Washington’s Mount Vernon, has just added a piece of history that has long been known but, until now, was not really visible – a reconstructed slave cabin, similar to those that housed the slaves who worked the fields of its outlying farms.

Reality check The tiny cabin – with its crudely cut log exterior, rough pallet on the floor and bare loft – stands in stark contrast to Washington’s 11,400-square-foot mansion five miles away, with its opulent furnishings, white-pillared veranda and vistas of the Potomac River.

Construction of the 16-foot -by-14-foot dwelling was based in part on a 1908 photo of a dilapidated slave cabin, one of many that once dotted the 8,000-acre estate. In a letter written in 1798, a Polish visitor to Mount Vernon described “the huts of the blacks, for one cannot call them by the name of houses,” as “wretched” and “more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants.”

But that jolt of despair, said Sheila Coates, president of Black Women United for Action, is what Mount Vernon needed. Before the dedication of the cabin Sept. 19, the only depiction of slave life at Mount Vernon was a dormitory-style brick structure reconstructed on the farm nearest the mansion. The original residence – part of the estate’s greenhouse, which burned down in the mid-1800s – housed 97 house servants and craftsmen, the “elite” of the estate’s 316 slaves.

“There are people who saw those slave quarters and would think, ‘Well, the slave didn’t have it so bad,”‘ said Coates, whose group had pushed for years for a realistic representation of how the field slaves lived.

The cabin interprets the lives of actual slaves on one of Mount Vernon’s farms: a married couple, Slammin’ Joe and Silla, and their six children. Inside are their rations, salted fish and two sacks of cornmeal outside are a small vegetable garden and a chicken coop that they used to supplement their diet. “In order to fully understand what their lives were like, visitors must see how they lived,” said Dennis J. Pogue, Mount Vernon’s director of preservation.

More depictions Acknowledging slave ownership “is much more common than it was 20 years ago,” he said. “It’s still a topic that people would like us to deal with more.”

Other presidential homes in Virginia are taking similar steps.

At Monticello, Jefferson’s home near Charlottesville, communications director Wayne Mogielnicki said construction soon would begin on the slave cabins and workshops along Mulberry Row, an area near the main house where root cellars, thousands of artifacts and cabin foundations were excavated 30 years ago.

Tour guides discuss Jefferson’s slave ownership, along with the belief that he fathered one or more children born to Sally Hemings, a house slave. So far, though, the only depiction of slave life at Monticello is the restored cook’s quarters, a comfortably furnished 10-foot -by-14-foot room next to the home’s expansive kitchen.

Ash Lawn-Highland, James Monroe’s estate near Monticello, rebuilt quarters for a house slave in 1985. The executive director, Carolyn Holmes, said that reconstructing the homes of the field slaves is in the long-term plan “when we have documentation present.”

And there are promises of reconstructed slave quarters within the next decade at Montpelier, James Madison’s home near Orange, Va., where a freedman’s cabin dating from the 1800s has been restored. “As far as we know, it’s the only freedman’s home in Virginia,” said Christian Cotz, the estate’s student education coordinator.

But where presidents’ homes, until now, have lacked concrete depictions of the difficult lives of the slaves who worked there, other historical sites in Virginia have shown the history of slaves’ contributions to colonial America and the conditions in which they lived.

“It may not be the world through rose-colored glasses, but it is an essential element for the history of this nation, and you cannot ignore it,” said Jim Bradley, a spokesman for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

At Carter’s Grove, a plantation along the James River eight miles from Williamsburg, four slave cabins were reconstructed in the late 1980s, after archaeological excavations a decade earlier revealed remnants of slaves’ home life. The historic area in Williamsburg itself offers re- enactments of slaves’ daily lives in a thriving colonial town.

“At the time of the American revolution, slightly over half of the population of Williamsburg was of African descent,” Bradley said. While the presidential homes have acknowledged on their tours that the founding fathers did own slaves, said Horton, the slavery historian at George Washington University, they are years behind Williamsburg in bringing the difficulties of slaves’ daily existence to life.

“All these national heroes were doing things that we thought were evil,” Horton said. “Even in their society, people knew they were hypocritical.”

Time to Tell the Truth About Slavery at Mount Vernon

On a beautiful October day I stood in line to purchase a $17 ticket to enter George and Martha Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon in Virginia, joining the more than 1 million annual visitors, many of whom are schoolchildren. As I looked at the large sign on the wall near the ticket booth, detailing the different tours available, I saw a specialty tour—“All the President’s Pups”—and a special Washington dinner tour. I inquired at the information desk in the Ford Orientation Center about the “slavery tour” I’d heard about and I was provided with a daily schedule that indicated the tour began at 2 p.m. I asked if there was any information in the center about slavery that I could read before entering the “mansion house.” The answer was no.

At the time of George Washington’s death, the Washingtons enslaved 318 people of African descent at Mount Vernon, according to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. But you would not know it from the main tour, nor from the brochure. In fact, most visitors, including schoolchildren, can spend hours admiring the Mount Vernon mansion, fine furniture, and manicured lawns without considering that it was all paid for with forced labor.

The introductory brochure highlights several perspectives: George Washington was the ultimate Southern gentleman he was a state-of-the-art farmer both Martha and George enjoyed entertaining life at Mount Vernon provided an idyllic lifestyle, from the grounds and gardens to the mansion house and outbuildings, to the unimaginable comforts of the time. Slavery is mentioned, but only in one section of the brochure, which directs visitors to the Slave Memorial and Burial Ground.

Scenes like this one (while not Mount Vernon) are representative of daily life on many plantations, yet missing from the tour and brochure.

Who Was George Washington?

The Washington family. Source: Edward Savage,

George Washington is one of the most celebrated war heroes in U.S. history and served as commander in chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He was the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797. He was also a wealthy land- and slave-owning colonist. His commitment to independence was perhaps motivated more by the opportunities to become even wealthier under independence than an interest in introducing a new concept of democracy to the world. Washington had a lifetime obsession with money, keeping meticulous records of everything he owned, including people.

Washington acquired thousands of acres of Ottawa land along the Ohio River illegally from the British as a reward for helping the British in the French and Indian War. He bought shares in the Mississippi Company, a land speculation concern, which stole 2.5 million acres of land from Native people. The great Ottawa leader Pontiac entered into an agreement with the king of England that stated no further encroachment of white settlers would take place west of the Alleghenies. Washington ignored this proclamation after the War of Independence and organized brutal campaigns against the Ottawa in his quest for more land.

George Washington purchased people directly from the holds of slave ships. He preferred them to be “strait Limb’d & in every respect strong and likely, with good Teeth & good countenances,” not exceeding 16 years of age if female. Washington wanted genetically healthy girls for reproduction purposes.

While serving as president of the United States, Washington faced a legal problem with the people he enslaved. The capital was moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1791 and the enslaved people who accompanied him to Pennsylvania would be given their freedom if they resided in the state for more than six months. George and Martha Washington kept careful records and rotated enslaved people back and forth to Mount Vernon to avoid being required to free any of them.

Mansion House

Washington rotated enslaved people between the presidential house in Philadelphia (L) and Mount Vernon (R) to avoid freeing anyone.

Entering the mansion house on the docent-directed tour, visitors were told that the Washingtons loved to entertain. During the first part of the tour, the docent described the food served on elegant china, the dancing that took place and where the men would retire to discuss politics. The docent then escorted visitors through parlors and living rooms where the Washingtons carried out family life and on to the bedrooms on the upper floors where they and their frequent guests slept.

Our tour concluded with George’s study and library and then the docent encouraged us to visit the outbuildings where dairy was processed, fabric was woven, alcohol was distilled, blacksmithing was done, and shoes were made. I use the passive voice here intentionally, because the docent failed to mention the people who actually did this work. When he paused to ask for questions, I asked why there was no mention of the more than 300 people held in bondage at Mount Vernon to make this lifestyle possible. He said, “Oh we make no secret of that. You can visit the slave quarters and find out more about the slaves.” I asked why the tour guides did not mention who performed all the labor when describing the daily activities of the Washingtons. He again directed me to the slave tour and quarters.

Walking Tour—Slave Life

Newspaper ad offering a $10 reward for Oney Judge, who escaped from enslavement by the Washingtons. Click to read text.

A delightful and energetic guide met our group at the Mansion Circle for a 15-minute overview of slavery. The emphasis in this tour, and prevalent throughout the estate, was that the Washingtons were in some ways providing vocational education to the people they enslaved. Returning to the prime motivation for slavery as a profit-making venture, one needs to be cognizant that George and Martha were the ones who reaped the benefits from training enslaved people in certain trades. The profit certainly did not go, in any part, to people held in bondage at Mount Vernon.

Another theme within this tour and the signage throughout the estate was that this was a community of people willingly working toward a common goal, in an almost “whistle while you work” fashion. The astounding inequality was largely ignored. The tour’s narration instead focused on the beauty of the land, the panoramic view over the Potomac, and the warm breezes. The signage and tour create an image of an estate where everyone was happy.

During Washingon’s time, there were a number of groups organized to abolish slavery, including the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

The guide told tourists that the slaves engaged in trickery with the estate managers when they sang songs in their native languages to warn others that a manager was near. The guide said the slaves would sleep and relax in the shade when no one was around and then the songs would alert them to get up and pretend to be working. He also said, “Slaves could be clever. A new ax could be given to them in the morning and they would make sure to break it by the afternoon. They knew how to get back at plantation owners.” He did acknowledge that there was no “incentive to work” and that being “lazy was OK.” Rather than educating our group about resistance and the need for it, he characterized the men and women as shiftless and conniving.

The guide proceeded to cover the innovative agricultural techniques used on the farm and the high standards Washington demanded. A plaque at the slave quarters states, “The sun never caught George Washington in bed and he was unwilling it should find any of his people sleeping.” At the conclusion of the tour on the front lawn overlooking the Potomac, the guide summarized his message about slavery: “Anyone from the 21st century criticizing someone from the 18th century is being sanctimonious, righteous, and unfair.”

He ignored the fact that during “Washington’s time,” abolitionist groups visited Mount Vernon bearing books and petitions about emancipation, as well as the establishment of manumission societies, humanitarian efforts, writers, and Quaker groups, working to stop the practice of slavery. One needn’t rely on 21st-century critics of slavery they existed in the 18th century, too.

Slave Cemetery and Memorial

Memorial to African Americans enslaved at Mount Vernon. Source:

I walked down a path to the slave memorial and saw a sign asking for “quiet.” I quickly saw that I had entered the area of the Washington family mausoleum. White marble tombs hold Martha and George’s remains. A small crowd of people stood, and listened to the docent’s presentation on George’s family ancestry. There was an aura of awe and respect.

