[Marxism] George Washington, Slavery and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 11 07:42:21 MST 2019

LRB, Vol. 41 No. 24 · 19 December 2019
Tremendous in His Wrath
Eric Foner

‘The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret’: George Washington, Slavery and 
the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon by Mary Thompson
Virginia, 502 pp, £32.50, January, ISBN 978 0 8139 4184 4

One of the few facts of American history of which Donald Trump appears 
to be aware is that George Washington owned slaves. Trump mentioned this 
in 2017 as one reason for his opposition to the removal of the monuments 
to Confederate generals that dot the southern landscape. In Trump’s view 
owning slaves probably enhances Washington’s reputation: like him, the 
first president knew how to make a buck. Not everyone agrees. In June 
this year, the San Francisco school board voted to cover over a series 
of New Deal-era murals at George Washington High School that depicted 
the great man’s career: some students found their depictions of a dead 
Native American and of slaves working in Washington’s fields upsetting. 
Lost in the debate was the fact that the artist, Victor Arnautoff, a 
communist, had used the murals to challenge the prevailing narrative of 
Washington’s life and, indeed, American history more broadly. His murals 
were intended to show that the country’s economic growth and territorial 
expansion – Washington took part in both – rested on the exploitation of 
slave labour and the violent seizure of Native American land.

Among historians, Washington’s connection to slavery has inspired far 
less examination, and agonising, than Thomas Jefferson’s. Partly this is 
because of the patent contradiction between Jefferson’s affirmation in 
the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal’ and his 
ownership of more than a hundred slaves. Prurient interest also plays a 
part. Thanks to DNA evidence, it’s now clear that Jefferson, a widower, 
fathered several children with his slave Sally Hemings. There is no 
equivalent in Washington’s life, though some of his male relatives, 
including his wife’s father-in-law in her first marriage, did have such 
offspring. An official at Mount Vernon, Washington’s plantation on the 
Potomac River, once told me that he wished similar information would 
come to light about Washington, since Jefferson’s plantation, 
Monticello, had experienced a substantial increase in visitor numbers 
after the historian Annette Gordon-Reed established beyond doubt the 
Hemings connection. In the apparent belief that visitors’ imaginations 
need to be stirred even further, a room at Monticello next to 
Jefferson’s bedroom is now identified as Hemings’s living quarters, 
although the evidence that she actually slept there is slight.

Actually, Mount Vernon doesn’t need any more visitors. Today, it 
attracts around a million a year, outstripping Monticello and even 
Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. What tourists find there has 
changed dramatically in recent years. Slavery used to be pretty much 
ignored (if guides mentioned slaves at all, they referred to them as 
‘servants’), but today the historical presentations deal candidly with 
the institution and Washington’s relation to it. Visitors have the 
option to join an Enslaved People of Mount Vernon tour.

Washington grew up in a world centred on slavery. He inherited slaves 
from his father and his older half-brother. His wife, Martha, possessed 
dozens of ‘dower slaves’ who had been owned by her first husband and 
legally remained under her control until her death, when they returned 
to his estate. During much of his life Washington bought and sold 
slaves. They were property, and he frequently referred to them as such, 
listing them in letters in the same sentence as horses, or saying he 
needed to sell cattle, sheep, furniture, tools and slaves to pay his 
creditors. At the time of his death in 1799 the slave population of 
Mount Vernon exceeded three hundred.

Washington’s sprawling estate consisted of eight thousand acres. There 
were five separate farms where tobacco and grain were the main crops, 
each worked by slaves directed by a white manager. There were also 
woodlands teeming with game, experimental gardens, stables, shops for 
carpenters, blacksmiths and other craftsmen, and a mansion, where 
Washington and his wife lived, attended by slaves dressed in red and 
white livery. Mary Thompson’s book is the most detailed examination yet 
published of slavery at Mount Vernon. Thompson has worked for many years 
as a research historian at the estate and has a perhaps excessive 
admiration for Washington, whom she calls ‘one of the greatest – but 
still not perfect – men who ever lived’. But she knows the sources 
better than anyone. When Washington died, his wife burned their 
forty-year correspondence. But documentation of other kinds is abundant. 
Washington kept a diary and detailed accounts of income and expenditure. 
A stickler for detail, he insisted on receiving weekly reports from his 
farm managers, which include revealing descriptions of slave labour. 
Periodically compiled lists of slaves by age, skill and marital status 
offer insights into the structure of the slave community. Innumerable 
visitors, including relatives, friends and perfect strangers, turned up 
at Mount Vernon expecting and receiving the Washingtons’ hospitality, 
and in letters and memoirs many described the plantation’s management 
and the condition of its slaves.

To be sure, virtually all the information Thompson draws on comes from 
whites; as she ruefully notes, ‘only occasionally can the voice of one 
of the slaves be heard.’ Nonetheless, her command of the sources makes 
possible an almost encyclopedic description of the conditions of slave 
life. What did slaves eat? At Mount Vernon, cornmeal, buttermilk, fish 
and, at harvest time, meat, supplemented by food grown in their own 
gardens or stolen from the big house. What clothing did Washington 
provide? Aside from the livery for domestic slaves, male slaves each 
year received a wool jacket and two pairs of trousers, two coarse linen 
shirts and a pair of shoes; females got a jacket, a skirt, a pair of 
stockings and two linen shifts.

