Growth of a Community
These enslaved men and women formed a community, building friendships and families. As a result, the enslaved population at Mount Vernon increased steadily, even late in the eighteenth century, when Washington's views on slavery shifted and he stopped actively acquiring slaves. (He wrote in 1786, for example, that "I never mean (unless some particular circumstances should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase.") The historians Philip D. Morgan and Michael L. Nicholls estimate that over the course of his lifetime, Washington owned or managed about 670 slaves. By the time of his death in 1799, there were more than 300 enslaved people at Mount Vernon.
Sources for Information About Slavery
Both African and European religious influences could be found among the enslaved community at Mount Vernon. Some men and women had religious practices that were influenced by African traditions like Vodoun or Islam. Others may have participated in local, organized Anglican, Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, or Quaker congregations. The community also developed at least one spiritual leader of its own. Caesar, a Custis family slave from Union Farm, was a well-known preacher among the local black population in the last years of the eighteenth century. According to a runaway slave advertisement from 1798, "[in] the neighborhood he is so well known as to need no further description, for he frequently reads or preaches to the blacks." The advertisement also recorded that he usually wore clothing of black and white homespun, a combination that probably related to his role as a minister.
Washington's summer 1799 lists also reveal important information about the ages and occupations of the men and women who lived at Mount Vernon. The 1799 lists indicate that 184 of the enumerated 316 slaves were of working age and that, of these, a little over one-quarter were considered skilled laborers. They worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, gardeners, millers, distillers, bricklayers, postillions, cart drivers, and shoemakers, as well as spinners, seamstresses, dairy maids, cooks, housemaids, and butlers. The majority of these skilled workers were male and lived at the Mansion House Farm, without their families. Almost three-quarters of the enslaved workers labored in the fields; most of them lived on the outlying farms, and well over half of these, or 61.4 percent, were women.
Of the slaves recorded on the 1799 lists, 42 percent were either too young or too old to work. Further analysis of the information on ages shows rapid growth in Mount Vernon's enslaved population. In the thirteen years between the completion of the 1786 and 1799 lists, the population had increased by 100 people, during a time in which Washington was not actively acquiring slaves. Therefore, this increase can be almost completely attributed to natural growth—that is, children born to enslaved men and women on the estate. According to the 1799 lists, the average age of a slave on the four outlying farms was about twenty-one years. Only a little more than 8 percent of the people were older than sixty, while more than 58 percent were younger than nineteen. Nearly 35 percent of the total population of the outlying farms were children younger than nine. All of this increase was the outgrowth of Washington's stated abhorrence to breaking up families and to selling slaves, as he put it , like "cattle in the market."
Like many other planters, Washington connected the success of his farms with the productivity of his enslaved workforce. He managed his farms with an eye toward maximizing profit. As a slave owner, he authorized severe punishments against the enslaved population, including whippings and the threat of harsher work assignments. And before he decided to disengage from the slave trade, he could sell an unruly slave to a buyer outside of Virginia, effectively exiling the enslaved man or woman from their family and friends at Mount Vernon. Even later, he could send an unruly slave to be sold in the West Indies, with the same effect. In the meantime, he fed, clothed, and housed his slaves in accordance with the practices on other large plantations.
More subtle means of resistance included misplacing or damaging tools and equipment, feigning illness, producing work of poor quality, or slowing the pace of work. For example, Washington once commented that the plantation's wagons seemed to go off and "go to sleep." Others resisted by committing arson or theft.
The Breakup of a Community
Washington's views on the morality of slavery evolved over time. During and after the American Revolution, his private statements about slavery began to align with abolitionist goals, and he stopped buying and selling people. But the enslaved population at Mount Vernon continued to grow through natural increase. By the last year of his life, 1799, Washington had serious concerns about the viability of the operation at Mount Vernon. In a letter to his nephew, Robert Lewis, he noted that he had "more working Negros by a full moiety, than can be employed to any advantage in the farming System." In other words, he had twice as many workers as he needed, and there was a rapidly rising younger generation growing up in the quarters, who would soon reach working age.
Where someone else might have sold off the surplus people, he explained that he was "principled against this kind of traffic in the human species." He found the prospect of renting people out to others "almost as bad, because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse the families I have an aversion." He went on to confide his worries, "What is then to be done? Something must or I shall be ruined." He closed with an idea he was mulling over of sending the extra people to work the land on some of the thousands of acres he owned around the country. "But where?"
But Martha Washington freed the Washington slaves on January 1, 1801, about eighteen months before her death—perhaps uncomfortable with the idea that her death would be the catalyst for freedom for so many. This led to the breakup of twenty families. The Custis dower slaves were divided among Martha Washington's four grandchildren after she died in 1802. Bushrod Washington, George Washington's nephew and an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, inherited Mount Vernon.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Thompson, M. V. Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon. (2018, December 17). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Enslaved_Community_at_Mount_Vernon.
- MLA Citation:
Thompson, Mary V. "Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 17 Dec. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: September 28, 2018 | Last modified: December 17, 2018
Contributed by Mary V. Thompson, research historian at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens.