“The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon by Mary V. Thompson (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2019)
Mary V. Thompson, accomplished Mount Vernon Estate historian, attempts to answer the question “Was Washington a good slave owner?” with her book, “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon. The question itself seems to be something of an oxymoron. Can a person who owns human beings really be “good”? Thompson attempts to answer that very question regarding George Washington, and in the process has given a complete description of the slave community of the Mount Vernon farms. The fact that the slaves were Washington’s property underlies the other themes of the book, such as how the Revolution affected Washington as a slave owner and the paternalistic relationship with slaves that was common for most Virginia slave-masters. Washington, however, was not “just” a Virginia slave-owner. He was the most important of the Founding Fathers. Thompson states that she wants readers to use her book’s information “in order to answer the question of how George Washington should be judged by history on the issue of slavery. This is more than just an academic question.” (p. 26)
The introduction includes a description of how the Mount Vernon plantation came into being and how it ended up being the treasured residence of George Washington. There once was more land than just the famous Mansion House, such as the other farms and acres of undeveloped forest. The plantation was a complex machine. By the time of Washington’s presidency, Mount Vernon was run by hundreds of workers, both enslaved and hired. Washington was a “hands-on” manager, running the estate as if it was a Revolutionary War camp. Unfortunately, his slaves suffered because the general expected everyone to have the same strict work ethic that he had. He wanted everyone to be on the clock, every day and all the time, six days a week. No idleness was to be tolerated. Washington, and his wife Martha, were firm estate managers, paying close attention to every detail. Even when Washington was absent from the estate during the Revolution and his two terms as president, he kept a constant watch on the happenings at Mount Vernon. If a slave was sick or injured, or if there was any kind of problem, no matter how small, Washington was aware of it.
At his best, Washington was a decent slave master, showing respect and consideration many times for the well-being of the slaves. He understood that he would get more with the carrot than with the stick. He took care of their medical issues, tipped them monetarily or with days off for excellent work, listened to complaints and did his best to address their grievances. Billy Lee, Washington’s personal man-servant, was so valued for his services that when Lee was disabled due to two accidents, Washington still cared and provided for him (Lee was the only slave to be immediately freed upon Washington’s death in 1799). Washington’s view regarding slavery changed because he had to oversee an integrated army in a fight for liberty. The Marquis de Lafayette spoke to his commander many times about the contradiction. Thompson writes, “Washington’s reputation as the patriarch of liberty was compromised, or at least threatened by his position as a slaveholder.” (p. 58) An interesting observation is made that Washington ceased taking communion at the religious services he attended with Martha. Thompson speculates as to whether this was because he felt guilt over being a slave owner.
At his worst, the famous quick temper that Washington always tried to manage made his slaves suffer. Thompson includes examples of Washington quickly striking slaves and then just as quickly regaining his composure. The general interpreted slaves resisting work as them being lazy and unintelligent. He also believed his hired workers were incapable of independent work without his constant vigilance. Although Washington did not believe in harsh punishment, he still condoned whipping slaves who were disobedient, or even worse, selling them and breaking up families. He lied to them when he was president, telling them that they were to return to Mount Vernon from Philadelphia for other reasons than the truth: that he could not hold them in the city beyond six months, when the law in Pennsylvania would have freed them. Breaking up marriages and families for his own economic benefit, although rarely used, was a power beyond cruel. No matter how generous Washington was to his slaves, Thompson reminds the readers that the slaves were still his property. He was always recognized as the undisputed Master. Washington may have taken care of them, clothed them, fed them, and possibly protected them . . . but he still owned them.