I turned and completed my short walk to the slave cemetery. There was no similar sign that asked for quiet or by extension, respect. Only two other people stood in the area reading the marker designed by Howard University architectural students in 1983. The sign reads “In memory of the Afro Americans who served as slaves at Mount Vernon.” Another grave marker placed in 1929 states “In memory of the many faithful colored servants of the Washington family.” (Italics are my emphasis.)

A New Day

One has to pause and wonder how the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association can ethically continue to provide these tours at the estate and mansion house and omit mention of any honest representation of slavery and the contemporary consequences of this institution. They perpetuate the “splendid living” and “Southern hospitality” myth in the face of overwhelming evidence that this is false.

The omission of meaningful education about slavery at Mount Vernon contributes to the general curricular silence about the fact that Washington and other slaveholders like him were stealing land, labor, language, and culture from disenfranchised people on a grand scale.

The Mount Vernon tour prevents critical thinking about U.S. history by reinforcing the traditional narrative about slavery and its legacy. This miseducation continues while collecting millions of dollars at the gate to further the myth.

With all the talk of virtue, morality, and principled values on the tour, is it too much to ask that the truth, the full truth, now be told at Mount Vernon?

© Zinn Education Project, 2015

Sudie Hofmann is a professor in the Department of Human Relations and Multicultural Education at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.

Related Resources

Presidents and the Enslaved: Helping Students Find the Truth

Teaching Activity. By Bob Peterson. 7 pages. Rethinking Schools.
How a 5th grade teacher and his students conducted research to answer the question: “Which presidents owned people?” Available in Spanish.

Constitution Role Play: Whose “More Perfect Union”? and The Constitutional Convention: Who Really Won?

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. 24 pages.
The U.S. Constitution endorsed slavery and favored the interests of the owning classes. What kind of Constitution would have resulted from founders who were representative of the entire country? That is the question addressed in this role play activity.

Missing from Presidents’ Day: The People They Enslaved

Article. By Clarence Lusane. 2014. If We Knew Our History Series.
Textbooks erase enslaved African Americans from the White House and the presidency and present a false portrait of our country’s history.

Whitewashing Our First President

Article. By Clarence Lusane. 2014.
Critical review of an upper elementary non-fiction book about George Washington and the people he kept in bondage.


Slavery was introduced into the English colony of Virginia when the first Africans were transported to Point Comfort in 1619. Those who accepted Christianity became "Christian servants" with time-limited servitude, or even freed, but this mechanism for ending bondage was gradually shut down. In 1667, the Virginia Assembly passed a law that barred baptism as a means of conferring freedom. Africans who had been baptised before arriving in Virginia could be granted the status of indentured servant until 1682, when another law declared them to be slaves. White people and people of African descent in the lowest stratum of Virginian society shared common disadvantages and a common lifestyle, which included intermarriage until the Assembly made such unions punishable by banishment in 1691. [1]

In 1671, Virginia counted 6,000 white indentured servants among its 40,000 population but only 2,000 people of African descent, up to a third of whom in some counties were free. Towards the end of the 17th century, English policy shifted in favor of retaining cheap labor rather than shipping it to the colonies, and the supply of indentured servants in Virginia began to dry up by 1715, annual immigration was in the hundreds, compared with 1,500–2,000 in the 1680s. As tobacco planters put more land under cultivation, they made up the shortfall in labor with increasing numbers of enslaved workers. The institution was rooted in race with the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705, and from around 1710 the growth in the enslaved population was fueled by natural increase. Between 1700 and 1750 the number of enslaved people in the colony increased from 13,000 to 105,000, nearly eighty percent of them born in Virginia. [2] In Washington's lifetime, slavery was deeply ingrained in the economic and social fabric of Virginia, where some forty percent of the population and virtually all African Americans were enslaved. [3]

George Washington was born in 1732, the first child of his father Augustine's second marriage. Augustine was a tobacco planter with some 10,000 acres (4,000 ha) of land and 50 slaves. On his death in 1743, he left his 2,500-acre (1,000 ha) Little Hunting Creek to George's older half-brother Lawrence, who renamed it Mount Vernon. Washington inherited the 260-acre (110 ha) Ferry Farm and ten slaves. [4] He leased Mount Vernon from Lawrence's widow two years after his brother's death in 1752 and inherited it in 1761. [5] He was an aggressive land speculator, and by 1774 he had amassed some 32,000 acres (13,000 ha) of land in the Ohio Country on Virginia's western frontier. At his death he possessed over 80,000 acres (32,000 ha). [6] [7] [8] In 1757, he began a program of expansion at Mount Vernon that would ultimately result in an 8,000-acre (3,200 ha) estate with five separate farms, on which he initially grew tobacco. [9] [a]

Agricultural land required labor to be productive, and in the 18th-century American south that meant slave labor. Washington inherited slaves from Lawrence, acquired more as part of the terms of leasing Mount Vernon, and inherited slaves again on the death of Lawrence's widow in 1761. [12] [13] On his marriage in 1759 to Martha Dandridge Custis, Washington gained control of eighty-four dower slaves. They belonged to the Custis estate and were held in trust by Martha for the Custis heirs, and although Washington had no legal title to them, he managed them as his own property. [14] [15] [16] Between 1752 and 1773, he purchased at least seventy-one slaves – men, women and children. [17] [18] He scaled back significantly his purchasing of enslaved workers after the American Revolution but continued to acquire them, mostly through natural increase and occasionally in settlement of debts. [19] [17] In 1786, he listed 216 enslaved people – 122 men and women and 88 children. [b] – making him one of the largest slaveholders in Fairfax County. Of that total, 103 belonged to Washington, the remainder being dower slaves. By the time of Washington's death in 1799, the population enslaved at Mount Vernon had increased to 317 people, including 143 children. Of that total, he owned 124, leased 40 and controlled 153 dower slaves. [21] [22]

Washington thought of his workers as part of an extended family with him the father figure at its head. He displayed elements of both patriarchy and paternalism in his attitudes to the slaves he controlled. The patriarch in him expected absolute obedience and manifested itself in a strict, rigorous control of the enslaved workers and the emotional distance he maintained from them. [23] [24] There are examples of genuine affection between master and enslaved, such as was the case with his valet William Lee, but such cases were the exception. [25] [26] The paternalist in him saw his relationship with his enslaved people as one of mutual obligations he provided for them and they in return served him, a relationship in which the enslaved were able to approach Washington with their concerns and grievances. [23] [27] Paternal masters regarded themselves as generous and deserving of gratitude. [28] When Martha's maid Oney Judge escaped in 1796, Washington complained about "the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant". [29]

Although Washington employed a farm manager to run the estate and an overseer at each of the farms, he was a hands-on manager who ran his business with a military discipline and involved himself in the minutiae of everyday work. [34] [35] During extended absences while on official business, he maintained close control through weekly reports from the farm manager and overseers. [36] He demanded from all of his workers the same meticulous eye for detail that he exercised himself a former enslaved worker would later recall that the "slaves. did not quite like" Washington, primarily because "he was so exact and so strict. if a rail, a clapboard, or a stone was permitted to remain out of its place, he complained sometimes in language of severity." [37] [38] In Washington's view, "lost labour is never to be regained", and he required "every labourer (male or female) [do] as much in the 24 hours as their strength without endangering the health, or constitution will allow of". He had a strong work ethic and expected the same from his workers, enslaved and hired. [39] He was constantly disappointed with enslaved workers who did not share his motivation and resisted his demands, leading him to regard them as indolent and insist that his overseers supervise them closely at all times. [40] [41] [42]

In 1799, nearly three-quarters of the enslaved population, over half of them female, worked in the fields. They were kept busy year round, their tasks varying with the season. [43] The remainder worked as domestic servants in the main residence or as artisans, such as carpenters, joiners, coopers, spinners and seamstresses. [44] Between 1766 and 1799, seven dower slaves worked at one time or another as overseers. [45] The enslaved were expected to work from sunrise to sunset over a six-day work week that was standard on Virginia plantations. With two hours off for meals, their workdays would range between seven and a half hours to thirteen hours, depending on season. They were given three or four days off at Christmas and a day each at Easter and Whitsunday. [46] Domestic slaves started early, worked into the evenings and did not necessarily have Sundays and holidays free. [47] On special occasions when enslaved workers were required to put in extra effort, such as working through a holiday or bringing in the harvest, they were paid or compensated with extra time off. [48]

Washington instructed his overseers to treat enslaved people "with humanity and tenderness" when sick. [40] Enslaved people who were less able, through injury, disability or age, were given light duties, while those too sick to work were generally, though not always, excused work while they recovered. [49] Washington provided them with good, sometimes costly medical care – when an enslaved person named Cupid fell ill with pleurisy, Washington had him taken to the main house where he could be better cared for and personally checked on him throughout the day. [41] [50] The paternal concern for the welfare of his enslaved workers was mixed with an economic consideration for the lost productivity arising from sickness and death among the labor force. [51] [26]

Living conditions Edit

At Mansion House Farm, most of the enslaved people were housed in a two-story frame building known as the "Quarters for Families". This was replaced in 1792 by brick-built accommodation wings either side of the greenhouse comprising four rooms in total, each some 600 square feet (56 m 2 ). The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association have concluded these rooms were communal areas furnished with bunks that allowed little privacy for the predominantly male occupants. Other enslaved people at Mansion House Farm lived over the outbuildings where they worked or in log cabins. [52] Such cabins were the standard slave accommodation at the outlying farms, comparable to the accommodation occupied by the lower strata of free white society across the Chesapeake area and by the enslaved on other Virginia plantations. [53] They provided a single room that ranged in size from 168 square feet (15.6 m 2 ) to 246 square feet (22.9 m 2 ) to house a family. [54] The cabins were often poorly constructed, daubed with mud for draft- and water-proofing, with dirt floors. Some cabins were built as duplexes some single-unit cabins were small enough to be moved on carts. [55] There are few sources which shed light on living conditions in these cabins, but one visitor in 1798 wrote, "husband and wife sleep on a mean pallet, the children on the ground a very bad fireplace, some utensils for cooking, but in the middle of this poverty some cups and a teapot". Other sources suggest the interiors were smoky, dirty and dark, with only a shuttered opening for a window and the fireplace for illumination at night. [56]

