Historic Mount Vernon
Washington, the Slave Holder
Mount Vernon is not a state park, but privately owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, founded in 1853. The official website points out that George Washington was the only (slave-holding) Founding Father to have a provision for the freeing of his slaves in his will. Mount Vernon maintained 318 slaves upon the time of George Washington’s death on December 14, 1799. In his will Washington wrote, “Upon the decease <of> my wife, it is my Will & desire th<at> all the Slaves which I hold in <my> own right, shall receive their free<dom>.” Now, it is important to note that Washington was unable to free all of the slaves at Mount Vernon, and the reason is simple-they weren’t his to free. Martha Washington was a rich young widow, and she and her two children entered the marriage with 100 slaves and 6000 acres of land (Burns et al). In his 1799 slave list, Washington lists around 207 ‘dower’ slaves. Washington himself had been a slave owner since the age of 11 upon his father’s death when he was willed 10 slaves. He had purchased about 15 more slaves (men, women and a child) before he married Martha and his slaveholdings increased with her bridal wealth.
While Washington was considered a “humane” slave owner by typical Virginian slave owner standards, others weren’t so sure. Washington’s neighbor, Richard Parkinson wrote “he [Washington] treated [his slaves] with more severity than any other man”. Eastman Johnson’s painting, Washington’s Kitchen at Mount Vernon is described by Karal Ann Marling as “a slave woman feeding her children around the gaping, ruinous hearth…” (Marling) This image is a beautiful depiction of true life for these men, women, and children working as slaves at Mount Vernon-not easy. Imagine the Washington Family sitting around their fancy dining table (likely imported from England believe it or not) and being waited on by these human beings who they owned (Burns et al). This is a far cry from the dangers of feeding small children next to an open fireplace. Some slaves would attempt to runaway, but were caught and flogged. Washington wrote, “God knows I have losses enough in Negroes” (Burns et al).
However, during the Revolutionary War, Washington was able to see free black men fighting for the Continental Army. He was also influenced greatly by the Marquis de Lafayette, who strongly opposed slavery. (Fun-Lafayette presented Washington with a key to the Bastille prison during Washington’s Presidency, and this key is still prominently displayed in the front entrance of Mount Vernon). Lafayette and Washington did not initially agree about the moralities of slavery, but were great friends who respected one another nonetheless.
Toward the end of his life, General George Washington (he preferred to be called “General” rather than “President”) seemed to have second-guessed his role in the ownership of people. Whether this was due to what he had seen in War, or via his relationship with Lafayette remains to be seen. He rather generously provided for the care, education and freedom of his slaves upon his death (See Last Will and Testament, 9 July 1799-4th paragraph). The question is: was this too little, too late? By today’s standards, the answer is a definitive and resounding YES. From a historical perspective, Washington’s emancipation of his slaves was extremely progressive, and certainly not expected or mimicked by his peers. Try to maintain a delicate balance between the past and today.
Who Were the Slaves?
Frank Lee and his wife Lucy were among the ‘lucky’ slaves at Mount Vernon, because they were able to live together in the kitchen. Not all of the slaves were so blessed. Some Mount Vernon slaves had spouses living at other estates, and weren’t able to see their husbands or wives on a regular basis. Most of the estate would not work on Sundays, and slaves would receive about 2 hours a day for meals. While Washington did his best to ensure the freedom of his slaves upon the death of Martha, he did arrange for his “mulatto man” William Lee to be freed immediately, with the option to stay at Mount Vernon if he wished and with an annuity of $30. Several slaves medical issues were listed very matter of factly in the 1786 slave inventory: Doll-almost past service, Alce [sic]-old and almost blind, Schomberg-past labour, Peter and Richmond-lame. Please visit the page George Washington’s Slaves to see the names of these people. Read their names, and think about what their lives must have been like. Easy? Doubtful. But were they able to find happiness in their lives? Certainly. They would visit with one another, play sports and games, and celebrate religious holidays. The intention of this website is to transform the slaves of Mount Vernon from objects or property to men, women and children-people. Human beings with names, families and stories.
George Washington, “Washington’s Slave List, June 1799,” National Archives Founders Online, Accessed 30 April 2015, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0405.
James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn, George Washington (New York: Times Books, 2004), 12-14.
Karal Ann Marling, George Washington Slept Here: Colonial Revivals and American Culture 1876-1986 (Cambridge, MA: Publisher, The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1988), 66.
Mount Vernon, “George Washington and Slavery,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Accessed 4 May 2015, http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/george-washington-and-slavery/.
Mount Vernon, “Private Lives of Slaves,” Mount Vernon, Accessed 6 May 2014, http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/private-lives-of-slaves/.