Washington the Planter
In his twenties Washington came into possession of the Mount Vernon plantation after the death of his brother, and commenced planting tobacco while still in colonial military service. His marriage in 1759 to Martha Dandridge Custis, the very wealthy widow of Daniel Parke Custis, vastly increased Washington’s income and labor force. More than eighty enslaved laborers belonging to Custis moved to Mount Vernon. They were all, however, the property of John Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s son by her late husband. As such, George and Martha Washington could neither sell nor manumit any of these enslaved people, nor the future offspring of any of these enslaved women, as long as they were part of the Custis estate.
Though Washington came to question slavery and eventually freed his enslaved people, he was never a lenient manager. He connected the success of his farms with the productivity of his enslaved laborers and, because he was frequently away on public service, with the effective supervision of his managers and overseers. To his repeated exasperation, he faced problems with enslaved workers, overseers, and paid white workers who stole, drank, and lazed about. In fact, some scholars attribute Washington’s changing views on slavery not as a moral awakening but to an economic one in which he determined that managing enslaved labor on his farms wasn’t financially efficient.
Archaeological Remains of Enslaved Life at Mount Vernon
Washington fed, clothed, and housed his enslaved laborers poorly, candidly admitting that some of the dwellings he provided were so miserable that a white person would never consent to live in them. As a matter of routine, Washington separated husbands and wives, housing enslaved male artisans close to the mansion, where their skills were needed, while keeping their wives and children on his outlying farms, miles away. Though enslaved women and girls worked in the mansion household as seamstresses, cooks, and maids, the historian Lorena S. Walsh found that about 61 percent of Washington’s field slaves were women doing hard labor, such as collecting and spreading manure, clearing stumps, making fences, cleaning stables, and breaking ground with hand tools, under the supervision of overseers.
When he was away, Washington scrutinized weekly reports sent by his manager, in one instance detecting a scheme by his enslaved laborers to steal wool by claiming it was too dirty to spin: “I perceive by the Spinning Report of last week, that each of the spinners have deducted half a pound for dirty wool.” Washington’s records show that barrels of nails disappeared (though an overseer could have taken those), and so much seed vanished that Washington ordered the seed to be mixed with sand, making it too bulky to steal. He complained that the plantation’s wagons seemed to go off and “go to sleep.”
Washington instructed one overseer: “Be constantly with your people when there. There is no other sure way of getting work well done and quietly by negroes; for when an Overlooker’s back is turned, the most of them will slight their work, or be idle altogether.” He approved harsh punishment (sometimes described by the euphemism “correction”) even for the seemingly trivial offense of being “impertinent.” In 1793, Washington retroactively approved a “very good Whiping” to a seamstress who apparently annoyed the plantation manager with her independence of mind. When the manager reported he was “determined to lower her Spirit or skin her Back,” Washington replied: “If She, or any other of the Servants will not do their duty by fair means, or are impertinent, correction (as the only alternative) must be administered.”
Knowing that one of his overseers, Hyland Crow, was particularly cruel, Washington instructed his manager not to let Crow punish anyone: “I have reason to believe he is swayed more by passion than judgment in all his corrections.” Previously Crow had administered floggings that, in Washington’s words, had “in one or two instances been productive of serious consequences,” apparently meaning severe injuries.
If Washington at times regretted the fierceness of his overseers with field hands, he also used it as a threat against enslaved house servants, suggesting life in the field was much harsher than life at the mansion. When the productivity of the seamstresses at Mount Vernon fell off, Washington sent a blunt warning through his manager: “Tell them … they will be sent to the several Plantations, and be placed as common laborers under the Overseers thereat.” When a bricklayer seemed to be shirking, Washington threatened that he would be “severely punished and placed under one of the Overseers as a common hoe negro.”
Clothing shortages occasionally became acute. An overseer reported one December that the children on an outlying farm had no clothes at all. Washington complained about a seamstress making long pants rather than the regulation short breeches because he didn’t want to use extra cloth. He was also very sparing of blankets. Mothers received one for each newborn, but enslaved people had to wait years to get a fresh blanket. Washington ordered the enslaved laborers to use their blankets to gather leaves for livestock beds: “Let the People, with their blankets, go every evening … to the nearest wood and fill them with leaves.” This had to be done, he said, “for the comfort of the Creatures … Make the Cattle lay warm and comfortable. The hogs also in pens must be well bedded in leaves.”
