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Private Lives of Slaves

According to George Washington, slaves at Mount Vernon had two hours off for meals during the day. Dinner break took place in the early afternoon.1 While slaves at Mount Vernon toiled throughout the year, there were regular days off as well as a few holidays. Slaves at Mount Vernon typically worked a six-day week where Sunday was generally the day off for everyone on the estate.

Slaves were granted time off to celebrate religious holidays as well, the longest being the three to four days off given for Christmas.2 Other religious holidays that provided days off were Easter and Whitsunday, also known as Pentecost.3

Enslaved persons at Mount Vernon found a variety of ways to fill their time off from work. Evenings were frequently spent with activities to benefit themselves and their families rather than their master. On a daily basis, in addition to their day's work, slaves had their own housekeeping work such as tending chickens and garden plots, cooking, preserving the produce of gardens, and caring for clothing.4 With little free time and control over their every day life, Mount Vernon's enslaved population attempted to exert some free will and choice when it came to their private lives.

Some slaves at Mount Vernon spent their free time visiting with one another. During these visits the enslaved population engaged in a number of activities. In some instances, slaves visited other plantations where their spouses lived. Some slaves at Mount Vernon also found time for games and sports in their free hours. A Polish visitor to Mount Vernon described what may have been a team sport played by the slaves on one of their Sundays off in the summer of 1798. He recorded seeing a group of about thirty slaves divided into two groups. They were playing a game he described as "prisoner's base," which involved "jumps and gambols as if they had rested all week."5

Dower slave, Tom

George Washington occasionally permitted slaves to leave his home or plantation to attend special events in the surrounding area. In the fall of 1784, for example, Washington gave six shillings so that his "Servts." could "go to the Race." Two years later, he permitted his slaves to attend the Alexandria races with restrictions, under the stipulation that some slaves remained on each of his farms, while the others were free to stagger their attendance over the several day event.6

Mary V. Thompson
Research Historian
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens

Notes
1. George Washington, "5 February 1760," "27 June 1786," "10 July 1786," The Diaries of George Washington, 6 volumes, eds. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1976-1979), Vol. 1, 233; Vol. 4, 353, Vol. 5, 6; "Lund Washington to George Washington, 2 September 1778" (manuscript, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association; typescript, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association).

2. See Weekly Reports, "24 December 1786," "31 December 1785," "30 December 1786," in Mount Vernon Weekly Reports, "26 November 1785-30 December 30 1786" (photostat, PS-134, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association); Weekly Reports, "29 December 1798," in Mount Vernon Farm Accounts II, 31 March 31 1798-7 January 1799 (photostat, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association); George Washington, "29 December 1786," The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 5, 85; and "George Augustine Washington to George Washington, 28 December 1790," The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, ed. W.W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, and Philander D. Chase (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1987-present), Vol. 7, 141.

3. George Washington, "7 April 1760," The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 1, 264; Weekly Report, "14 April 1798," Mount Vernon Farm Accounts II, "31 March 1798-7 January 1799," Mount Vernon Farm Accounts II.

4. For an example of Mount Vernon slaves mending their clothing with fabric intended for other purposes, see "Anthony Whiting to George Washington, 22 January 1792."

5. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Under Their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels through America in 1797-1799, 1805 with some further account of life in New Jersey, ed. Metchie J.E. Budka (Elizabeth, New Jersey: The Grassman Publishing Company, Inc., 1965), 101.

6. See entry for "26 October 1784" in George Washington Cash Memoranda, "September 1783-November 1784"; George Washington, "9 October 1786," "11 October 1786-December 1786," The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 5, 49, 50; "Charles MacIver to George Washington, 17 June 1786," The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 4, 113.