Thompson focuses on various aspects of slave life with each chapter of The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret. The reader gets a thorough understanding of how Mount Vernon operated as a business community. There are valuable and interesting facts about how the slaves ate, worshipped, dressed, and spent their infrequent recreational time. Other topics include crime and punishment, the slave economy, diseases, housing, and how the slaves resisted their condition. There are a few individual slaves prominently mentioned throughout the book, such as the carpenter Sambo Anderson, preacher and frequent runaway Caesar, Billy Lee, and Oney Judge, who was a favorite slave of Martha’s until she ran away. The predicament of both Caesar and Oney Judge demonstrated that no matter how comfortable their lives were and no matter what kindnesses the Washingtons showed them, nothing compared to personal liberty. This fact was something that slave-owners like Washington could not fully comprehend.
The conclusion of Thompson’s book emphasizes Washington’s struggles with what he knew to be an evil practice. There were problems with immediate manumission, and Washington had to try to figure out ways to work around them. When he died, he had arranged for his slaves to be released upon the death of Martha, but she ended up freeing both his and her slaves when it became evident that a fire at the Mansion House appeared to have been started intentional. The problem of some of the freed slaves was apparent immediately, since they were unable to be financially independent. Many Mount Vernon slaves remained on the estate, and others were proud of their relationship with their famous master, the general. Being a part of his legacy was important to many slaves. P. T. Barnum took advantage of this fact when he tried to showcase elderly freed slaves as having either nursed the infant Washington or had been a part of the estate.
Twelve informational tables about the growth of the slave population at Mount Vernon, the age ranges of slaves, the farm managers and overseers, and the origins of slave names are included. It is unfortunate that the tables are at the very end of the book, since they would be more useful scattered within certain chapters. I rarely took the opportunity to refer to them, valuable though they are. I also wish that Thompson could have included more illustrations in the book. Images of different aspects of slave life would have added to the reader’s understanding.
The extensive research is evident throughout the book. Thompson’s extensive work at Mount Vernon has made her an unquestioned authority on the estate and the people involved with its history. Although most slaves could not leave their own records, some interviews were done years after Washington’s death. Visitors to the estate wrote in their diaries about what they saw. Since Washington himself was such a micro-manager, he recorded thousands of details in ledgers, registers, advertisements and purchase orders.
I was very excited to review Thompson’s book, since I had walked the grounds of the estate and stood in the quiet and secluded area where the slaves are buried. The book has a tremendous amount of information that is not readily available to regular tourists. Still, the question posed by Thompson at the beginning was not answered. Was George Washington good to his slaves? Was he a decent slave owner? Oney Judge was treated well and was even possibly “loved” by the Washingtons, yet she absconded. Perhaps the question cannot be answered fully. An affirmative answer cannot erase the fact that Washington belonged to the system that took the people from the African coast in the first place. Washington had to wrestle with the moral issue of slavery. History, likewise, must wrestle with how Washington is to be remembered.
Too many people like to judge the character and history of our Founding Fathers by the standards of today. History can only be judged by the standards of the time. In that context, Washington was probable considered to be a lenient and “good” master. 200 years from now we will probable be looked upon entirely different than today and we might be considered barbarians. Oney Judge actually returned after Washington agreed to free her children, which bargain he kept.
Oney Judge never returned! Reference another book called Never Caught written by Erica Dunbar Armstrong.
I thought it had good information if you cared about what slaves had for breakfast though the speculation was generally towards the negative. If a former slave said some positive they didn’t really mean it. If it was something negative they did mean it. Jefferson is quoted early in the book but discounted later as they were political enemies. Made it confusing; perhaps this is what happens when one works on a book for 40 years. Page 76 sends Washington to hell, her previous book sent him to heaven. Etc. etc.
I study Washington history pretty thoroughly and I have never had an understanding that Oney Judge ever returned to the Washington household. I do agree though that no figure in history can survive being judged by the standards of a later era.
I’m really looking forward to reading this one as soon as I finish up another Revolutionary War project. Thompson did a fantastic job exploring religion and George Washington with her “In the Hands of a Good Providence,” and I suspect this new book will rival Wiencek’s “Imperfect God.” Thanks for the review.