Washington monitored the health of his enslaved population. In one instance, when an enslaved man named Cupid was seriously ill with pleurisy, Washington had him carried in a cart to the mansion “for better care of him.” Washington looked in on Cupid, writing in his diary, “When I went to Bed I thought him within a few hours of breathing his last.” Though Cupid recovered, he ran away a year and a half later. Two of the household’s most favored enslaved servants, Martha Washington’s personal maid, Oney Judge, and the chef, Hercules, ran away from the Washingtons despite their privileged positions. Judge said that she fled because of her “thirst for compleat freedom.”
Count Julian Niemcewicz, a Polish visitor who spent twelve days at Mount Vernon in 1798, wrote, “General Washington treats his slaves far more humanely than do his fellow citizens of Virginia. Most of these gentlemen give to their Blacks only bread, water and blows.” But he also wrote that the Mount Vernon enslaved community worked almost unceasingly and that “the condition of our peasants is infinitely happier.” He left a sobering description of an enslaved family’s “hut”:
They are more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants. The 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. A boy of 15 was lying on the ground, sick, and in terrible convulsions. The General had sent to Alexandria to fetch a doctor. A very small garden planted with vegetables was close by, with five or six hens, each one leading 10 to 15 chickens. It is the only comfort that is permitted them; for they may not keep either ducks, geese, or pigs. They sell the poultry in Alexandria and procure for themselves a few amenities.
The Washingtons followed elite Virginia custom and staffed their household with mixed-race servants. A foreign visitor to Mount Vernon encountered a small boy “whose hair and skin color were so like our own that if I had not been told, I should never have suspected his [African] ancestry. He is nevertheless a slave for the rest of his life.” In 1767, Washington paid premium prices at an auction to acquire two light-skinned adolescents, the brothers Frank and William Lee. Frank Lee became Mount Vernon’s butler; William Lee served as Washington’s valet. A superb horseman, William Lee accompanied Washington throughout the Revolutionary War.
Descendants of the slave West Ford have long claimed that George Washington was his father, but a compelling argument can be made that Ford’s father was the general’s nephew Bushrod Washington. Ford’s mother, Venus, lived on the Westmoreland County plantation owned by George Washington’s brother John Augustine Washington Jr. When Bushrod Washington, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, inherited Mount Vernon, he made Ford his manager. In his will he bequeathed 160 acres of land to Ford, who had been manumitted at the request of Bushrod Washington’s mother, Hannah Bushrod Washington. While George Washington may not have been Ford’s father, there is little doubt that, through Bushrod Washington, he had Black kin. Martha Washington, meanwhile, owned a, enslaved half-sister, Ann Dandridge.
Washington the Commander
At the outset of the American Revolution in 1775, General Washington and his top officers expelled Black soldiers, both free and enslaved, from the army and forbade their future enlistment. But Washington quickly reversed course, honoring a direct appeal from Black troops who were, he wrote, “very much dissatisfied at being discarded.” He allowed the enlistment of free Blacks, but slaves managed to enlist against regulations. During the siege of Boston, in a sharp break with his southern customs, he invited the African-born poet Phillis Wheatley to visit him at headquarters after she had written a long patriotic tribute to him and the Continental Army. He personally arranged to have the poem published in a prominent national journal (Thomas Jefferson, in contrast, derided Wheatley, whose works won high praise on both sides of the Atlantic).
At Valley Forge, Washington approved a plan to recruit Black troops and never placed any limit on their numbers. Late in the war, a foreign officer estimated that Blacks made up one-quarter of Washington’s army. Though the actual figure is probably lower, Washington commanded the most integrated American army until probably the Vietnam War (1965–1973). Washington allowed his aides John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton to attempt raising battalions of enslaved men in Georgia and South Carolina, under threat of British invasion. Hamilton wrote, “An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets,” but Washington expressed serious reservations and did not lend his full support.
The Continental Congress unanimously passed a resolution in 1779 offering to compensate enslavers in Georgia and South Carolina up to $1,000 for each enslaved man who enlisted and declared that those who served until the end of the war would “be emancipated.” One delegate, William Whipple Jr., of New Hampshire, said that the plan could “lay a foundation for the Abolition of Slavery in America.” Unsurprised when the legislatures of Georgia and South Carolina refused to allow enslaved men to become soldiers, Washington wrote to Laurens: “That Spirit of Freedom which at the commencement of this contest would have gladly sacrificed every thing to the attainment of its object has long since subsided, and every selfish Passion has taken its place.”