Washington provided his enslaved people with a blanket each fall at most, which they used for their own bedding and which they were required to use to gather leaves for livestock bedding. [57] Enslaved people at the outlying farms were issued with a basic set of clothing each year, comparable to the clothing issued on other Virginia plantations. The enslaved slept and worked in their clothes, leaving them to spend many months in garments that were worn, ripped and tattered. [58] Domestic slaves at the main residence who came into regular contact with visitors were better clothed butlers, waiters and body servants were dressed in a livery based on the three-piece suit of an 18th-century gentleman, and maids were provided with finer quality clothing than their counterparts in the fields. [59]

Washington desired his enslaved workers to be fed adequately but no more. [60] Each enslaved person was provided with a basic daily food ration of one US quart (0.95 l) or more of cornmeal, up to eight ounces (230 g) of herring and occasionally some meat, a fairly typical ration for the enslaved population in Virginia that was adequate in terms of the calorie requirement for a young man engaged in moderately heavy agricultural labor but nutritionally deficient. [61] The basic ration was supplemented by enslaved people's own efforts hunting (for which some were allowed guns) and trapping game. They grew their own vegetables in small garden plots they were permitted to maintain in their own time, on which they also reared poultry. [62]

Washington often tipped enslaved people on his visits to other estates, and it is likely that his own enslaved workers were similarly rewarded by visitors to Mount Vernon. Enslaved people occasionally earned money through their normal work or for particular services rendered – for example, Washington rewarded three of his own enslaved with cash for good service in 1775, an enslaved person received a fee for the care of a mare that was being bred in 1798 and the chef Hercules profited well by selling slops from the presidential kitchen. [63] Enslaved people also earned money from their own endeavors, by selling to Washington or at the market in Alexandria food they had caught or grown and small items they had made. [64] They used the proceeds to purchase from Washington or the shops in Alexandria better clothing, housewares and extra provisions such as flour, pork, whiskey, tea, coffee and sugar. [65]

Family and community Edit

Although the law did not recognize slave marriages, Washington did, and by 1799 some two-thirds of the enslaved adult population at Mount Vernon were married. [66] To minimize time lost in getting to the workplace and thus increase productivity, enslaved people were accommodated at the farm on which they worked. Because of the unequal distribution of males and females across the five farms, enslaved people often found partners on different farms, and in their day-to-day lives husbands were routinely separated from their wives and children. Washington occasionally rescinded orders so as not to separate spouses, but the historian Henry Wiencek writes, "as a general management practice [Washington] institutionalized an indifference to the stability of enslaved families." [67] Only thirty-six of the ninety-six married slaves at Mount Vernon in 1799 lived together, while thirty-eight had spouses who lived on separate farms and twenty-two had spouses who lived on other plantations. [68] The evidence suggests couples that were separated did not regularly visit during the week, and doing so prompted complaints from Washington that enslaved people were too exhausted to work after such "night walking", leaving Saturday nights, Sundays and holidays as the main time such families could spend together. [69] Despite the stress and anxiety caused by this indifference to family stability – on one occasion an overseer wrote that the separation of families "seems like death to them" – marriage was the foundation on which the enslaved population established their own community, and longevity in these unions was not uncommon. [70] [71]

Large families that covered multiple generations, along with their attendant marriages, were part of an enslaved community-building process that transcended ownership. Washington's head carpenter Isaac, for example, lived with his wife Kitty, a dower-slave milkmaid, at Mansion House Farm. The couple had nine daughters ranging in age from six to twenty-seven in 1799, and the marriages of four of those daughters had extended the family to other farms within and outside the Mount Vernon estate and produced three grandchildren. [72] [73] Children were born into slavery, their ownership determined by the ownership of their mothers. [74] The value attached to the birth of an enslaved child, if it was noted at all, is indicated in the weekly report of one overseer, which stated, "Increase 9 Lambs & 1 male child of Lynnas." New mothers received a new blanket and three to five weeks of light duties to recover. An infant remained with its mother at her place of work. [75] Older children, the majority of whom lived in single-parent households in which the mother worked from dawn to dusk, performed small family chores but were otherwise left to play largely unsupervised until they reached an age when they could begin to be put to work for Washington, usually somewhere between eleven and fourteen years old. [76] In 1799, nearly sixty percent of the slave population was under nineteen years old and nearly thirty-five percent under nine. [72]

There is evidence that enslaved people passed on their African cultural values through telling stories, among them the tales of Br'er Rabbit which, with their origins in Africa and stories of a powerless individual triumphing through wit and intelligence over powerful authority, would have resonated with the enslaved. [77] African-born slaves brought with them some of the religious rituals of their ancestral home, and there is an undocumented tradition of voodoo being practiced at one of the Mount Vernon farms. [78] Although the slave condition made it impossible to adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam, some slave names betray a Muslim cultural origin. [79] Anglicans reached out to American-born slaves in Virginia, and some of the Mount Vernon enslaved population are known to have been christened before Washington acquired the estate. There is evidence in the historical record from 1797 that the enslaved population at Mount Vernon had contacts with Baptists, Methodists and Quakers. [80] The three religions advocated abolition, raising hopes of freedom among the enslaved, and the congregation of the Alexandria Baptist Church, founded in 1803, included enslaved people formerly owned by Washington. [81]

Interracial sexual relations Edit

In 1799 there were some twenty mulatto (mixed race) enslaved people at Mount Vernon. However, there is no credible evidence that George Washington took sexual advantage of any slave. [82] [83] [c]

The probability of paternal relationships between enslaved and hired white workers is indicated by some surnames: Betty and Tom Davis, probably the children of Thomas Davis, a white weaver at Mount Vernon in the 1760s George Young, likely the son of a man of the same name who was a clerk at Mount Vernon in 1774 and Judge and her sister Delphy, the daughters of Andrew Judge, an indentured tailor at Mount Vernon in the 1770s and 1780s. [86] There is evidence to suggest that white overseers – working in close proximity to enslaved people under the same demanding master and physically and socially isolated from their own peer group, a situation that drove some to drink – had sexual relations with the enslaved people they supervised. [87] Some white visitors to Mount Vernon seemed to have expected enslaved women to provide sexual favors. [88] The living arrangements left some enslaved females alone and vulnerable, and the Mount Vernon research historian Mary V. Thompson writes that relationships "could have been the result of mutual attraction and affection, very real demonstrations of power and control, or even exercises in the manipulation of an authority figure". [89]

Resistance Edit

Although some of the enslaved population at Mount Vernon came to feel a loyalty toward Washington, the resistance displayed by a significant percentage of them is indicated by the frequent comments Washington made about "rogueries" and "old tricks". [90] [91] The most common act of resistance was theft, so common that Washington made allowances for it as part of normal wastage. Food was stolen both to supplement rations and to sell, and Washington believed the selling of tools was another source of income for enslaved people. Because cloth and clothing were commonly stolen, Washington required seamstresses to show the results of their work and the leftover scraps before issuing them with more material. Sheep were washed before shearing to prevent the theft of wool, and storage areas were kept locked and keys left with trusted individuals. [92] In 1792, Washington ordered the culling of enslaved people's dogs he believed were being used in a spate of livestock theft and ruled that enslaved people who kept dogs without authorization were to be "severely punished" and their dogs hanged. [93]

Another means by which enslaved people resisted, one that was virtually impossible to prove, was feigning illness. Over the years Washington became increasingly skeptical about absenteeism due to sickness among his enslaved population and concerned about the diligence or ability of his overseers in recognizing genuine cases. Between 1792 and 1794, while Washington was away from Mount Vernon as President, the number of days lost to sickness increased tenfold compared to 1786, when he was resident at Mount Vernon and able to control the situation personally. In one case, Washington suspected an enslaved person of frequently avoiding work over a period of decades through acts of deliberate self harm. [94]

Enslaved people asserted some independence and frustrated Washington by the pace and quality of their work. [95] In 1760, Washington noted that four of his carpenters quadrupled their output of timber under his personal supervision. [96] Thirty-five years later, he described his carpenters as an "idle. set of rascals" who would take a month or more to complete at Mount Vernon work that was being done in two or three days in Philadelphia. The output of seamstresses dropped off when Martha was away, and spinners found they could slacken by playing the overseers off against her. [97] Tools were regularly lost or damaged, thus stopping work, and Washington despaired of employing innovations that might improve efficiency because he believed enslaved workers were too clumsy to operate the new machinery involved. [98]

The most emphatic act of resistance was to run away, and between 1760 and 1799 at least forty-seven enslaved people under Washington's control did so. [99] Seventeen of these, fourteen men and three women, escaped to a British warship that anchored in the Potomac River near Mount Vernon in 1781. [100] In general, the best chance of success lay with second- or third-generation African-American enslaved people who had good English, possessed skills that would allow them to support themselves as free people and were in close enough contact with their masters to receive special privileges. Thus it was that Judge, an especially talented seamstress, and Hercules escaped in 1796 and 1797 respectively and eluded recapture. [101] Washington took seriously the recapture of fugitives, and in three cases enslaved people who had escaped were sold off in the West Indies after recapture, effectively a death sentence in the severe conditions the enslaved had to endure there. [102] [103] [104]

Control Edit

Jessie MacLeod
Associate Curator
George Washington's Mount Vernon [105]

Washington used both reward and punishment to encourage discipline and productivity in his enslaved population. [106] In one case, he suggested "admonition and advice" would be more effective than "further correction", and he occasionally appealed to an enslaved person's sense of pride to encourage better performance. Rewards in the form of better blankets and clothing fabric were given to the "most deserving", and there are examples of cash payments being awarded for good behavior. [107] He opposed the use of the lash in principle, but saw the practice as a necessary evil and sanctioned its occasional use, generally as a last resort, on enslaved people, both male and female, if they did not, in his words, "do their duty by fair means". [106] There are accounts of carpenters being whipped in 1758 when the overseer "could see a fault", of an enslaved person called Jemmy being whipped for stealing corn and escaping in 1773 and of a seamstress called Charlotte being whipped in 1793 by an overseer "determined to lower Spirit or skin her Back" for impudence and refusing to work. [108] [109]

Washington regarded the 'passion' with which one of his overseers administered floggings to be counter-productive, and Charlotte's protest that she had not been whipped in fourteen years indicates the frequency with which physical punishment was used. [110] [111] Whippings were administered by overseers after review, a system Washington required to ensure enslaved people were spared capricious and extreme punishment. Washington did not himself flog enslaved people, but he did at times use verbal abuse and physical violence when they failed to perform as he expected. [112] [d] Contemporaries generally described Washington as having a calm demeanor, but there are several reports from those who knew him privately that mention his temper. One wrote that "in private and particularly with his servants, its violence sometimes broke out". Another reported that Washington's servants "seemed to watch his eye and to anticipate his every wish hence a look was equivalent to a command". [114] Threats of demotion to fieldwork, corporal punishment and being shipped to the West Indies were part of the system by which he controlled his enslaved population. [102] [115]