What about their living quarters? Apart from a brick House for Families 
near the mansion, most slave dwellings were poorly constructed log 
cabins that leaked in the rain, and because of their small windows were 
dark most of the day. The slaves grew crops in their gardens either to 
eat or to sell at a weekly market in the nearby town of Alexandria. With 
the proceeds, many managed to acquire household goods. Archaeological 
research has uncovered evidence of ceramics, glassware, silverware, 
furniture and cooking implements in some of the slave quarters. On the 
much debated question of whether African elements survived in slave 
culture, Thompson acknowledges that the evidence is scanty but 
cautiously suggests that some naming practices, religious beliefs and 
methods of food preparation reflect an African inheritance.

Labour, of course, was the raison d’être of slavery, and Thompson 
devotes much attention to Washington’s efforts to create a disciplined 
workforce and to the ways slaves resisted his demands. He was ‘by no 
means an easy man to work for’. He insisted that slaves and hired 
workers adhere to his own highly demanding work ethic. ‘I expect my 
people,’ he wrote to one overseer, ‘will work from daybreaking until it 
is dusk,’ a regimen which in summer, as Thompson points out, meant a 
very long work day indeed. Every morning Washington went into the 
fields. He noticed when slaves were not at work and reprimanded them and 
the farm managers. Extremely concerned with his public reputation, he 
took pride in his own self-control. Those who knew him, however, were 
aware that he had a fierce temper. He was ‘tremendous in his wrath’, 
Jefferson recalled after Washington’s death, and slaves learned to steer 
clear when he was provoked.

Like other owners, Washington relied on a combination of incentives and 
punishments. When slaves worked on a holiday (such as the period around 
Christmas or Easter), he compensated them with small cash payments. 
Those who, he believed, were shirking their duties would be whipped, 
though unlike most planters, Washington set up a kind of appeals process 
to review physical punishments. Most of the whipping was done by 
overseers, but Washington himself sometimes applied the lash. Some 
historians have claimed that Martha Washington treated slaves more 
severely than her husband did, at least in terms of verbal abuse.

Thompson makes clear that Washington never succeeded in creating the 
work environment he desired. The most common forms of what historians 
call ‘day-to-day resistance’ were doing poor work and feigning illness 
to avoid labour. Both Washingtons frequently criticised slaves’ work 
habits and complained of their ‘tricks’ to avoid labour and their lack 
of gratitude for all that had supposedly been done for them. As on most 
plantations, theft was commonplace at Mount Vernon, and there were 
constant complaints that wine, meat and other items had disappeared, 
either consumed by slaves or sold at the Alexandria market. Oddly, 
Thompson suggests that these forms of resistance ‘may have backfired’ by 
leading whites to consider black men and women ‘lazy and clumsy workers 
… a stereotype that continues to this day’. Washington certainly 
believed that blacks were indolent by nature. But this was an integral 
part of the ideological justification for slavery, echoed throughout the 
world by colonisers and employers dissatisfied with workers of every 
race and nationality. As Alexander Hamilton noted, ‘the contempt we have 
been taught to entertain for the blacks makes us fancy many things that 
are founded neither in reason nor experience.’

A more daring and dangerous form of resistance was escape. Between 1760 
and 1799 at least 47 of Washington’s slaves ran away. A group of 17, 
including three women, escaped during the War of Independence to seek 
refuge with the British army, which promised freedom to slaves. When 
Washington met the British commander Sir Guy Carleton in 1783 to 
implement the British withdrawal from New York, he asked Carleton to 
keep a lookout for ‘some of my own slaves’ who had run off. He expressed 
surprise when Carleton replied that to deprive slaves of the freedom 
they had been promised would be a ‘dishonourable violation of the public 

Thompson believes that Washington showed some consideration for his 
slaves’ feelings – for example by refusing to break up families when 
slaves were sold. She points out, however, that while most adult slaves 
at Mount Vernon were married, a majority lived on different farms from 
their spouses. Marital closeness took second place to work. She also 
claims that ‘affectionate ties’ developed between the Washingtons and 
some of their slaves. Yet the story of Ona (or Oney) Judge, the subject 
of a prize-winning book by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, illustrates the 
limits of paternalism at Mount Vernon.[*] From the age of ten, Judge 
worked as a personal maid and seamstress for Martha Washington. When she 
ran away in 1796, while living with the Washingtons in Philadelphia, the 
new nation’s temporary capital, Martha was ‘extremely upset’. Judge 
managed to reach New Hampshire, and George Washington made several 
attempts to recover her. Judge sent word that she would return if 
promised freedom on their deaths. Washington rejected her offer – ‘It 
would be neither politic or just to reward unfaithfulness,’ he replied. 
Why had Judge, certainly a privileged slave, run away? She learned that 
Martha Washington had promised her to her granddaughter as a wedding 
present. The Washingtons frequently referred to slaves as part of their 
family. But one does not typically give away a family member as a gift.

