One of the few facts of American history of which Donald Trump appears to be aware is that George Washington owned slaves. Trump mentioned this in 2017 as one reason for his opposition to the removal of the monuments to Confederate generals that dot the southern landscape. In Trump's view owning slaves probably enhances Washington's reputation: like him, the first president knew how to make a buck. Not everyone agrees. In June this year, the San Francisco school board voted to cover over a series of New Deal-era murals at George Washington High School that depicted the great man's career: some students found their depictions of a dead Native American and of slaves working in Washington's fields upsetting. Lost in the debate was the fact that the artist, Victor Arnautoff, a communist, had used the murals to challenge the prevailing narrative of Washington's life and, indeed, American history more broadly. His murals were intended to show that the country's economic growth and territorial expansion – Washington took part in both – rested on the exploitation of slave labour and the violent seizure of Native American land.
Among historians, Washington's connection to slavery has inspired far less examination, and agonising, than Thomas Jefferson's. Partly this is because of the patent contradiction between Jefferson's affirmation in the Declaration of Independence that 'all men are created equal' and his ownership of more than a hundred slaves. Prurient interest also plays a part. Thanks to DNA evidence, it's now clear that Jefferson, a widower, fathered several children with his slave Sally Hemings. There is no equivalent in Washington's life, though some of his male relatives, including his wife's father-in-law in her first marriage, did have such offspring. An official at Mount Vernon, Washington's plantation on the Potomac River, once told me that he wished similar information would come to light about Washington, since Jefferson's plantation, Monticello, had experienced a substantial increase in visitor numbers after the historian Annette Gordon-Reed established beyond doubt the Hemings connection. In the apparent belief that visitors' imaginations need to be stirred even further, a room at Monticello next to Jefferson's bedroom is now identified as Hemings's living quarters, although the evidence that she actually slept there is slight.
Actually, Mount Vernon doesn't need any more visitors. Today, it attracts around a million a year, outstripping Monticello and even Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. What tourists find there has changed dramatically in recent years. Slavery used to be pretty much ignored (if guides mentioned slaves at all, they referred to them as 'servants'), but today the historical presentations deal candidly with the institution and Washington's relation to it. Visitors have the option to join an Enslaved People of Mount Vernon tour.
Washington grew up in a world centred on slavery. He inherited slaves from his father and his older half-brother. His wife, Martha, possessed dozens of 'dower slaves' who had been owned by her first husband and legally remained under her control until her death, when they returned to his estate. During much of his life Washington bought and sold slaves. They were property, and he frequently referred to them as such, listing them in letters in the same sentence as horses, or saying he needed to sell cattle, sheep, furniture, tools and slaves to pay his creditors. At the time of his death in 1799 the slave population of Mount Vernon exceeded three hundred.
Washington's sprawling estate consisted of eight thousand acres. There were five separate farms where tobacco and grain were the main crops, each worked by slaves directed by a white manager. There were also woodlands teeming with game, experimental gardens, stables, shops for carpenters, blacksmiths and other craftsmen, and a mansion, where Washington and his wife lived, attended by slaves dressed in red and white livery. Mary Thompson's book is the most detailed examination yet published of slavery at Mount Vernon. Thompson has worked for many years as a research historian at the estate and has a perhaps excessive admiration for Washington, whom she calls 'one of the greatest – but still not perfect – men who ever lived'. But she knows the sources better than anyone. When Washington died, his wife burned their forty-year correspondence. But documentation of other kinds is abundant. Washington kept a diary and detailed accounts of income and expenditure. A stickler for detail, he insisted on receiving weekly reports from his farm managers, which include revealing descriptions of slave labour. Periodically compiled lists of slaves by age, skill and marital status offer insights into the structure of the slave community. Innumerable visitors, including relatives, friends and perfect strangers, turned up at Mount Vernon expecting and receiving the Washingtons' hospitality, and in letters and memoirs many described the plantation's management and the condition of its slaves.
To be sure, virtually all the information Thompson draws on comes from whites; as she ruefully notes, 'only occasionally can the voice of one of the slaves be heard.' Nonetheless, her command of the sources makes possible an almost encyclopedic description of the conditions of slave life. What did slaves eat? At Mount Vernon, cornmeal, buttermilk, fish and, at harvest time, meat, supplemented by food grown in their own gardens or stolen from the big house. What clothing did Washington provide? Aside from the livery for domestic slaves, male slaves each year received a wool jacket and two pairs of trousers, two coarse linen shirts and a pair of shoes; females got a jacket, a skirt, a pair of stockings and two linen shifts.