Washington's early views on slavery were no different from any Virginia planter of the time. [51] He demonstrated no moral qualms about the institution, and referred to slaves as "a Species of Property" during those years as he would later in life when he favored abolition. [116] The economics of slavery prompted the first doubts in Washington about the institution, marking the beginning of a slow evolution in his attitude towards it. By 1766, he had transitioned his business from the labor-intensive planting of tobacco to the less demanding farming of grain crops. His slaves were employed on a greater variety of tasks that needed more skills than tobacco planting required of them as well as the cultivation of grains and vegetables, they were employed in cattle herding, spinning, weaving and carpentry. The transition left Washington with a surplus of slaves and revealed to him the inefficiencies of the slave labor system. [117] [118]

There is little evidence that Washington seriously questioned the ethics of slavery before the Revolution. [118] In the 1760s he often participated in tavern lotteries, events in which defaulters' debts were settled by raffling off their assets to a high-spirited crowd. [119] In 1769, Washington co-managed one such lottery in which fifty-five slaves were sold, among them six families and five females with children. The more valuable married males were raffled together with their wives and children less valuable slaves were separated from their families into different lots. Robin and Bella, for example, were raffled together as husband and wife while their children, twelve-year-old Sukey and seven-year-old Betty, were listed in a separate lot. Only chance dictated whether the family would remain together, and with 1,840 tickets on sale the odds were not good. [120]

The historian Henry Wiencek concludes that the repugnance Washington felt at this cruelty in which he had participated prompted his decision not to break up slave families by sale or purchase, and marks the beginning of a transformation in Washington's thinking about the morality of slavery. [121] Wiencek writes that in 1775 Washington took more slaves than he needed rather than break up the family of a slave he had agreed to accept in payment of a debt. [122] The historians Philip D. Morgan and Peter Henriques [e] are skeptical of Wiencek's conclusion and believe there is no evidence of any change in Washington's moral thinking at this stage. Morgan writes that in 1772, Washington was "all business" and "might have been buying livestock" in purchasing more slaves who were to be, in Washington's words, "strait Limb'd, & in every respect strong & likely, with good Teeth & good Countenance". Morgan gives a different account of the 1775 purchase, writing that Washington resold the slave because of the slave's resistance to being separated from family and that the decision to do so was "no more than the conventional piety of large Virginia planters who usually said they did not want to break up slave families – and often did it anyway". [124] [125]

American Revolution Edit

From the late 1760s, Washington became increasingly radicalized against the North American colonies' subservient status within the British Empire. [126] In 1774 he was a key participant in the adoption of the Fairfax Resolves which, alongside the assertion of colonial rights, condemned the transatlantic slave trade on moral grounds. [127] [118] Washington was a signatory to that entire document, and thus publicly endorsed clause 17 "declaring our earnest wishes to see an entire stop forever put to such wicked, cruel, and unnatural trade." [128]

He began to express the growing rift with Great Britain in terms of slavery, stating in the summer of 1774 that the British authorities were "endeavouring by every piece of Art & despotism to fix the Shackles of Slavry [sic]" upon the colonies. Two years later, on taking command of the Continental Army at Cambridge at the start of the American Revolutionary War, he wrote in orders to his troops that "it is a noble Cause we are engaged in, it is the Cause of virtue and mankind. freedom or Slavery must be the result of our conduct." [129] The hypocrisy or paradox inherent in slave owners characterizing a war of independence as a struggle for their own freedom from slavery was not lost on the British writer Samuel Johnson, who asked, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?" [130] [131] As if answering Johnson, Washington wrote to a friend in August 1774, "The crisis is arrived when we must assert our rights, or submit to every imposition that can be heaped upon us, till custom and use shall make us tame and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway." [132]

Washington shared the common Southern concern about arming African Americans, enslaved or free, and initially refused to accept either into the ranks of the Continental Army. He reversed his position on free African Americans when the royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation in November 1775 offering freedom to rebel-owned slaves who enlisted in the British forces. Three years later and facing acute manpower shortages, Washington approved a Rhode Island initiative to raise a battalion of African-American soldiers [133] [134]

Washington gave a cautious response to a 1779 proposal from his young aide John Laurens for the recruitment of 3,000 South Carolinian enslaved workers who would be rewarded with emancipation. He was concerned that such a move would prompt the British to do the same, leading to an arms race in which the Americans would be at a disadvantage, and that it would promote discontent among those who remained enslaved. [135] [136] [f] In 1780, he suggested to one of his commanders the integration of African-American recruits "to abolish the name and appearance of a Black Corps." [140]

During the war, some 5,000 African Americans served in a Continental Army that was more integrated than any American force before the Vietnam War, and another 1,000 served on American warships. They represented less than three percent of all American forces mobilized, though in 1778 they provided as much as 13% of the Continental Army. [141] [142] By the end of the war African-Americans were serving alongside whites in virtually all units other than those raised in the deep south. [140] [143]

The first indication of a shift in Washington's thinking on slavery appears during the war, in correspondence of 1778 and 1779 with Lund Washington, who managed Mount Vernon in Washington's absence. [144] In the exchange of letters, a conflicted Washington expressed a desire "to get quit of Negroes", but made clear his reluctance to sell them at a public venue and his wish that "husband and wife, and Parents and children are not separated from each other". [145] His determination not to separate families became a major complication in his deliberations on the sale, purchase and, in due course, emancipation of his own slaves. [146] His restrictions put Lund in a difficult position with two female slaves he had already all but sold in 1778, and Lund's irritation was evident in his request to Washington for clear instructions. [147] Despite Washington's reluctance to break up families, there is little evidence that moral considerations played any part in his thinking at this stage. He sought to liberate himself from an economically unviable system, not to liberate his slaves. They were still a property from which he expected to profit. During a period of severe wartime depreciation, the question was not whether to sell his enslaved people, but when, where, and how best to sell them. Lund sold nine enslaved including the two females, in January 1779. [148] [149] [150]

Washington's actions at the war's end reveal little in the way of antislavery inclinations. He was anxious to recover his own slaves, and refused to consider compensation for the upwards of 80,000 formerly enslaved people evacuated by the British, demanding without success that the British respect a clause in the Preliminary Articles of Peace which he regarded as requiring the return of all slaves and other American property even if the British had purported to free some of those slaves. [151] [152] [153] Before resigning his commission in 1783, Washington took the opportunity to give his opinion on the challenges that threatened the existence of the new nation, in his Circular to the States. That circular letter inveighed against “local prejudices” but explicitly declined to name any of them, “leaving the last to the good sense and serious consideration of those immediately concerned.” [152] [154]

Confederation years Edit

Emancipation became a major issue in Virginia after liberalization in 1782 of the law regarding manumission, which is the act of an owner freeing his slaves. Before 1782, a manumission had required obtaining consent from the state legislature, which was arduous and rarely granted. [155] After 1782, inspired by the rhetoric that had driven the revolution, it became popular to free slaves. The free African-American population in Virginia rose from some 3,000 to more than 20,000 between 1780 and 1800 the 1800 United States Census tallied about 350,000 slaves in Virginia, and the proslavery interest re-asserted itself around that time. [156] [157] [158] The historian Kenneth Morgan writes, ". the revolutionary war was the crucial turning-point in [Washington's] thinking about slavery. After 1783. he began to express inner tensions about the problem of slavery more frequently, though always in private. " [159] Although Philip Morgan identifies several turning points and believes no single one was pivotal, [g] most historians agree the Revolution was central to the evolution of Washington's attitudes on slavery. [163] [164] It is likely that revolutionary rhetoric about the rights of men, the close contact with young antislavery officers who served with Washington – such as Laurens, the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton – and the influence of northern colleagues were contributory factors in that process. [165] [166] [h]

Washington was drawn into the postwar abolitionist discourse through his contacts with antislavery friends, their transatlantic network of leading abolitionists and the literature produced by the antislavery movement, [169] though he was reluctant to volunteer his own opinion on the matter and generally did so only when the subject was first raised with him. [159] At his death, Washington's extensive library included at least seventeen publications on slavery. Six of them had been collated into an expensively bound volume titled Tracts on Slavery, indicating that he attached some importance to that selection. Five of the six were published in or after 1788. [i] All six shared common themes that slaves first had to be educated about the obligations of liberty before they could be emancipated, a belief Washington is reported to have expressed himself in 1798, and that abolition should be realized by a gradual legislative process, an idea that began to appear in Washington's correspondence during the Confederation period. [171] [172]

Washington was not impressed by what Dorothy Twohig – a former editor-in-chief of The Washington Papers – described as the "imperious demands" and "evangelical piety" of Quaker efforts to advance abolition, and in 1786 he complained about their "tamper[ing] with & seduc[ing]" slaves who "are happy & content to remain with their present masters". [173] [174] Only the most radical of abolitionists called for immediate emancipation. The disruption to the labor market and the care of the elderly and infirm would have created enormous problems. Large numbers of unemployed poor, of whatever color, was a cause for concern in 18th-century America, to the extent that expulsion and foreign resettlement was often part of the discourse on emancipation. [175] A sudden end to slavery would also have caused a significant financial loss to slaveowners whose human property represented a valuable asset. Gradual emancipation was seen as a way of mitigating such a loss and reducing opposition from those with a financial self-interest in maintaining slavery. [176]

In 1783, Lafayette proposed a joint venture to establish an experimental settlement for freed slaves which, with Washington's example, "might render it a general practise", but Washington demurred. As Lafayette forged ahead with his plan, Washington offered encouragement but expressed concern in 1786 about "much inconvenience and mischief" an abrupt emancipation might generate, and he gave no tangible support to the idea. [149] [177] [j]

