This is a very good book for grades five and up about the lives of slaves on George Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon, and how Washington’s views on slavery evolved over the years.
Washington left voluminous papers at the time of his death, including his letters to farm managers at Mount Vernon while he was away – first fighting the Revolutionary War, and later serving as the nation’s first president.
He called his slaves “my people,” and told his managers he expected “that my people . . . be at their work as soon as it is light, work ‘till it is dark, and be diligent while they are at it.” He not only used slaves to do all the menial work of taking care of what eventually grew to 8,000 acres and a large house with constant visitors, but a number of them were skilled artisans as well.
Washington was a hard worker himself, but of course his life was his own to choose. He fed and clothed his slaves and took care of them in sickness, but expected in exchange “such labor as they ought to render.” Moreover, they received no more than the bare minimum, per Washington’s orders:
“It is not my wish or desire that my Negroes should have an ounce of meal more, nor less, than is sufficient to feed them plentifully.”
Since “plentifully” wasn’t usually enough, they were allowed to grow vegetables and sell items they made in their “free” time to buy more.
In addition, most married slaves were not able to live in the same place as their spouses; Washington had other farms, and housed them where they were assigned to do work. They generally used their one day off to walk the many miles necessary to see their partners. At age 11, children began work training, and at 14 they were assigned to adult duties.
Although Washington himself was not known to be physically abusive, this was not always true of his overseers. After one reported to Washington that he whipped a female slave for being “impudent,” Washington wrote back “Your treatment of Charlotte was very proper,” adding that “if she, or any other of the servants will not do their duty by fair means, or are impertinent, correction … must be administered.”
Occasionally, Washington’s slaves ran off. The author reports that between 1759 and 1799, at least 47 slaves ran away. She conjectures that more might have left had they not felt bound to Mount Vernon by strong family ties to other slaves. Washington “spared no expense” trying to track them down. He considered their behavior to be acts of betrayal and ingratitude.
In spite of all of this, over time Washington began to see slavery in a new light. Several of his close associates, including the Marquis de Lafayette and John Laurens, were avid abolitionists. When the Revolutionary Army began to take black soldiers, Washington got to see blacks from a different perspective. And a young African-born slave and poet named Phillis Wheatley sent a paean to him that impressed him greatly.
Eventually he decided to free those slaves that he could upon Martha’s death. (He could not free them at the time of his own death since some would revert to the estate of Martha’s family, the Custis estate, per “dower law.” Also, he did not want to break up the families of his own slaves who had intermarried with such “dower” slaves.) In addition, he stipulated in his will that slaves too old and sick to work were to be “comfortably fed and clothed by my heirs while they live.”
Washington’s relative benevolence was in stark contrast with most other Founding Fathers, including of course Thomas Jefferson, the author of the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The book is illustrated with photos by Lori Epstein, pictures of costumed reenactors, and reproductions of portraits and drawings from the era.
The book also contains a chronology, bibliography, and list of sources at the end.
Published by the National Geographic Society, 2013