What about their living quarters? Apart from a brick House for Families near the mansion, most slave dwellings were poorly constructed log cabins that leaked in the rain, and because of their small windows were dark most of the day. The slaves grew crops in their gardens either to eat or to sell at a weekly market in the nearby town of Alexandria. With the proceeds, many managed to acquire household goods. Archaeological research has uncovered evidence of ceramics, glassware, silverware, furniture and cooking implements in some of the slave quarters. On the much debated question of whether African elements survived in slave culture, Thompson acknowledges that the evidence is scanty but cautiously suggests that some naming practices, religious beliefs and methods of food preparation reflect an African inheritance.
Labour, of course, was the raison d'être of slavery, and Thompson devotes much attention to Washington's efforts to create a disciplined workforce and to the ways slaves resisted his demands. He was 'by no means an easy man to work for'. He insisted that slaves and hired workers adhere to his own highly demanding work ethic. 'I expect my people,' he wrote to one overseer, 'will work from daybreaking until it is dusk,' a regimen which in summer, as Thompson points out, meant a very long work day indeed. Every morning Washington went into the fields. He noticed when slaves were not at work and reprimanded them and the farm managers. Extremely concerned with his public reputation, he took pride in his own self-control. Those who knew him, however, were aware that he had a fierce temper. He was 'tremendous in his wrath', Jefferson recalled after Washington's death, and slaves learned to steer clear when he was provoked.
Like other owners, Washington relied on a combination of incentives and punishments. When slaves worked on a holiday (such as the period around Christmas or Easter), he compensated them with small cash payments. Those who, he believed, were shirking their duties would be whipped, though unlike most planters, Washington set up a kind of appeals process to review physical punishments. Most of the whipping was done by overseers, but Washington himself sometimes applied the lash. Some historians have claimed that Martha Washington treated slaves more severely than her husband did, at least in terms of verbal abuse.
Thompson makes clear that Washington never succeeded in creating the work environment he desired. The most common forms of what historians call 'day-to-day resistance' were doing poor work and feigning illness to avoid labour. Both Washingtons frequently criticised slaves' work habits and complained of their 'tricks' to avoid labour and their lack of gratitude for all that had supposedly been done for them. As on most plantations, theft was commonplace at Mount Vernon, and there were constant complaints that wine, meat and other items had disappeared, either consumed by slaves or sold at the Alexandria market. Oddly, Thompson suggests that these forms of resistance 'may have backfired' by leading whites to consider black men and women 'lazy and clumsy workers … a stereotype that continues to this day'. Washington certainly believed that blacks were indolent by nature. But this was an integral part of the ideological justification for slavery, echoed throughout the world by colonisers and employers dissatisfied with workers of every race and nationality. As Alexander Hamilton noted, 'the contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience.'
A more daring and dangerous form of resistance was escape. Between 1760 and 1799 at least 47 of Washington's slaves ran away. A group of 17, including three women, escaped during the War of Independence to seek refuge with the British army, which promised freedom to slaves. When Washington met the British commander Sir Guy Carleton in 1783 to implement the British withdrawal from New York, he asked Carleton to keep a lookout for 'some of my own slaves' who had run off. He expressed surprise when Carleton replied that to deprive slaves of the freedom they had been promised would be a 'dishonourable violation of the public faith'.
Thompson believes that Washington showed some consideration for his slaves' feelings – for example by refusing to break up families when slaves were sold. She points out, however, that while most adult slaves at Mount Vernon were married, a majority lived on different farms from their spouses. Marital closeness took second place to work. She also claims that 'affectionate ties' developed between the Washingtons and some of their slaves. Yet the story of Ona (or Oney) Judge, the subject of a prize-winning book by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, illustrates the limits of paternalism at Mount Vernon. From the age of ten, Judge worked as a personal maid and seamstress for Martha Washington. When she ran away in 1796, while living with the Washingtons in Philadelphia, the new nation's temporary capital, Martha was 'extremely upset'. Judge managed to reach New Hampshire, and George Washington made several attempts to recover her. Judge sent word that she would return if promised freedom on their deaths. Washington rejected her offer – 'It would be neither politic or just to reward unfaithfulness,' he replied. Why had Judge, certainly a privileged slave, run away? She learned that Martha Washington had promised her to her granddaughter as a wedding present. The Washingtons frequently referred to slaves as part of their family. But one does not typically give away a family member as a gift.