Washington expressed support for emancipation legislation to prominent Methodists Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury in 1785, but declined to sign their petition which (as Coke put it) asked "the General Assembly of Virginia, to pass a law for the immediate or gradual emancipation of all the slaves". [180] [181] [182] Washington privately conveyed his support for such legislation to most of the great men of Virginia, [183] [180] and promised to comment publicly on the matter by letter to the Virginia Assembly if the Assembly would begin serious deliberation about the Methodists' petition. [184] [182] The historian Lacy Ford writes that Washington may have dissembled: "In all likelihood, Washington was honest about his general desire for gradual emancipation but dissembled about his willingness to speak publicly on its behalf the Mount Vernon master almost certainly reasoned that the legislature would table the petition immediately and thus release him from any obligation to comment publicly on the matter." The measure was rejected without any dissent in the Virginia House of Delegates, because abolitionist legislators quickly backed down rather than suffer inevitable defeat. [180] [183] [184] Washington wrote in despair to Lafayette: "Some petitions were presented to the Assembly at its last session for the abolition of slavery, but they could scarce obtain a reading." [182] James Thomas Flexner’s interpretation is somewhat different from Lacy Ford’s: "Washington was willing to back publicly the Methodists' petition for gradual emancipation if the proposal showed the slightest possibility of being given consideration by the Virginia legislature." [182] Flexner adds that, if Washington had been more audacious in pursuing emancipation in Virginia, then "he undoubtedly would have failed to achieve the end of slavery, and he would certainly have made impossible the role he played in the Constitutional Convention and the Presidency." [185]

Henriques identifies Washington's concern for the judgement of posterity as a significant factor in Washington's thinking on slavery, writing, "No man had a greater desire for secular immortality, and [Washington] understood that his place in history would be tarnished by his ownership of slaves." [186] Philip Morgan similarly identifies the importance of Washington's driving ambition for fame and public respect as a man of honor [166] in December 1785, the Quaker and fellow Virginian Robert Pleasants "[hit] Washington where it hurt most", Morgan writes, when he told Washington that to remain a slaveholder would forever tarnish his reputation. [187] [k] In correspondence the next year with Maryland politician John Francis Mercer, Washington expressed "great repugnance" at buying slaves, stated that he would not buy any more "unless some peculiar circumstances should compel me to it" and made clear his desire to see the institution of slavery ended by a gradual legislative process. [192] [193] He expressed his support for abolitionist legislation privately, but widely, [194] sharing those views with leading Virginians, [182] and with other leaders including Mercer and founding father Robert Morris of Pennsylvania to whom Washington wrote: [195]

I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it – but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority: and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.

Washington still needed labor to work his farms, and there was little alternative to slavery. Hired labor south of Pennsylvania was scarce and expensive, and the Revolution had cut off the supply of indentured servants and convict labor from Great Britain. [194] [37] Washington significantly reduced his slave purchases after the war, though it is not clear whether this was a moral or practical decision he repeatedly stated that his inventory and its potential progeny were adequate for his current and foreseeable needs. [196] [197] Nevertheless, he negotiated with John Mercer to accept six slaves in payment of a debt in 1786 and expressed to Henry Lee a desire to purchase a bricklayer the next year. [174] [19] [l] In 1788, Washington acquired thirty-three slaves from the estate of Bartholomew Dandridge in settlement of a debt and left them with Dandridge's widow on her estate at Pamocra, New Kent County, Virginia. [202] [203] Later the same year, he declined a suggestion from the leading French abolitionist Jacques Brissot to form and become president of an abolitionist society in Virginia, stating that although he was in favor of such a society and would support it, the time was not yet right to confront the issue. [204] Historian James Flexner has written that, generally speaking, "Washington limited himself to stating that, if an authentic movement toward emancipation could be started in Virginia, he would spring to its support. No such movement could be started." [205]

Creation of the U.S. Constitution Edit

Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, during which it became obvious how explosive the slavery issue was, and how willing the antislavery faction was to accept the preservation of this oppressive institution to ensure national unity and the establishment of a strong federal government. The Constitution allowed but did not require the preservation of slavery, and it deliberately avoided use of the word "slave" which could have been interpreted as authorizing the treatment of human beings as property throughout the country. [206] Each state was allowed to keep it, change it, or eliminate it as they wished, though Congress could make various policies that would affect this decision in each state. As of 1776, slavery was legal in all 13 colonies, but by Washington's death in December 1799 there were eight free states and nine slave states, and that split was considered entirely constitutional. [207]

The support of the southern states for the new constitution was secured by granting them concessions that protected slavery, including the Fugitive Slave Clause, plus clauses that promised Congress would not prohibit the transatlantic slave trade for twenty years, and that empowered (but did not require) Congress to authorize suppression of insurrections such as slave rebellions. [208] [209] The Constitution also included the Three-Fifths Compromise which cut both ways: for purposes of taxation and representation, three out of every five slaves would be counted, which meant that each slave state would have to pay less taxes but would also have less representation in Congress than if every slave was counted. [210] After the convention, Washington's support was critical for getting the states to ratify the document. [211]

Presidential years Edit

Statement attributed to George Washington that appears in the notebook of David Humphreys, c.1788/1789 [212]

Washington's preeminent position ensured that any actions he took with regard to his own slaves would become a statement in a national debate about slavery that threatened to divide the country. Wiencek suggests Washington considered making precisely such a statement on taking up the presidency in 1789. A passage in the notebook of Washington's biographer David Humphreys [m] dated to late 1788 or early 1789 recorded a statement that resembled the emancipation clause in Washington's will a decade later. Wiencek argues the passage was a draft for a public announcement Washington was considering in which he would declare the emancipation of some of his slaves. It marks, Wiencek believes, a moral epiphany in Washington's thinking, the moment he decided not only to emancipate his slaves but also to use the occasion to set the example Lafayette had urged in 1783. [214] Other historians dispute Wiencek's conclusion Henriques and Joseph Ellis concur with Philip Morgan's opinion that Washington experienced no epiphanies in a "long and hard-headed struggle" in which there was no single turning point. Morgan argues that Humphreys' passage is the "private expression of remorse" from a man unable to extricate himself from the "tangled web" of "mutual dependency" on slavery, and that Washington believed public comment on such a divisive subject was best avoided for the sake of national unity. [215] [216] [125] [n]

As president Edit

Washington took up the presidency at a time when revolutionary sentiment against slavery was giving way to a resurgence of proslavery interests. No state considered making slavery an issue during the ratification of the new constitution, southern states reinforced their slavery legislation and prominent antislavery figures were muted about the issue in public. Washington understood there was little widespread organized support for abolition. [220] He had a keen sense both of the fragility of the fledgling Republic and of his place as a unifying figure, and he was determined not to endanger either by confronting an issue as divisive and entrenched as slavery. [221] [222]

He was president of a government that provided materiel and financial support for French efforts to suppress the Saint Domingue slave revolt in 1791, and implemented the proslavery Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. [223] [224] [225]

On the anti-slavery side of the ledger, in 1789 he signed a reenactment of the Northwest Ordinance which freed any new slaves brought after 1787 into a vast expanse of federal territory, except for slaves escaping from slave states. [226] [227] Washington also signed into law the Slave Trade Act of 1794 that banned the involvement of American ships and American exports in the international slave trade. [228] Moreover, according to Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner, Washington as President weakened slavery by favoring Hamilton's economic plans over Jefferson's agrarian economics. [205]

Washington never spoke publicly on the issue of slavery during his eight years as president, nor did he respond to, much less act upon, any of the antislavery petitions he received. He described a 1790 Quaker petition to Congress urging an immediate end to the slave trade as "an illjudged piece of business" that "occasioned a great waste of time", although historian Paul F. Boller has observed that Congress extensively debated that petition only to conclude it had no power to do anything about it, so "The Quaker Memorial may have been a waste of time so far as immediate practical results were concerned." [229]

Late in his presidency, Washington told his Secretary of State, Edmund Randolph, that in the event of a confrontation between North and South, he had "made up his mind to remove and be of the Northern" (i.e. leave Virginia and move up north). [230] In 1798, he imagined just such a conflict when he said, "I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union." [231] [172] But there is no indication Washington ever favored an immediate rather than gradual end to slavery. His abolitionist aspirations for the nation centered around the hope that slavery would disappear naturally over time with the prohibition of slave imports in 1808, the earliest date such legislation could be passed as agreed at the Constitutional Convention. [175] [232] Indeed, the dying out of slavery remained possible, until Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793 which led within five years to a vastly greater demand for slave labor. [233]

As Virginia farmer Edit

As well as political caution, economic imperatives remained an important consideration with regard to Washington's personal position as a slaveholder and his efforts to free himself from his dependency on slavery. [234] [162] He was one of the largest debtors in Virginia at the end of the war, [235] and by 1787 the business at Mount Vernon had failed to make a profit for more than a decade. Persistently poor crop yields due to pestilence and poor weather, the cost of renovations at his Mount Vernon residence, the expense of entertaining a constant stream of visitors, the failure of Lund to collect rent from Washington's tenant farmers and wartime depreciation all helped to make Washington cash poor. [236] [237]

George Washington to Robert Lewis, August 17, 1799 [238]

The overheads of maintaining a surplus of slaves, including the care of the young and elderly, made a substantial contribution to his financial difficulties. [239] [197] In 1786, the ratio of productive to non-productive slaves was approaching 1:1, and the c. 7,300-acre (3,000 ha) Mount Vernon estate was being operated with 122 working slaves. Although the ratio had improved by 1799 to around 2:1, the Mount Vernon estate had grown by only 10 percent to some 8,000 acres (3,200 ha) while the working slave population had grown by 65 percent to 201. It was a trend that threatened to bankrupt Washington. [240] [241] The slaves Washington had bought early in the development of his business were beyond their prime and nearly impossible to sell, and from 1782 Virginia law made slaveowners liable for the financial support of slaves they freed who were too young, too old or otherwise incapable of working. [242] [243]

During his second term, Washington began planning for a retirement that would provide him "tranquillity with a certain income". [244] In December 1793, he sought the aid of the British agriculturalist Arthur Young in finding farmers to whom he would lease all but one of his farms, on which his slaves would then be employed as laborers. [245] [246] The next year, he instructed his secretary Tobias Lear to sell his western lands, ostensibly to consolidate his operations and put his financial affairs in order. Washington concluded his instructions to Lear with a private passage in which he expressed repugnance at owning slaves and declared that the principal reason for selling the land was to raise the finances that would allow him to liberate them. [234] [247] It is the first clear indication that Washington's thinking had shifted from selling his slaves to freeing them. [244] In November the same year (1794), Washington declared in a letter to his friend and neighbor Alexander Spotswood: "Were it not then, that I am principled agt. [sic] selling Negroes, as you would Cattle in the market, I would not, in twelve months from this date, be possessed of one as a slave." [248] [20]

