Washington the Planter
Though Washington came to question slavery and eventually freed his slaves, he was never a lenient manager. He connected the success of his farms with the productivity of his slaves 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 as an economic one in which he determined that managing slaves on his farms wasn't financially efficient.
When he was away, Washington scrutinized weekly reports sent by his manager, in one instance detecting a scheme by his slaves 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 as easily as a slave), 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."
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, he also used it as a threat against house slaves, suggesting that, for slaves, life in the field was very 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 … from me, that what has been done, shall be done by fair or foul means … otherwise 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 slaves had to wait years to get a fresh blanket. Washington ordered the slaves 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."
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 slaves worked almost unceasingly and that "the condition of our peasants is infinitely happier." He left a sobering description of a slave family's habitation: We entered one of the huts of the Blacks, for one cannot call them by the name of houses. 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 mulatto, or 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.
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).
The Continental Congress unanimously passed a resolution in 1779 offering to compensate slaveholders in Georgia and South Carolina up to $1,000 for each slave enlisted, and declared that slaves 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 slaves 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."
Washington the Emancipator
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 slaves 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 slaves 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 dower slaves. In the last summer of his life Washington wrote a will freeing all his own slaves, 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
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 a slaveholder to support freed former slaves financially if they were either minors or elderly. But the very notion of education for slaves was revolutionary—with this clause Washington declared that, with education and the opportunity to work, freed slaves 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 slaves to Africa or the West Indies; Washington insisted that black people had a right to live on American soil.
Ten years before his death, Washington told David Humphreys that, with the proper opportunities, "the rising generation" of slaves 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.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wiencek, H. George Washington and Slavery. (2017, July 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Washington_George_and_Slavery.
- MLA Citation:
Wiencek, Henry. "George Washington and Slavery." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 27 Jul. 2017. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: September 12, 2014 | Last modified: July 27, 2017
Contributed by Henry Wiencek, an affiliate fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and the author of An Imperfect God (2004), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History and the Best Book of the Year award from the Society for Historians of the Early Republic.