Visitors to Mount Vernon often ask whether Washington was a ‘good slave 
owner’. This language ought to be retired. Slaves themselves recognised 
that treatment varied considerably from owner to owner, but that was 
really irrelevant. During a visit to Richmond soon after the end of the 
Civil War, the Scottish minister David Macrae met a slave who complained 
of past mistreatment while acknowledging that he had never been whipped. 
‘How were you cruelly treated then?’ Macrae asked. ‘I was cruelly 
treated,’ the freedman answered, ‘because I was held in slavery.’

Thompson ends with an account of the evolution of Washington’s attitudes 
on slavery. Before the American Revolution, he seems to have had no 
qualms about the institution. Thompson believes that the revolutionary 
experience changed him. He came to recognise what the historian Edmund 
S. Morgan called ‘the American paradox’ – the contradiction between the 
language of liberty invoked by the patriots and the reality of 
slaveholding. While Washington at first did not allow black men to enrol 
in the revolutionary army, by the end of the conflict several thousand 
had served. (The army he commanded was more racially integrated than any 
American fighting force until the Korean War.) He emerged from the war 
with his views on slavery ‘radically altered’. ‘There is not a man 
living,’ he wrote in 1786, who wished to see a plan for abolition 
adopted ‘more than I do’. In the interim he decided to stop buying and 
selling slaves.

Yet he did nothing to promote the end of slavery and rejected any 
suggestion that he publicly call for Virginia or the country generally 
to adopt a plan for abolition. In Philadelphia, as president, he 
practised what Thompson calls outright ‘duplicity’, moving slaves back 
and forth between Mount Vernon and the city, ‘under pretext’, he wrote, 
‘that may deceive both them and the public’. His purpose was to 
circumvent Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law of 1780, which provided 
that any slave brought into the state who remained there for six months 
could claim freedom. Washington signed the first national law for the 
rendition of fugitive slaves and his administration pressed Britain to 
abide by the Treaty of Paris, which ended the War of Independence and 
required the return of property, including slaves, seized from Americans.

Thompson offers various explanations for Washington’s refusal to speak 
or act publicly against slavery. She points out that freeing his slaves 
would have meant financial disaster for his family. Like other Virginia 
planters, Washington was chronically in debt, largely because of a taste 
for luxury goods imported from Britain. Indeed, in 1789 he had to borrow 
money to pay for his journey to New York where his inauguration as the 
first president was to take place. She speculates that, having presided 
over the Constitutional Convention and witnessed bitter debates inspired 
by slavery, he feared that airing the question of abolition would 
destroy the new country. However, Benjamin Franklin also took part in 
the convention, and that didn’t prevent him from adding his name to an 
abolition petition presented to Congress in 1790.

Washington seems to have had a number of private conversations in the 
last twenty years of his life about ending slavery. Nothing came of 
them, but when he died in 1799, leaving his estate to his wife, he 
directed his executors to free all the slaves (156 men, women and 
children) who belonged to him on her death. Slave children were to be 
bound out to white employers until they were in their twenties, 
receiving an education and training in a craft. The will did not deal 
with Martha Washington’s 153 dower slaves, in whom her husband had no 
property interest. Living among men and women anxiously awaiting the 
freedom that would come with her death, and fearing one of them might 
feel motivated to help that day arrive sooner, Martha freed her 
husband’s slaves in 1801. When she died the following year, the dower 
slaves, many of whom were married to the former slaves owned by her late 
husband, reverted to the control of the Custis family and were divided 
among her four grandchildren. Thus the slave community that had existed 
for decades at Mount Vernon was destroyed.

Addressing current controversies about the historical reputation of men 
like Washington, Thompson warns against ‘judging a person from another 
time and culture’ by today’s moral standards. Yet anti-slavery ideas 
were hardly unknown during Washington’s lifetime, and he himself 
expressed them privately. What about expecting an individual to live up 
to his own professed convictions? Washington deserves full credit for 
emancipating his slaves. Some Virginia planters, inspired by 
revolutionary ideals and religious convictions, did the same; many more 
did not. Yet manumission (freeing individual slaves) is not the same 
thing as abolishing the institution. Alongside the humane provisions of 
his will should be placed Washington’s public silence when it came to 
slavery. Jefferson’s will freed only five slaves, all relatives of 
Hemings’s, but he did write the proposed Land Ordinance of 1784, which 
would have barred slavery from the country’s western territories, and 
which narrowly failed to receive congressional approval. Washington was 
willing to place his life and property on the line to fight for American 
independence. He was by far the most esteemed statesman in the early 
republic. Imagine if he had used his reputation to promote a plan for 
abolition. When it came to taking action to end slavery, he, like most 
of the revolutionary generation, must be found wanting.

More information about the Marxism mailing list