Well, my first response is from Symington’s parting sentence: Wrestling with our thoughts on Washington . . . no wrestling for me. None. I agree with the comment on current trendy “Modernism”. . . . judging the past on ultra high expectations, combining and ignoring all that has culturally been accomplished in the centuries between then and now. Washington is a hero beyond most comparisons in any depth. Refusing to understand any who accepted their eras will always bring out flaws by today’s unreasonable expectations. Any history of America seems to be held to higher and higher standards because of the nation’s extraordinary success. That also so often applies to the men who were also extraordinary and helped the nation become the exceptional nation we are. The bar just unreasonably gets higher and higher. Historian Ron Chernow in his 2010 Washington, A Life wrote that Ona (Oney) Judge never returned to slavery or the South (page 762).
The majority of the slaves at Mount Vernon were originally the property of Martha and only became George Washington’s upon their marriage as part of her dowry. That this fact is never mentioned is a major flaw, imho?
I don’t believe her slaves were ever technically Washington’s. He had to manage them as separate assets and part of her estate so they would pass down to her relations. That’s why he could only free slaves that belonged to him in his will. She had to choose the fates of her slaves. I will have to read the book and refresh my memory!
You are right, there were two sets of slaves: the dower slaves from Martha’s husband that she held in trust for her offspring and those that Washington owned as his own property. A 1782 law made it possible for a slave owner such as Washington to manumit his property via his will or some other document during his lifetime.
A quote from Washington’s will shows his conundrum in dealing with the two sets since he had no authority over Martha’s:
“Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will & desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom. To emancipate them during her life, would, tho’ earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter, while both descriptions are in the occupancy of the same Proprietor; it not being in my power, under the tenure by which the Dower Negroes are held, to manumit them. “
Slavery was Never kind. George Washington, I’m sure, and his slaveholding peers truly believed they were kind masters. But if you view history through multiple perspectives, for example through the eyes of enslaved people, you get a complete view of the story. Work ethic implies that a person has a choice in the matter, that the enslaved never had. They were owned, like so much cattle. Founding fathers, like Washington and Jefferson, knew that slavery was morally wrong, but to lose their property, their slaves, would not only diminish their wealth, but their social and political status. All humans have the capacity to exploit other humans for their own gain, so each person must grapple with this and choose what is right or what is wrong.
Jeanne, I wholeheartedly agree, keeping enslaved people was never kind. However, some owners of enslaved people were less brutal than others. What distinguished Washington from other slave owners of his era was the prevalence of high skilled enslaved people. Washington sought to address the failing economics of enslaved field labor in tidewater Virginia by training enslaved people in other trades. Many enslaved people “hired out” on their own time to generate some income. While this increase in productivity and value creation did not protect all the enslaved people when freed after Washington’s death, it demonstrates Washington’s adaptability and the expert management of his “means of production.”
Of course, the cotton gin and the opening of the Mississippi Valley to European settlement boosted the economics of slavery in ways Washington never envisioned. In many ways, these later developments obscure the slavery environment of the Revolutionary Era and are why Thomspon’s book is so timely.
Slaves that were skilled or considered “valuable” were often the ones who ran away in the Tidewater VA/MD region. Slavery was bondage. I never understand what “less brutal” is supposed to mean. An enslaved person had impossible choices. Having enslaved learn a new skill was good business sense and it increased their “value” as property. Whippings and punishments did go on under GW and whether it was an overseer “manager” that actually doled out the punishment does not change who was responsible. What amazes me is how it is so hard to just say, George Washington made the wrong moral choice regarding slavery, no matter how noble he was in other areas of his life. What also made it easier—racism, because to treat other humans as property, one has to justify this behavior in their minds, which dulls the conscience. This dulling of the conscience becomes “normal” and is then passed on to the next generation.
I am curious how this work compares to Henry Wieneck’s 2003 work An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. The premise, and idea that Washington’s views changed over time sound very similar.