In 1795 and 1796, Washington devised a complicated plan that involved renting out his western lands to tenant farmers to whom he would lease his own slaves, and a similar scheme to lease the dower slaves he controlled to Dr. David Stuart for work on Stuart's Eastern Shore plantation. This plan would have involved breaking up slave families, but it was designed with an end goal of raising enough finances to fund their eventual emancipation (a detail Washington kept secret) and prevent the Custis heirs from permanently splitting up families by sale. [249] [250] [o]

None of these schemes could be realized because of his failure to sell or rent land at the right prices, the refusal of the Custis heirs to agree to them and his own reluctance to separate families. [252] [253] Wiencek speculates that, because Washington gave such serious consideration to freeing his slaves knowing full well the political ramifications that would follow, one of his goals was to make a public statement that would sway opinion towards abolition. [254] Philip Morgan argues that Washington freeing his slaves while President in 1794 or 1796 would have had no profound effect, and would have been greeted with public silence and private derision by white southerners. [255]

Wiencek writes that if Washington had found buyers for his land at what seemed like a fair price, this plan would have ultimately freed "both his own and the slaves controlled by Martha’s family", [256] and to accomplish this goal Washington would "yield up his most valuable remaining asset, his western lands, the wherewithal for his retirement." [257] Ellis concludes that Washington prioritized his own financial security over the freedom of the enslaved population under his control, and writes, on Washington's failure to sell the land at prices he thought fair, "He had spent a lifetime acquiring an impressive estate, and he was extremely reluctant to give it up except on his terms." [258] In discussing another of Washington's plans, drawn up after he had written his will, to transfer enslaved workers to his estates in western Virginia, Philip Morgan writes, "Indisputably, then, even on the eve of his death, Washington was far from giving up on slavery. To the last, he was committed to making profits, even at the expense of the disruptions such transfers would indisputably have wrought on his slaves." [259]

As Washington subordinated his desire for emancipation to his efforts to secure financial independence, he took care to retain his slaves. [260] From 1791, he arranged for those who served in his personal retinue in Philadelphia while he was President to be rotated out of the state before they became eligible for emancipation after six months residence per Pennsylvanian law. Not only would Washington have been deprived of their services if they were freed, most of the slaves he took with him to Philadelphia were dower slaves, which meant that he would have had to compensate the Custis estate for the loss. Because of his concerns for his public image and that the prospect of emancipation would generate discontent among the slaves before they became eligible for emancipation, he instructed that they be shuffled back to Mount Vernon "under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public". [261]

Washington spared no expense in efforts to recover Hercules and Judge when they absconded. In Judge's case, Washington persisted for three years. He tried to persuade her to return when his agent eventually tracked her to New Hampshire, but refused to promise her freedom after his death "However well disposed I might be to a gradual emancipation", he said, "or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference". Both Hercules and Judge eluded capture. [16] Washington's search for a new chef to replace Hercules in 1797 is the last known instance in which he considered buying a slave, despite his resolve "never to become the Master of another Slave by purchase" in the end he chose to hire a white chef. [262]

Attitude to race Edit

Historian Joseph Ellis writes that Washington did not favor the continuation of legal slavery, and adds "[n]or did he ever embrace the racial arguments for black inferiority that Jefferson advanced. He saw slavery as the culprit, preventing the development of diligence and responsibility that would emerge gradually and naturally after emancipation." [263] Other historians, such as Stuart Leibinger, agree with Ellis that, "Unlike Jefferson, Washington and Madison rejected innate black inferiority. " [264]

The historian James Thomas Flexner says that the charge of racism has come from historical revisionism and lack of investigation. Flexner has pointed out that slavery was, "Not invented for blacks, the institution was as old as history and had not, when Washington was a child, been officially challenged anywhere." [205]

Kenneth Morgan writes that, "Washington's engrained sense of racial superiority to African Americans did not lead to expressions of negrophobia. Yet Washington wanted his white workers to be housed away from the blacks at Mt. Vernon, believing that close racial intermixture was undesirable." [265] According to historian Albert Tillson, one reason why enslaved black people were lodged separately at Mount Vernon is because Washington felt that some white workers had habits that were "not good" (e.g., Tillson mentions instances of "interracial drinking" in the Chesapeake area), and another reason is that, Tillson reports, Washington "expected such accommodations would eventually disgust the white family." [266]

Philip Morgan writes that "The youthful Washington revealed prejudices toward blacks, quite natural for the day" and that "blackness, in his mind, was synonymous with uncivilized behaviour." [267] Washington's prejudices were not hard and fast his retention of African-Americans in the Virginia Regiment contrary to the rules, his employment of African-American overseers, his use of African-American doctors and his praise for the "great poetical Talents" of the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley, who had lauded him in a poem in 1775, show that he recognized the skills and talents of African-Americans. [268] Historian Henry Wiencek rendered this judgment: [269]

“If you look at Washington’s will, he’s not conflicted over the place of African Americans at all,” Wiencek said in an interview. “From one end of his papers to the other, I looked for some sense of racism and found none, unlike Jefferson, who’s explicit on his belief in the inferiority of Black people. In his will, Washington authored a bill of rights for Black people and said they should be taught to read and write. They were Americans, with the right to live here, to be educated, and to work productively as free people.”

The views of Martha Washington about slavery and race were different from her husband's, and were less favorable to African Americans. For example, she said in 1795 that, "The Blacks are so bad in their nature that they have not the least grat[i]tude for the kindness that may be shewed to them." She refused to follow the example he set by emancipating his slaves, and instead she bequeathed the only slave she directly owned (named Elish) to her grandson. [270] [271]

In July 1799, five months before his death, Washington wrote his will, in which he stipulated that his slaves should be freed. In the months that followed, he considered a plan to repossess tenancies in Berkeley and Frederick Counties and transferring half of his Mount Vernon slaves to work them. It would, Washington hoped, "yield more nett profit" which might "benefit myself and not render the [slaves'] condition worse", despite the disruption such relocation would have had on the slave families. The plan died with Washington on December 14, 1799. [272] [p]

Washington's slaves were the subjects of the longest provisions in the 29-page will, taking three pages in which his instructions were more forceful than in the rest of the document. His valet, William Lee, was freed immediately and his remaining 123 slaves were to be emancipated on the death of Martha. [274] [275] The deferral was intended to postpone the pain of separation that would occur when his slaves were freed but their spouses among the dower slaves remained in bondage, a situation which affected 20 couples and their children. It is possible Washington hoped Martha and her heirs who would inherit the dower slaves would solve this problem by following his example and emancipating them. [276] [277] [74] Those too old or infirm to work were to be supported by his estate, as mandated by state law. [278] In the late 1790s, about half the enslaved population at Mount Vernon was too old, too young, or too infirm to be productive. [279]

Washington went beyond the legal requirement to support and maintain younger slaves until adulthood, stipulating that those children whose education could not be undertaken by parents were to be taught reading, writing, and a useful trade by their masters and then be freed at the age of 25. [278] He forbade the sale or transportation of any of his slaves out of Virginia before their emancipation. [275] Including the Dandridge slaves, who were to be emancipated under similar terms, more than 160 slaves would be freed. [202] [203] Although Washington was not alone among Virginian slaveowners in freeing their slaves, he was unusual among those doing it for doing it so late, after the post-revolutionary support for emancipation in Virginia had faded. He was also unusual for being one of the few slaveowning founders to do so. [280] Other founders who freed their slaves include John Dickinson and Caesar Rodney, who both did so in Delaware. [281]

Any hopes Washington may have had that his example and prestige would influence the thinking of others, including his own family, proved to be unfounded. His action was ignored by southern slaveholders, and slavery continued at Mount Vernon. [282] [283] Already from 1795, dower slaves were being transferred to Martha's three granddaughters as the Custis heirs married. [284] Martha felt threatened by being surrounded with slaves whose freedom depended on her death and freed her late husband's slaves on January 1, 1801. [285] [q]

Able-bodied slaves were freed and left to support themselves and their families. [287] Within a few months, almost all of Washington's former slaves had left Mount Vernon, leaving 121 adult and working-age children still working the estate. Five freedwomen were listed as remaining: an unmarried mother of two children two women, one of them with three children, married to Washington slaves too old to work and two women who were married to dower slaves. [288] William Lee remained at Mount Vernon, where he worked as a shoemaker. [289] After Martha's death on May 22, 1802, most of the remaining dower slaves passed to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, to whom she bequeathed the only slave she held in her own name. [290]

There are few records of how the newly freed slaves fared. [291] Custis later wrote that "although many of them, with a view to their liberation, had been instructed in mechanic trades, yet they succeeded very badly as freemen so true is the axiom, 'that the hour which makes man a slave, takes half his worth away ' ". The son-in-law of Custis's sister wrote in 1853 that the descendants of those who remained slaves, many of them now in his possession, had been "prosperous, contented and happy", while those who had been freed had led a life of "vice, dissipation and idleness" and had, in their "sickness, age and poverty", become a burden to his in-laws. [292] Such reports were influenced by the innate racism of the well-educated, upper-class authors and ignored the social and legal impediments that prejudiced the chances of prosperity for former slaves, which included laws that made it illegal to teach freedpeople to read and write and, in 1806, required newly freed slaves to leave the state. [293] [294]

There is evidence that some of Washington's former slaves were able to buy land, support their families and prosper as free people. By 1812, Free Town in Truro Parish, the earliest known free African-American settlement in Fairfax County, contained seven households of former Washington slaves. By the mid 1800s, a son of Washington's carpenter Davy Jones and two grandsons of his postilion Joe Richardson had each bought land in Virginia. Francis Lee, younger brother of William, was well known and respected enough to have his obituary printed in the Alexandria Gazette on his death at Mount Vernon in 1821. Sambo Anderson – who hunted game, as he had while Washington's slave, and prospered for a while by selling it to the most respectable families in Alexandria – was similarly noted by the Gazette when he died near Mount Vernon in 1845. [295] Research published in 2019 has concluded that Hercules worked as a cook in New York, where he died on May 15, 1812. [296]

A decade after Washington's death, the Pennsylvanian jurist Richard Peters wrote that Washington's servants "were devoted to him and especially those more immediately about his person. The survivors of them still venerate and adore his memory." In his old age, Anderson said he was "a much happier man when he was a slave than he had ever been since", because he then "had a good kind master to look after all my wants, but now I have no one to care for me". [297] When Judge was interviewed in the 1840s, she expressed considerable bitterness, not at the way she he had been treated as a slave, but at the fact that she had been enslaved. When asked, having experienced the hardships of being a freewoman and having outlived both husband and children, whether she regretted her escape, she replied, "No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by [that] means." [298]