To some extent, Washington may have contemplated how slavery itself encouraged such “selfish passions.” Looking back over his life late in the 1780s, just before he assumed office as president, Washington described slave society in conversations with his private secretary, David Humphreys, who was at work on the first biography of the founder. Based on his interviews with the general, Humphreys wrote that the children of “opulent families” were given “a horse & a servant to attend them, as soon as they could ride” and that the character of these people thus became “imperious & dissipated from the habit of commanding slaves & living in a measure without control.”
Washington the Emancipator
After the war, Washington came under intense pressure to free his enslaved laborers from his friend and comrade the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette told the general that if he set an example, his immense prestige would inspire others to follow it. Refusing to take any action, Washington, in private discussions with Lafayette and others, expressed a desire to see, some day, a gradual emancipation of all enslaved American enacted by legislation—a measured solution in keeping with Washington’s republican ideals. But by the end of the 1780s, slavery’s injustice weighed very heavily on Washington’s conscience. He spoke of being an enslaver as his only source of “regret.” He wrote that he owned human property “very repugnantly to my feelings,” that he wished to “liberate” his enslaved people, and that such an act would be in keeping with “the Justice of the Creator.”
Washington’s public actions as president did nothing to dismantle southern slaveholding society, including his signing of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slaveholders to capture escaped enslaved people, even in free states or territory, and return them to bondage. The historian Charles Rappleye, however, found evidence that in 1790 President Washington, acting secretly through a back channel, helped introduce Quaker petitions to Congress advocating a national emancipation effort and a ban on the international slave trade. The proposals provoked fierce opposition. Congressman James Madison scuttled the plan and engineered the passage of a resolution that actually enhanced legal protections for slavery. In the wake of this defeat, to which his name had not been publicly linked, Washington perhaps despaired of legislative action and recalled Lafayette’s urging that he lead by personal example.
Well aware that a manumission, even a private one, by a sitting president would be a political bombshell, Washington twice laid plans to free his enslaved people during his presidency. In the first instance, he was unable to arrange financing for the manumission. In the second instance—an extremely ambitious plan—he envisioned freeing all the enslaved people at Mount Vernon, more than 300, including those belonging to his wife’s family as part of the Custis estate. He proposed to hire back the newly freed people on wages or crop shares. But the plan went nowhere when the chief heir of the Custis estate refused to cooperate by manumitting the enslaved people he inherited. In the last summer of his life, Washington wrote a will freeing all his own enslaved people, but he kept the document and its contents secret until he was on his deathbed, most likely fearing that his heirs would attempt to dissuade him from releasing valuable property.
Last Will and Testament
Washington’s will decreed that all 123 of his enslaved people be freed upon the death of his wife. This action was made possible by a Virginia law passed in 1782 that allowed enslavers to manumit their enslaved people at will, without government approval. Washington conspicuously noted that it was not “in my power” to manumit the enslaved people owned by the Custis heirs, perhaps hoping to urge the Custis family to follow his example and manumit them themselves. Washington never articulated any other strategy for freeing the dower enslaved people, but some scholars speculate that Washington could have followed Virginia law and financially compensated the Custis estate for the manumission of these enslaved people (with one historian estimating the total cost to Washington as 6,000 pounds sterling). Pointing out that his enslaved people had intermarried with enslaved people belonging to the Custis estate, Washington predicted that his manumission would cause “the most painful sensations—the forced breakup of long-established families—unless the Custis heirs joined him in freeing their property, which they did not do. Martha Washington chose to enact the will’s manumission instructions for Washington’s enslaved property a year after his death, but the people enslaved by Custis did indeed remain enslaved.
By itself, Washington’s manumission was remarkable, and he further stipulated that all the freed people under the age of twenty-five must be “taught to read & write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation.” The 1782 law required an enslaver to support freed formerly enslaved people financially if they were either minors or elderly. But the very notion of education for enslaved people was revolutionary—with this clause Washington declared that, with education and the opportunity to work, freed fomerly enslaved people could prosper. Arguably to that end, he further specified: “I do hereby expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever.” Virtually every emancipation plan proposed in Washington’s time included forced exile of the freed formerly enslaved people to Africa or the West Indies; Washington insisted that Black people had a right to live on American soil.
His stipulations were so extraordinary that he expected his heirs to resist fulfilling them, so he wrote: “And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors hereafter named, or the Survivors of them, to see that this clause [emphasis original] respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect or delay.”
Ten years before his death, Washington told David Humphreys that, with the proper opportunities, “the rising generation” of enslaved people could create for themselves “a destiny different from that in which they were born”—suggesting that Washington believed servitude was not the natural condition of Black people and that the abolition of slavery was within the nation’s grasp.