Visitors to Mount Vernon often ask whether Washington was a 'good slave owner'. This language ought to be retired. Slaves themselves recognised that treatment varied considerably from owner to owner, but that was really irrelevant. During a visit to Richmond soon after the end of the Civil War, the Scottish minister David Macrae met a slave who complained of past mistreatment while acknowledging that he had never been whipped. 'How were you cruelly treated then?' Macrae asked. 'I was cruelly treated,' the freedman answered, 'because I was held in slavery.'
Thompson ends with an account of the evolution of Washington's attitudes on slavery. Before the American Revolution, he seems to have had no qualms about the institution. Thompson believes that the revolutionary experience changed him. He came to recognise what the historian Edmund S. Morgan called 'the American paradox' – the contradiction between the language of liberty invoked by the patriots and the reality of slaveholding. While Washington at first did not allow black men to enrol in the revolutionary army, by the end of the conflict several thousand had served. (The army he commanded was more racially integrated than any American fighting force until the Korean War.) He emerged from the war with his views on slavery 'radically altered'. 'There is not a man living,' he wrote in 1786, who wished to see a plan for abolition adopted 'more than I do'. In the interim he decided to stop buying and selling slaves.
Yet he did nothing to promote the end of slavery and rejected any suggestion that he publicly call for Virginia or the country generally to adopt a plan for abolition. In Philadelphia, as president, he practised what Thompson calls outright 'duplicity', moving slaves back and forth between Mount Vernon and the city, 'under pretext', he wrote, 'that may deceive both them and the public'. His purpose was to circumvent Pennsylvania's gradual abolition law of 1780, which provided that any slave brought into the state who remained there for six months could claim freedom. Washington signed the first national law for the rendition of fugitive slaves and his administration pressed Britain to abide by the Treaty of Paris, which ended the War of Independence and required the return of property, including slaves, seized from Americans.
Thompson offers various explanations for Washington's refusal to speak or act publicly against slavery. She points out that freeing his slaves would have meant financial disaster for his family. Like other Virginia planters, Washington was chronically in debt, largely because of a taste for luxury goods imported from Britain. Indeed, in 1789 he had to borrow money to pay for his journey to New York where his inauguration as the first president was to take place. She speculates that, having presided over the Constitutional Convention and witnessed bitter debates inspired by slavery, he feared that airing the question of abolition would destroy the new country. However, Benjamin Franklin also took part in the convention, and that didn't prevent him from adding his name to an abolition petition presented to Congress in 1790.
Washington seems to have had a number of private conversations in the last twenty years of his life about ending slavery. Nothing came of them, but when he died in 1799, leaving his estate to his wife, he directed his executors to free all the slaves (156 men, women and children) who belonged to him on her death. Slave children were to be bound out to white employers until they were in their twenties, receiving an education and training in a craft. The will did not deal with Martha Washington's 153 dower slaves, in whom her husband had no property interest. Living among men and women anxiously awaiting the freedom that would come with her death, and fearing one of them might feel motivated to help that day arrive sooner, Martha freed her husband's slaves in 1801. When she died the following year, the dower slaves, many of whom were married to the former slaves owned by her late husband, reverted to the control of the Custis family and were divided among her four grandchildren. Thus the slave community that had existed for decades at Mount Vernon was destroyed.
Addressing current controversies about the historical reputation of men like Washington, Thompson warns against 'judging a person from another time and culture' by today's moral standards. Yet anti-slavery ideas were hardly unknown during Washington's lifetime, and he himself expressed them privately. What about expecting an individual to live up to his own professed convictions? Washington deserves full credit for emancipating his slaves. Some Virginia planters, inspired by revolutionary ideals and religious convictions, did the same; many more did not. Yet manumission (freeing individual slaves) is not the same thing as abolishing the institution. Alongside the humane provisions of his will should be placed Washington's public silence when it came to slavery. Jefferson's will freed only five slaves, all relatives of Hemings's, but he did write the proposed Land Ordinance of 1784, which would have barred slavery from the country's western territories, and which narrowly failed to receive congressional approval. Washington was willing to place his life and property on the line to fight for American independence. He was by far the most esteemed statesman in the early republic. Imagine if he had used his reputation to promote a plan for abolition. When it came to taking action to end slavery, he, like most of the revolutionary generation, must be found wanting.