Political legacy Edit

Washington's will was both private testament and public statement on the institution. [275] [218] It was published widely – in newspapers nationwide, as a pamphlet which, in 1800 alone, extended to thirteen separate editions, and included in other works – and became part of the nationalist narrative. [299] In the eulogies of the antislavery faction, the inconvenient fact of Washington's slaveholding was downplayed in favor of his final act of emancipation. Washington "disdained to hold his fellow-creatures in abject domestic servitude," wrote the Massachusetts Federalist Timothy Bigelow before calling on "fellow-citizens in the South" to emulate Washington's example. In this narrative, Washington was a proto-abolitionist who, having added the freedom of his slaves to the freedom from British slavery he had won for the nation, would be mobilized to serve the antislavery cause. [300]

An alternative narrative more in line with proslavery sentiments embraced rather than excised Washington's ownership of slaves. Washington was cast as a paternal figure, the benevolent father not only of his country but also of a family of slaves bound to him by affection rather than coercion. [301] In this narrative, slaves idolized Washington and wept at his deathbed, and in an 1807 biography, Aaron Bancroft wrote, "In domestick [sic] and private life, he blended the authority of the master with the care and kindness of the guardian and friend." [302] The competing narratives allowed both North and South to claim Washington as the father of their countries during the American Civil War that ended slavery more than half a century after his death. [303]

There is tension between Washington's stance on slavery, and his broader historical role as a proponent of liberty. He was a slaveholder who led a war for liberty, and then led the establishment of a national government that secured liberty for many of its citizens, and historians have considered this a paradox. [131] The historian Edmund Sears Morgan explained that Washington was not alone in this regard: "Virginia produced the most eloquent spokesmen for freedom and equality in the entire United States: George Washington, James Madison, and, above all, Thomas Jefferson. They were all slaveholders and remained so throughout their lives." [304] Washington recognized this paradox, rejected the notion of black inferiority, and was somewhat more humane than other slaveowners, but failed to publicly become an active supporter of emancipation laws due to Washington's fears of disunion, the racism of many other Virginians, the problem of compensating owners, slaves' lack of education, and the unwillingness of Virginia’s leaders to seriously consider such a step. [264] [263]

Memorial Edit

In 1929, a plaque was embedded in the ground at Mount Vernon less than 50 yards (45 m) from the crypt housing the remains of Washington and Martha, marking a plot neglected by both groundsmen and tourist guides where slaves had been buried in unmarked graves. The inscription read, "In memory of the many faithful colored servants of the Washington family, buried at Mount Vernon from 1760 to 1860. Their unidentified graves surround this spot." The site remained untended and ignored in the visitor literature until the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association erected a more prominent monument surrounded with plantings and inscribed, "In memory of the Afro Americans who served as slaves at Mount Vernon this monument marking their burial ground dedicated September 21, 1983." In 1985, a ground-penetrating radar survey identified sixty-six possible burials. As of late 2017, an archaeological project begun in 2014 has identified, without disturbing the contents, sixty-three burial plots in addition to seven plots known before the project began. [305] [306] [307]

In a Groundbreaking Exhibit at Mount Vernon, Slaves Speak and History Listens

You are dining with the President. Frank Lee, standing tall in his red-and-white livery, takes your note of introduction in Mount Vernon’s entry hall. The enslaved butler chooses a spot for you to wait–either in the elegant, robin’s egg blue front parlor, or in the cozier “little parlor”–while he alerts George Washington and wife Martha to your arrival.

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As the opal haze of a July afternoon rolls off the nearby Potomac River, Lee’s wife, Lucy, labors alongside another enslaved cook, Hercules, to ready dishes for the 3:30 p.m. dinner. Frank, with the aid of waiters Marcus and Christopher Sheels, serves your meal. Around 6 o’clock, they wheel out a silver hot-water urn, and you adjourn to the portico for coffee, tea and conversation with the first family.

Above, in a guestroom, enslaved housemaids, like seamstresses Caroline Branham and Charlotte, go about the last tasks of a day begun at dawn. They carry up fresh linens and refill water jugs. Mount Vernon’s enslaved grooms make a last check on the horses.

This was how English architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe likely experienced his July 16, 1796 visit to Washington’s estate. During his stay, he sketched the grounds and the people with customary fervor. In Latrobe’s first draft of a painting of his day with President Washington, the silhouette of an enslaved man (possibly Frank Lee) was part of the picture. But in the finished watercolor, he is gone.

Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, a new exhibit at the Virginia estate, on view through 2018, brings Frank, Hercules, Lucy, and other slaves at Mount Vernon to the fore. It’s a project that has been many years in the making. “Our goal was to humanize people,” says Susan P. Schoelwer, Mount Vernon’s Robert H. Smith Senior Curator. “We think of them as individual lives with human dignity.”

The exhibition centers on 19 of the 317 enslaved individuals who worked and lived at Mount Vernon during the Washingtons’ lifetime. Mining a rare cache of material culture, artwork, farm tools and plantation records, curators partnered with scholars and descendants of the enslaved to retell their shared past through the stuff of everyday life.

"Negroes belonging to George Washington in his own right and by marriage, July 1799." (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association) Ambrotype of an enslaved man identified only as Tom (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Gift of Ella Mackubin, 1953) Portrait of George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1798 (Gift of Caroline H. Richardson, 1904) The East Front of Mount Vernon, by Edward Savage, 1787-1792 (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Bequest of Helen W. Thompson, 1964) Portrait of Edmund Parker, wearing his uniform as guard at Washington's Tomb in the 1880s and 1890s. Mount Vernon superintendent Harrison Howell Dodge drew this portrait for his 1932 memoir. (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association) Washington’s Kitchen, Mount Vernon, by Eastman Johnson, 1864 (Gift of Annie Burr Jennings, Vice Regent for Connecticut, 1937) View of Mount Vernon with the Washington Family on the Piazza, July 16, 1796, by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (Purchased with funds provided in part by an anonymous donor, 2013) The Washington Family / La Famille Washington, after Edward Savage, 1798 (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Gift of the Robert E. Wright Family, in memory of Dorothy Walton Wright and Robert Edward Wright, 2012) The Old Mount Vernon, by Eastman Johnson, 1857 (Purchased with funds courtesy of an anonymous donor and the Mount Vernon Licensing Fund, 2009) Portrait of George Washington's Cook, by Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1795󈟍 (COPYRIGHT © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) “A map of General Washington's farm, of Mount Vernon from a drawing transmitted by the General,” Letters from His Excellency General Washington, to Arthur Young… (1801). (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)

“I know that they are speaking again,” says descendant Judge Rohulamin Quander, a member of one of the oldest traceable African-American families in the United States. “Those voices were unsung up until 1799, and we don’t have any pictures or voice recordings of what they had to say. But they have reached out beyond the grave and said to each of us, we’re depending upon you. You have to do this for us.”

In his 1799 will, Washington included a slave census and a directive to emancipate his slaves. His decision to do so–which Martha promptly carried out–reflects the nearly seven decades the President spent thinking about slavery’s effects on farming and families. Boldly, Lives Bound Together raises a thorny set of questions: What sort of slave owner was Washington? How and why did his thoughts on slavery change?

Records show that George, a slave owner since age 11, brought fewer slaves to his 1759 marriage than Martha. Visitors to Mount Vernon left behind conflicting accounts of Washington’s treatment of his slaves. Whippings and hard labor were frequent forms of reprimand. Yet Washington depended on the enslaved population to take care of his family and secure plantation profits as he took on military and political duties. Often written far from home, some of Washington’s most fascinating correspondence was not with other “founders” but with his farm managersOn New Years’ Day 1789, for example, as the new federal government began to take real shape, Washington turned his attention to Mount Vernon’s needs. He wrote one overseer with clear instructions: 

“To request that my people may be at their work as soon as it is light—work ’till it is dark—and be diligent while they are at it can hardly be necessary, because the propriety of it must strike every manager who attends to my interest, or regards his own Character—and who on reflection, must be convinced that lost labour can never be regained—the presumption being, that, every labourer (male or female) does as much in the 24 hours as their strength, without endangering their health, or constitution, will allow of.” 

Despite his mounting responsibilities on the national stage, Washington remained a shrewd businessman. He relied on slaves to keep his Virginia plantation running at a profit, says David Hoth, senior editor at The Papers of George Washington editorial project. “He was inclined to suspect his workers of malingering and petty theft, perhaps because he recognized that they probably saw slavery as an unnatural and unpleasant condition,” says Hoth. “He sold at least one runaway to the West Indies and threatened others.”

The butler's pantry, referred to on the inventory of Mount Vernon taken after Washington's death as the "closet under Frank's direction." (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association) Originally hung on the south end of the Mount Vernon Mansion, this bell rang to alert enslaved servants that they were needed for some task. ("Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Transferred to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association through the generosity of John Augustine Washington III, 1860 Conservation courtesy of Harry and Erika Lister") Interior of the reconstructed greenhouse slave quarter at Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association) Artifacts archaeologically excavated at the House for Families (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association) The dining room at Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)

In private, the president came to support gradual abolition by legislative act and favored measures, like non-importation, that might hasten the change. He pursued Mount Vernon’s runaway slaves, albeit quietly, without using newspaper advertisements. By 1792-93, according to Hoth, George Washington began to mull the idea of emancipation.

“It’s important to tell the story of his views on slavery and how they evolved,” says Schoelwer. “He was in the position of trying to balance private concerns with his public commitment to the survival of the nation.” At the same time, he used legal loopholes to make sure his slaves were kept enslaved.

The Mount Vernon exhibit collects a diverse medley of African-American sagas that reconsider the 18th-century world’s understanding of slavery and freedom. Via short biographies, reinterpreted artifacts, and new archeological evidence from Mount Vernon’s slave cemetery,㺓 lives emerge for new study. A new digital resource, an ever-evolving slavery database, allows visitors to search Mount Vernon’s enslaved community by name, skill or date range.

So far, the database has gathered information on 577 unique individuals who lived or worked at Mount Vernon up to 1799, and compiled details on the more than 900 enslaved individuals with whom George Washington interacted during his travels, according to Jessie MacLeod, associate curator at Mount Vernon. But though it shows a thriving plantation, the database also tells a different story. “You really get a sense for how often people are running away,” says MacLeod . “There are casual mentions in the weekly reports, of people being absent sometimes for 3 or 4 days. It’s not always clear whether they came back voluntarily or were captured. There’s no newspaper ad, but we do see an ongoing resistance in terms of absenteeism, and when they’re visiting family or friends in neighboring plantations.”

