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Slave Control

In addition to having overseers monitoring work on site, George Washington utilized a number of methods to try to control the labor and behavior of the Mount Vernon slaves. Since work as a house servant or skilled laborer was viewed as higher-ranking than field work, Washington could threaten to demote an artisan who would be punished by becoming a field worker.

Violent coercive measures were used as well, including whippings and beatings. In some instances, physical restraints were utilized to ensure that slaves would not run away. When Tom, the slave foreman at River Farm, was sold in the West Indies in 1766 as a punishment for being "both a Rogue & Runaway," Washington wrote to the ship's captain to "keep him handcuffd till you get to Sea."1

Although one houseguest noted in his journal that George Washington prohibited the use of whips on his slaves, evidence in the historical record proves otherwise.2 In 1758, Washington—while serving in the French and Indian War—received a letter from his farm manager explaining that he had "whipt" the carpenters when he "could see a fault."3 In 1793, farm manager Anthony Whiting reported that he had "gave…a very good Whiping" with a hickory switch to the seamstress Charlotte. The manager admitted that he was "determined to lower Spirit or skin her Back."4 George Washington replied that he considered the treatment of Charlotte to be "very proper" and that "if She, or any other of the Servants will not do their duty by fair means, or are impertinent, correction (as the only alternative) must be administered."5 Washington instituted a system of review in order to determine when he deemed physical abuse as a punishment. As described by Washington's secretary Tobias Lear, "no whipping is allowed without a regular complaint & the defendant found guilty of some bad deed."6

If threats of demotion and whipping did not succeed in changing a slave's behavior, the ultimate form of punishment was to sell the individual away from the plantation. Slaves could be sold to a buyer in the West Indies, ensuring that the person would never see their family or friends at Mount Vernon again. George Washington resorted to such sales on several occasions. Washington seems to have believed, however, that less extreme methods could have a better effect than punishment and coercion. In one case, he reminded a manager that "admonition and advice" sometimes succeeded where "further correction" failed.7

Washington occasionally tried to encourage an individual's pride as motivation. In addition to verbal encouragement, material incentives were attempted as well. Finer quality blankets and clothing were given out to those slaves who were considered to be "most deserving."8 Direct cash rewards were also given out to slaves as a means of encouragement.

1. "George Washington to Joseph Thompson, 7 February 1766," The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series Vol. 7, 441, 442. For another reference to a slave being kept in shackles, see "James Hill to George Washington, 5 February 1773," The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, Vol 9, 172-3.

2. Louis Philippe, Diary of My Travels in America, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1977), 31-2.

3. "Anthony Whiting to George Washington, 16 January 1793;" "Anthony Whiting to George Washington, 20 January 1793."

4. "George Washington to Anthony Whiting, 20 January 1793."

5. "Tobias Lear to William Prescott, 4 March 1788"

6. "George Washington to Captain Josiah Thompson, 2 July 1766," The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 7, 453-4; "Joseph Valentine to George Washington, 24 August 1771," Vol. 8, 520, 520n-521n.

7. "George Washington to Anthony Whiting, 3 March 1793," Vol. 32, 366.

8. "George Washington to William Pearce, 29 November 1795," Vol. 34, 379.