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The enslaved population at Mount Vernon did not meekly accept their bonded lot in life. Many resisted slavery in a variety of ways, differing in intensity and methodology. Among the less obvious methods of resistance were actions such as feigning illness, working slowly, producing shoddy work, and misplacing or damaging tools and equipment. The major advantage of these seemingly "passive" tactics was that they were often difficult for George Washington and his managers to observe and prove. Further, almost any slave regardless of age or physical prowess could utilize these methods of protest.1
On the opposite end of the resistance spectrum were more active and noticeable actions such as theft, arson, sabotage of crops, and running away. While these actions might be especially satisfying for a frustrated slave to carry out, they also carried far greater risk of detection and punishment. Theft was one of the most frequently mentioned acts of visible slave resistance in George Washington's personal papers. Over the years slaves at Mount Vernon were accused of stealing a wide variety of objects, including tools, fabrics, yam, raw wool, wine, rum, milk, butter, fruits, meats, corn, and potatoes.
Slaves also utilized running away and escape as a means to resist enforced servitude. In April of 1781, seventeen slaves—fourteen men and three women—voluntarily left Mount Vernon when the British warship Savage anchored in the Potomac off the shore of the plantation.2 At least three of the other slaves who attempted escape from the Washingtons over the years were personal servants that were well-know to the family.
Other instances of attempted escape occurred. Christopher, who was George Washington's personal servant, made plans to escape in 1799 but was found out. Hercules, the family's cook, ran away in late 1796 or early 1797 and was never heard from again. Lastly, Oney Judge, the personal maid of Martha Washington, left in 1796 and despite repeated attempts by the Washingtons could not be convinced to return.
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
1. For more on slave resistance methods, see John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweniger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Ira Berlin, Generations of Capitivity: A History of African-American Slaves (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003); Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage Books, 1976).
2. "George Washington to Lund Washington, 30 April 1781," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 22, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington. DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1942), 14-5, 14n.