In the museum world, reinterpretation of slavery and freedom has gained new momentum. Mount Vernon’s “Lives Bound Together” exhibit reflects historic sites’ turn to focus on the experience of the enslaved, while exploring the paradox of liberty and slavery in daily life. In recent years, historians at Mount Vernon, along with those at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier, have rethought how to present those stories to the public through new signage, “slave life” walking tours, and open archeological digs. A series of scholarly conferences--sponsored by institutions like the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and many more--have been hosted at the former presidential homes.

Latrobe’s portrait of life at Mount Vernon may have initially included the slaves who made Washington’s estate hum, but the finished painting only tells part of that story, Lives Bound Together completes the picture by depicting the shared journey of the Washingtons and the enslaved. “We helped build this place and make it what it is. We helped make the president who he was,” says Shawn Costley, a descendant of Davy and Edy Jones, in the exhibit’s film. “We might not have had voting power and all that back then, but we made that man, we made George Washington, or added to or contributed to him being the prominent person that he is today.”

About Sara Georgini

Sara Georgini is series editor for The Papers of John Adams, part of The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society. She is the author of Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family.


Hercules was probably born around 1754, and was acquired by Washington as collateral for an unpaid loan given to his neighbor John Posey, Hercules' original owner. He first appears on tax records for Mount Vernon in 1771. He would have grown up on the plantation.

He chose Alice, one of Martha Washington's "dower" slaves, as his wife, and they had three children: Richmond (born 1777), Evey (born 1782), and Delia (born 1785). [1] He, Alice, and the three children were listed in the February 1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census, which records him as one of two cooks in the Mansion House. [2] Alice died in 1787. Following her death, he may have had another daughter (born c. 1791). [3]

Hercules was one of nine enslaved Africans brought to Philadelphia in 1790 by Washington to work in the presidential household. The others were his son Richmond (then 13 years old), Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Christopher Sheels, Giles, Paris, and Joe (Richardson). [5]

In the memoirs of Martha Washington's grandson, G.W.P. Custis, Hercules was recalled as "a celebrated artiste . as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States." The cook was given the privilege of selling the extra food from the Philadelphia kitchen which, by Custis's estimate, earned him nearly $200 a year, [6] the annual salary of a hired cook. According to Custis, Hercules was a dapper dresser and was given freedom to walk about in the city. [7]

Pennsylvania passed a gradual abolition law in 1780 which prohibited non-residents from holding slaves in the state longer than six months. If held beyond that period, the state's Gradual Abolition Act [8] gave slaves the legal power to free themselves. [9] Members of Congress were specifically exempted from the act. Officers of the executive and judicial branches of the federal government were not mentioned since those branches did not exist until the U.S. Constitution became effective in 1789.

When the national capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, there was a question about whether the state law would apply to federal officials. Washington argued (privately) that he was a citizen of Virginia, that his presence in Pennsylvania was solely a consequence of Philadelphia's being the temporary national capital, and that the state law should not apply to him. Rather than challenging the state law in court, Washington took the advice of his attorney general, Edmund Randolph, and systematically rotated the President's House slaves in and out of the state to prevent their establishing a six-month continuous residency. [10] This rotation was itself a violation of Pennsylvania law, but no one challenged the President's actions. [11] The U.S. Supreme Court later found Pennsylvania's 1788 amendment to the Gradual Abolition Act to be unconstitutional in Prigg v. Pennsylvania.

Washington allowed Hercules' son Richmond to work alongside his father in the Philadelphia kitchen for about a year, before returning him to Virginia. In November 1796, Richmond was implicated in a theft of money at Mount Vernon. Washington had suspicions that the father and son were planning a joint escape. [12]

Stephen Decatur's book The Private Affairs of George Washington (1933) stated that Hercules escaped to freedom from Philadelphia in March 1797, at the end of Washington's presidency. Decatur, a descendant of Washington's secretary, Tobias Lear, discovered a cache of family papers unavailable to scholars, and presented Hercules's escape from Philadelphia as fact. [13]

New research documents that Hercules was left behind at Mount Vernon when the Washingtons returned to Philadelphia following Christmas 1796. [14] Historian Anna Coxe Toogood found Hercules and Richmond listed in the Mount Vernon farm records during the winter of 1796-97. They and other domestic servants were assigned as laborers, to pulverize stone, dig brick clay, and grub out honeysuckle. [7]

In November 2009, Mary V. Thompson, research specialist at Mount Vernon, discovered that Hercules's escape to freedom was from Mount Vernon, and that it occurred on February 22, 1797 – Washington's 65th birthday. The president celebrated the day in Philadelphia, but it was also a holiday on the plantation. An entry in that week's Mount Vernon farm report noted that Hercules "absconded 4 [days ago]". [15]

As reported by Craig LaBan of the Philadelphia Inquirer in March 2019, Ramin Ganeshram uncovered new research about Hercules' final whereabouts after his escape. [4] Ganeshram and her Westport Historical Society colleague Sara Krasne found compelling evidence suggesting Hercules, who had never been seen again after 1801, in fact lived in New York City where he died on May 15, 1812. Their discovery offered never-before seen scholarship on Hercules.

The Westport Historical Society published an article in 2019, Sara Krasne found an index entry that listed a Hercules Posey of Virginia, aged 64, as having been buried in the Second African Burying Ground in New York City and as having died of consumption. [16]

Louis-Philippe, the future king of France, visited Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797. According to his April 5 diary entry:

The general's cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again she answered, "Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now." [1]

Hercules remained in hiding. In January 1798, the former President's house steward, Frederick Kitt, informed Washington that the fugitive was living in Philadelphia:

Since your departure I have been making distant enquiries about Herculas but did not till about four weeks ago hear anything of him and that was only that [he] was in town neither do I yet know where he is, and that it will be very difficult to find out in the secret manner necessary to be observed on the occasion. [17]

The 1799 Mount Vernon Slave Census listed 124 enslaved Africans owned by Washington and 153 "dower" slaves owned by Martha Washington's family. [18] Washington's 1799 Will instructed that his slaves be freed upon Martha's death. [19] Washington died on December 14, 1799. At Martha Washington's request, the three executors of Washington's Estate freed her late husband's slaves on January 1, 1801. It is possible that Hercules did not know he had been manumitted, and legally was no longer a fugitive. In a December 15, 1801, letter, Martha Washington indicated that she had learned that Hercules, by then legally free, was living in New York City. [20] Nothing more is known of his whereabouts or life in freedom.

Descendants Edit

During his time at Mount Vernon, Hercules had three children, son Richmond (born 1777) and daughters Eve (also Evey born 1782) and Delia (born 1785) with another enslaved woman, Alice, who belonged to George Washington's wife, Martha. He had a fourth child by another woman, after Alice's death, as reported by Louis Philippe I, who visited the plantation in 1797 and wrote in his diary of Hercules' escape to freedom and how he had left behind his six year old daughter. Neither his second partner's name nor his fourth child's name were recorded. [1]

While Hercules and all other African Americans enslaved by George Washington were ultimately freed in 1801, Hercules' children were not among those freed. Their mother Alice was property of the Custis estate, that of Martha Washington's first husband, and so, neither she nor George Washington owned them, but had been allowed to make use of them until Martha's death, after which they would be returned to the estate and divided among her descendants. A slave census taken in June of 1799, only a few months before George Washington's death, shows that Richmond, in his early twenties, was being made to work at the River Farm, farmland that made up the outlying part of Mount Vernon, while Eve and Delia, in their teens, like their father, were being made to work at the Mansion House Farm. [21] [22] [23] It's unclear what happened to them after Martha's death.

A new building for the Liberty Bell opened in Philadelphia in 2003. During excavation in 2000, remnants of the icehouse of the long-demolished President's House were uncovered. A more extensive archeological excavation was undertaken in 2007, which revealed foundations of the kitchen, an underground passage that connected the kitchen to the main house, and foundations of the Bow Window (a precursor to the Oval Office). A memorial has been created on the site of the President's House to commemorate the house and all its residents, and honor the contributions of the slaves there and in Philadelphia's history and American history.

A portrait long attributed to Gilbert Stuart, now at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, Spain, and thought to portray Hercules [6] was examined by experts in 2017 and, in fact, determined not to be Hercules at all. Nor was it painted by Stuart [4] but a free Dominican man.

A picture book for young children about Hercules, A Birthday Cake for George Washington illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton and authored by Ramin Ganeshram, was published by Scholastic Trade Publishing in January 2016. [24] After receiving severe and widespread criticism for illustrations "depicting happy slaves", [25] it was pulled by its publisher. [26] [27] In 2018, Ganeshram published The General's Cook the novel she had been working on prior to the publication of Birthday Cake. In the novel's acknowledgements, the author reprised public statements regarding her objections to and attempts to persuade the publisher to alter what she called the "offensive nature" of the picture book's illustrations. [28] [29]

From Slavery to Freedom: The Magnolia Cabin Project Tour

Magnolia’s Cabin Project began in 2008 in an effort to preserve five historic structures: four cabins built in the 1850s, and a smokehouse built circa 1900. These former slave dwellings now serve as the focal point for an award-winning 45-minute program in African-American history.

Magnolia recognizes the importance of acknowledging the vital role of enslaved people in Lowcountry history. No visit to Magnolia can be complete without an understanding of the families who have lived here—first as enslaved workers, and then as paid garden staff—throughout Magnolia’s 350 year history. By addressing this often overlooked part of the narrative, we seek to honor and remember the men, women, and children who designed, planted and worked in the gardens, built and maintained the bridges, and labored in the house and the rice fields while enslaved.

During this tour, visitors board an open-air shuttle that transports them to the cabins. Once there, visitors participate in a discussion focused on the history of slavery at Magnolia and the lives of the enslaved families who lived here. After the Civil War, these cabins were inhabited by free men and women who worked to design and maintain the gardens, and served as Magnolia's first tour guides. Their history and the history of their descendants (some of whom still work at Magnolia today) is also described.

After the discussion, visitors will have time to explore the cabins themselves. These four cabins have been preserved and restored, each representing a time period significant to both African-American history and Magnolia history. The time periods represented are as follows: the 1850s during the time of enslavement, the 1870s following Emancipation and during the time of Reconstruction, the 1920s during the Jim Crow era, and the 1960s through the Civil Rights Movement.

Magnolia promises visitors will leave with a newfound perspective on the lives of the men, women, and children who have lived here since the beginning. We urge you to participate.

Watch the video: Slave Cabin. Expeditions Shorts